By Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Dipankar Banerjee
We were at our Fifth Annual India-NATO Track II Dialogue when the sad news reached us of the demise of Shri K Subrahmanyam. The conference paused to pay a silent tribute to the doyen of Indian strategists. KS had inspired and taught generations of Indians how to look at the world and shape strategic choices. A true Guru in the best traditions of India.
But, in that minute’s silence my mind went back to early 1973, when I met KS for the first time at the IDSA. I was a young major with admission to study at the King’s College, London after the Staff Course at Camberley, UK and I sought his advice. He would have had a hundred things to do, but spent a better part of an hour explaining to me what to study and how to go about it. It is another story that the Indian Army then had no scheme for study leave and I could not go, but he had inspired me enough to convince me to devote time in the future to learn about war and peace beyond the mere management of conflict. It remained with me for a decade and a half.
It was in late 1987 that I joined the IDSA after the NDC Course when KS had just left charge, but was still around. My posting was under the provision of the Defence Minister’s Monday morning conference note, which KS had engineered, to spare an officer of flag rank from each service to spend time at the IDSA. For the next two decades and more he was the guiding light. His legendary patience, invariable courtesy, formidable memory, power of deep introspection and analyses have all been written about now by many people. I never saw him once lose his temper; except to some several western scholars who would confront him over some matter. In a few well chosen words and through his immense power of reasoning, he would demolish them in a couple of minutes. Yet, having seen him do that on so many occasions, I suspect that they all considered that a badge of honour and recognition.
On return from England in the late 1980s he used to come to the IDSA regularly. He would sit in a hard-back chair without a table in the Deputy Director’s office and on a clip board write out an article for the editorial pages of leading newspapers in Delhi. Shakuntala (Jasjit’s Secretary) would type it out by 1.30 pm and we waited to see it published the next day. It was his prolific writing, regular participation in conferences and seminars during this period that shaped India’s strategic thinking perhaps most of all. This is a debt that the nation can never repay.
Whenever we had the occasion to travel together to foreign lands or in India we would benefit immensely from his guidance and advice. I particularly looked forward to his comments over dinner or during travel. Some thoughts would occur to him and he would recall with total clarity decisions or events of long ago and explain them to us. Or, discuss some history of the evolution of nuclear policy that would make things easy to comprehend.
We would of course invariably ask his advice before major presentations or in forming our ideas on a particularly knotty subject. With patience and again remarkable clarity he would explain the various issues. In later years he was to suffer long from his many ailments, but I have never heard him complain once. Even on very bad days he would attend conferences and share his insights with the junior-most scholar.
In all his articulation he brought a remarkable pragmatism guided solely by national interests. He is among the very few scholars of any nationality, who has had the ability to change with the times. When the strategic environment changed or national interests so dictated, he would cut through the non-essentials and formulate strategic choices unencumbered by previous conceptions.
I have only one regret. In autumn 1999, as the Executive Director of the South Asian think tank the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, I had the occasion to organize the largest gathering of the brightest young South Asian and Chinese scholars in Sri Lanka. I invited KS to deliver the key note address and he readily agreed. In that troubled era after Kargil I was convinced that his wise words would cut through the intense regional hostility prevailing at the time and help create an environment of stability if not peace and introduce a new strategic discourse in the region. It was not to be. KS was appointed the Chair of the Kargil committee and he regretted that he would have to miss this conference as the Government of India had asked him to expedite the report.
When India emerges as a leading global influence in the near future, as it surely must, it would be KS’ contribution that would be the most significant.
Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Dipankar Banerjee
email: [email protected]