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B Raman: I owe my writing to Subrahmanyam's prodding

By B Raman
February 03, 2011 12:44 IST
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There can be no better tribute to K Subrahmanyam's memory than for the government to appoint a group to revisit  his ideas and recommend what further action needs to be taken on those ideas, says B Raman 

I felt saddened by the news of the death of K Subrahmanyam, the strategic affairs analyst, who made us proud of him. He lost no opportunity to educate us and share with us his   assessments of how the situation in the world in general and in our region in particular was evolving. One might not have agreed with all his assessments, but they compelled attention. He was one of the rare experts produced by India on the science, art and techniques of National Security Management.

He was not only a great analyst with no confusion in his mind. He was also a very decent human being. He never put on airs. He was easily accessible to everyone who wanted to meet him to discuss anything. He was courageous and polite in expressing his views -- whether to those in power or to others. He never tried to monopolise discussions in meetings. It was a pleasure to see the way he conducted meetings. He let everyone have a say.

He wrote profusely and encouraged others to write equally profusely. It was his encouragement that made me take to writing to give the views of an ex-intelligence officer to the reading public. My first article titled 'Human rights & human wrongs' was carried by the Hindustan Times a few days after I retired on August 31, 1994. I wrote it largely on his prodding.

Since then, I must have written about 2000 articles on various subjects. He figured on my Article Alert list. I liked to think he read many of them and not infrequently sent his comments. His last comment on one of my articles was a few weeks ago. He said he had been bed-ridden for nearly two months, but he was getting interesting articles read out to him by his grand-son and dictating his comments to him.

Subrahmanyam came to know of me as an intelligence officer in the late 1970s when Morarji Desai was the prime minister. I was posted abroad. He was the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. The late N F Suntook, then head of the R&AW, had shown him one of my assessments. After reading it, Subrahmanyam wrote to me that it was one of the best intelligence assessments he had read as the JIC chairman. I met him for the first time after I returned from my posting.

In the early 1980s, he was on board one of the planes of the Indian Airlines that was hijacked to Lahore by some Khalistani terrorists of the Dal Khalsa. There was concern in Delhi that if the Inter-Services Intelligence came to know of his presence on board the plane, it might detain him and subject him to interrogation since even then it was widely known that he was one of the best informed persons on nuclear-related issues. Fortunately, the ISI apparently did not identify him. Nothing happened. He returned to Delhi from Dubai where the hijacking was terminated by the local authorities.

He was a wellwisher of the intelligence community. He strongly believed that India needed a top-rate intelligence set-up. He never hesitated to criticise its inadequacies and never failed to highlight its achievements. As chairman of the JIC, he strongly backed the R&AW at a time when it was passing under a cloud after Indira Gandhi's defeat in the 1977 elections.

In 1998, I wrote an article in Statesman explaining why Sonia Gandhi, because of her foreign origin, should not become the prime minister. The Delhi edition of the paper carried it as the second lead story on the first page. The Kolkata edition carried it as the first lead story. I was told by some of my friends in the R&AW that the Bharatiya Janata Party went to town with that article and used it for political purposes.

In 1999, the government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then in power, appointed the Kargil Review Committee headed by Subrahmanyam to inquire into the operational conduct of the Kargil war. One of its reported terms of reference was the performance of the intelligence agencies before and during the war. I wrote a number of articles criticising the composition of the KRC. It was my view that an officer from the intelligence community should have been a member of the committee. I wrote that the KRC report was unfair to the intelligence community because it had no intelligence officer to defend the performance of the agencies. I felt that while the report contained the criticism of the agencies by the Army, it did not reflect the defence of the intelligence community.

Many years later, Subrahmanyam sent me a personal message saying that he was keen that I should be a member of the KRC, but decided against it because he was worried that allegations could be made that I was included as a reward for my article regarding Sonia Gandhi. "I didn't want you to be embarrassed by such allegations," he said.

Many of us in the intelligence community were unhappy with the KRC report in general and with Subrahmanyam in particular. We felt that he allowed his judgement to be unduly influenced by the unfounded criticism of the agencies by the Army by taking advantage of the absence of any intelligence officer in the KRC. The media went to town claiming that the KRC had held that there was intelligence failure before and during the conflict.

Subrahmanyam, in his media interactions after the release of the report, pointed out that the KRC had  not used the expression "intelligence failure" in its report. It was a claim by the media which did not correctly reflect the contents of the report, he said.

Among those very unhappy with the report was R N Kao, the founding father of the R&AW. He wrote a personal letter to Vajpayee conveying his unhappiness. Vajpayee promptly sent for him for a discussion. Subrahmanyam came to know of this later. But it did not affect the high esteem in which he always held Kao.

The revamping of the intelligence apparatus by the Vajpayee government on the basis of one of the recommendations in the KRC report was a tribute to the tenacity with which Subrahmanyam kept pressing for it. The creation of the Defence Intelligence Agency and the National Technical Research Organisation was largely the result of his ideas. However, one does not know whether they are fulfilling the purposes for which he wanted them.

He wanted a top-class National Security Agency on the pattern of the NSA of the US to co-ordinate the collection of all technical intelligence. While his idea was readily accepted, there were considerable differences over how it should be set up and what should be its charter. There were bitter turf-battles involving the R&AW on the one side and others on the other. The end result was that the NTRO as it has come up is a strange creature. It is neither an ass nor a donkey nor a mule. Possibly a mix of all the three plus something else.

Subrahmanyam felt that if India wanted to be a major power it should have a strong intelligence collection community and a strong intelligence assessment set-up. He was critical in no uncertain terms of the downgrading of the JIC by the Vajpayee government when it set up the National Security Council Secretariat towards the end of 1999. He considered the downgrading a retrograde step and made his views known in strong language when he, as the chairman of the KRC, testified before the special task force for the revamping of the intelligence apparatus headed by G C Saxena, former head of the R&AW, set up by the Vajpayee government in  May 2000. I was a member of this task force. His tenacity and pressure on this subject ultimately led to the restoration of the full authority of the JIC as an assessment agency in April 2006, when M K Narayanan was the National Security Adviser.

Subrahmanyam was a strong critic of the decision of the Vajpayee government to combine the posts of principal secretary to the prime minister and the national security adviser. He strongly argued in private as well as in public that national security management would suffer if it did not enjoy the undivided attention of a single individual dealing exclusively with national security. He repeatedly called for the separation of the two posts, but his idea was not accepted by the Vajpayee government. It was only in 2004, after Dr Manmohan Singh became prime minister, that his idea was accepted and the two posts were separated.

He took a keen interest in the revamping of the national security management system. Some of his ideas were accepted and some had no takers. Among his long-held ideas which he could not push through during his lifetime were the need for a national intelligence adviser or director, national intelligence, to supervise and co-ordinate the functioning of all intelligence agencies and the need for the early creation of a post of chief of the defence staff. The idea for a national intelligence adviser or director, national intelligence, has had no support either from the intelligence community or the political leadership. The idea for a chief of defence staff has had wide professional support, but there seemed to be some reluctance at the political level  partly due to a lack of unanimity at the senior levels of the armed forces as to the need for this post and how to implement the idea.

Subrahmanyam often highlighted the poor quality of the area studies capabilities that India has been able to create since its independence. He felt that area studies by non-governmental institutions and experts did not receive the attention they deserved. He often pointed out the unsatisfactory nature of our area studies capabilities even in respect of Pakistan and China. An idea of his that was readily accepted, but tardily implemented, was the importance of having a national defence university. Under the Vajpayee government, he himself led a team of experts that visited the US and China to study  the working of their NDUs and submit its recommendations. I don't know what is the present stage of its implementation.

I had the honour and privilege of serving under Subrahmanyam as a member of the second NSAB in 2000-01. I retain precious memories of my association with him. Three points which he repeatedly stressed need to be recalled.

First, our study of national security management would remain incomplete and unsatisfactory without a less restricted policy on declassification of past documents.

Second, the quality of the national debate on national security management would remain poor unless documents such as edited versions of the annual reports of the NSAB were made available to the public.

Third, the NSAB would not fully serve the purpose for which it was  set up unless serving officers readily accepted the important role which the NSAB could play in national security management and took its reports and recommendations seriously.

There can be no better tribute to Subrahmanyam's memory than for the government to appoint a group to revisit  his ideas -- those accepted and implemented, those accepted but not yet implemented, and those not accepted -- and recommend what further action needs to be taken on those ideas. Our national security management will benefit immensely from such an exercise.

Subrahmanyam valiantly fought against cancer for nearly 10 years. In October 2009, after coming to know that I had been diagnosed with metastatic cancer of prostate origin, he sent me the following message: "Cancer is defeatable. I know you well. I have no doubt in my mind that you will defeat it."

The writer is additional secretary (retired), Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, New Delhi and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail:


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