In Defence of an 'Old' Man

In 2002, there must have been ministers that thought K. Subrahmanyam – who was well over 70 at the time – had been 'vicious' in calling a democratically chosen leader an 'asura'. Mercifully, none of them attacked him for being old.

In Defence of an 'Old' Man

Siddharth Varadarajan :

19/Feb/2023 : I joined the Times of India as a callow assistant editor in 1995 at the age of 30. We were a small team, under the leadership of Sanjaya Baru, and the most valuable and prolific member of our editorial page group was K. Subrahmanyam, the legendary strategic thinker. He was, if memory serves me right, close to 70. We never thought much about his age, though – going by the wisdom of the ‘confident’ and brash ‘New India’ – he could perhaps have been described as ‘old’.

He was so wise and catholic in his interests that we were in and out of his room every day, spending hours in discussion and argument. We affectionately called him ‘Bomb Mama’, a reference both to his avuncular mien and deep interest in nuclear issues. The articles he wrote and the work he did – eg. on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty  negotiations then underway, on Nato’s 1999 war on Yugoslavia, on the shortcomings that led to Kargil – did more to strengthen India’s strategic autonomy and security than a lot of the posturing we see today about ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’. One did not have to agree with his views on everything to recognise his intellectual courage in staking out a position.

Prior to becoming an editorial writer and columnist, Subrahmanyam had been a distinguished civil servant, including in the Ministry of Defence, but his true calling was as a man of ideas. He built up the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses into a formidable think tank – a position it has lost in recent years, sadly – and steered the ship of Indian strategic thinking for over three decades.

Far from currying favour with prime ministers, he spoke his mind even when it made him unpopular with his political bosses. That is why he never became defence secretary. Despite his intellect and integrity, he was, of course, never tapped after retirement for a ministerial position either.

Brajesh Mishra, India’s first national security adviser, was his close friend but that did not prevent Subrahmanyam from repeatedly questioning Mishra’s concurrent appointment as the prime minister’s principal secretary. In turn, Mishra and Atal Bihari Vajpayee had no problem in naming him convener of the first National Security Advisory Board. Those were gentler times, when leaders were not overly unsettled by criticism and dissent.

I once asked Bomb Mama whether he ever regretted not having risen to the top of the bureaucratic ladder. I don’t recall his exact words but he said he was happy to have always answered to his own conscience. The truth, of course, is that he had absolutely no reason for regrets. As an independent analyst and writer, he exerted far more influence on public policy than he might have done as a ‘loyal’ cog in the Raisina Hill wheel.

As an honest civil servant, he did not accumulate wealth and so in his retirement lived in a modest DDA flat in Delhi. One may say, as per the current lexicon, that he was “old, opinionated and dangerous, but not rich”. Unlike George Soros.

In 2002, like the rest of us, Subrahmayam was deeply shaken by the mass killing of Muslims in Gujarat. He was particularly upset by the authors of this violence claiming to be Hindus and devotees of Rama. Though he hardly ever wrote on ‘domestic’ issues, he was persuaded by his editorial page colleagues – Jyotirmaya Sharma and Narayani Ganesh – to put pen to paper. That was literally how he wrote – by hand. What emerged was one of his finest pieces ever. It is not easy to find the article ‘Rama Cannot be Venerated by Those Who Transgress Dharma, Kill Innocents’ on the Times of India website but it has fortunately been archived on the Internet so everyone can readily access it. Here are key excerpts, as relevant today as they were then:

“Though the term Hindu is not of indigenous origin, I am proud to consider myself a Hindu. That pride has been deeply hurt by what others using that label have done in Gujarat. What they did was typically un-Hindu, even anti-Hindu…

“How can people who stabbed, burnt and killed their neighbours call themselves Hindus?… These anti-Hindus call themselves Hindus but in spirit and thought they belong to the dogmas of the dark ages.

“Hindu tradition is based not on acceptance of particular gods, dogmas, revelations and religious structures but on reverence for Dharma which is the rule of law and the ethics of the age. In the Hindu way of life there are no God- or Prophet-given laws. Dharma is not immutable but is liable to change to be in consonance with changing times – hence, the concept of yuga dharma. Today’s ethics, formulated by the constitution, is secularism – that is the yuga dharma. Violators of it cannot be considered Hindus; they can only be looked upon as enemies of the Hindu way of life.

“The true Hindu way of life is in danger today but not from those who follow other religions… For those who assert ‘Brahmasmi” and ‘Tattvamasi”, it does not matter if the temple at the birthplace of Rama comes up a few years or a few decades later, if it comes up at all…

“Dharma was killed in Gujarat [in 2002]. The administrators who failed to protect the innocent citizens are guilty of adharma and if Rama had been alive he would have used his bow against the ‘asura’ rulers of Gujarat.”

Subrahmayam was well over 70 years old at the time he wrote this. I am sure his words stung the “asura rulers of Gujarat.” There must have been a minister or two who thought he was being ‘vicious’ in attacking someone who had been democratically chosen. Even if they probably cursed him in private, they wisely chose silence. We should be especially grateful that none among them attacked him for being ‘old’.