Monday, February 7, 2011

One more gone... K. Subrahmanyam

In just one fortnight, India has lost two very important contributors to foreign policy and security thinking, both from the same generation in a manner of speaking: Dr. Bhabani Sen Gupta and Mr. K. Subrahmanyam. One, I knew well and the other, I had read and met but did not know. Dr. Sen Gupta's passing away is a personal loss but Mr. Subrahmanyam's death also feels significant.

I had seen both their by-lines when I was in college. KS used to write for the TOI edit page which was then one of the best in the country (yes, this is true!). BSG used to write for India Today. They represented very different views of the world, and as I began to study international relations, came to symbolize opposite positions. I identified Dr. Sen Gupta with the position that came more naturally to me: conciliatory, pacifist, anti-nuclear. Mr. Subrahmanyam's positions on most things brooked no compromise, no adjustment. As a very young student, it was easy to cast them in good-bad, hawk-dove moulds.

As the years have passed, I see shades of grey everywhere and shy away from these absolute positions. What I recognize is that both of them were very true to their temperament and worldview; they spoke the truth as they saw it, without compromise and without pandering. It is their integrity that I recognize, the specifics of each one's various positions are truly details that will now only interest intellectual historians writing about the security discourse in India.

At one time, both Dr. Sen Gupta and Mr. Subrahmanyam were towering public intellectuals writing on foreign policy and defence. Both had the ear of government, with Dr. Sen Gupta (like others at CPR) being closest to the  VP Singh-Inder Gujral governments. Mr. Subrahmanyam's influence remained unabated till his last breath. Architect of many of India's foreign policy positions and author of the security doctrine drafted a few years ago, his was usually the most dispassionate articulation of India's interests in any situation. 

Both of them mentored so many younger people, both of them lent their intellectual services and integrity to build important public policy research institutions. Dr. Sen Gupta retired from the seminar/policy circuit to the point of being reclusive in his last years. Few have written about him, to celebrate his life and work, to express their gratitude. By contrast, many articles and tributes have been and are being written about Mr. Subrahmanyam, even as I write this. This is the way of the world: to sometimes fete, to soon forget. My guess is both of these brilliant men knew this. But it makes me sad.

I am very sad that we remember selectively, that we forget easily, that we seem to lack gratitude... and saddest that the qualities that made scholars like Dr. Sen Gupta and Mr. Subrahmanyam deserving of the epithet "towering" seem rare and also anachronistic in this age of two-minute noodle opinions: the patient, disciplined devotion of a lifetime to learning and honing.

All of us who work in the area of security studies and foreign policy, regardless of what we now write about or what our political opinions, have learnt a great deal from the writing of Dr. Sen Gupta and Mr. Subrahmanyam. All of us are now bereaved, having lost two teachers in quick succession.

What is the dakshina that we now have to offer their memory? 

No comments: