More than as one who headed institutes for 24 years and rationalised Pokhran-II nuclear explosions to a foreign audience, Air Commodore (Retd.) Jasjit Singh, who passed away on Sunday at 79, will be known for mentoring the intellectual expansion of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in a post-Cold War setting and setting up the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS) much before the land and maritime counterparts began devoting exclusive scholarly attention to their respective domains.
Jasjit Singh was also a prolific writer, hitting an especially purple patch on either side of the Kargil conflict and Pokhran-II when he co-authored at least 10 books. But it was Nuclear India that raised the most dust. On the government side, analysts and diplomats hailed his counters to moderate the West’s queasiness with the concept of recessed deterrence. At think tanks all over the world, Jasjit Singh spoke of recessed deterrence under which nuclear weapons are not mated with delivery vehicles but his critics said this was another word for George Perkovich’s ‘Non-weaponised Deterrence.’
After the concept outlived its political usefulness, he asked the Americans not to waste time “telling us to get rid of nuclear weapons.” Scientist-activist Prabir Purkayastha felt all this amounted to media management and didn’t reduce opacity on the nuclear question. His IDSA colleague, Uday Bhaskar, thought out of the 25 books he compiled or penned, Jasjit Singh loved most the autobiography on the first and only Marshal of the Indian Air Force, Arjan Singh.
Former diplomat Ronen Sen recalled that Jasjit Singh’s literary contribution was matched by his unpublished ones submitted to the higher echelons of the government on several security-related tangles such as MiG-21 crashes.
The ace pilot acquitted himself well in his battles — in the sky and the corridors of Vayu Bhavan. And when he joined IDSA under India’s foremost strategic analyst K. Subrahmanyam, the consequent mentoring helped him expose the chinks in defence production as well as counter the designs of a Defence Secretary who thought military men had no place in the institute, much less head it as he would for 14 years followed by 10 years at CAPS. Another veteran diplomat Nalin Surie saw him as the pioneer of the security track II dialogue in India, one that bridged the gap between civilians and military men.
If K. Subrahmanyam possessed the un-Indian ability of grooming a successor, Jasjit Singh showed no such inclination though he trained many scholars and diplomats, one of whom (Arvind Gupta) incidentally heads IDSA. Among them are Meera Shankar, Sheel Kant Sharma, Sanjay Baru, C. Rajamohan and Dipankar Gupta. For a person said to be a builder of institutions, Jasjit Singh’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) had a short life. But as IDSA Fellow G. Balachandran points out, “we had our differences but he left his mark especially when India was under sanctions.”