A place of study for India's scholar-soldiers

THE FUTURE: ‘I am not decrying the need for operational excellence,but we need to find a way to generate more scholarship in the armedforces,’ was K. Subrahmanyam’s argument. Photo: The Hindu Photo Library   | Photo Credit: scanned in chennai_grrks

Not many from my generation of soldiers and scholars who were born in the 1960s, had the opportunity to interact and learn from the late K. Subrahmanyam, unarguably, the father of modern Indian strategy.

I am not about to sing the praises of him simply because I am not qualified to do so, and also because eminent people like Air Cmde Jasjit Singh and the National Security Adviser (NSA), Shivshankar Menon have offered befitting tributes in various forms. Surprisingly, on the two occasions that I was privileged to meet the “master,” we spoke only about the proposed Indian National Defence University or INDU.

Our interactions

On the first occasion, I sought an audience from him as a PhD candidate at the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC). I wanted to pick his brains on the changing nature of warfare and on my hypothesis that irrespective of the nature of an adversary, air power had a role to play in coercion. He listened to me indulgently, endorsed my hypothesis and for some unfathomable reason, shifted the topic to that of the future of INDU. He told me about how his dream was to see INDU come up before he passed on; about how he worried that unless we focused on core issues we were likely to get overwhelmed by peripheral issues like what kind of a campus or infrastructure would it entail or who would be the president of the university or what would be the share of the various services in the organisational structure?

The core issue, which he so rightly pointed out, was whether we would be able to find the right people to teach, research and perpetuate a culture that nurtured independent strategic thought and supported the larger issues of multi-disciplinary national security. He signed off that session by asking me how many faculty members at DSSC at that time had a PhD. When I told him “none, but three of us are enrolled currently,” he impatiently brushed me off and said “not enough young man. I wonder how many among you will be willing to give up the prestige and status of your military ranks and devote yourself to professional military education and building intellectual capital within the national security establishment?”

However, he quickly added, “You know, I am not decrying the need for operational excellence, but we need to find a way to generate more scholarship in the armed forces.” To say that the encounter was a defining moment for me would be an understatement.

The second and last time that I met him was only for a short while during tea after a talk at the National Defence College. Even though he was indisposed, he made sure that he honoured his commitment to deliver his customary talk on “India's Nuclear Strategy.” When I met him, he did not recognise me, but his eyes lit up when I reminded him of our encounter at Wellington. “Yes! I remember,” he remarked and quipped in his traditionally acerbic style. “We are where we left off four years ago, aren't we?” I could only mumble “yes, Sir.”

INDU's moving force

While his achievements in the realm of nuclear strategy and as the architect of the Kargil Review Committee are widely known, not many know that he was also the moving force behind the initial concept paper of INDU, and the push he gave to the whole proposal in terms of converting it from concept into reality. If we want to honour the legacy of modern India's foremost strategist, I think it is time we take a close look at whether we are going about the process of building intellectual capacities in the right manner. Instead of mere number-crunching, we need to ascertain how many of the existing PhDs in the three services are capable of, and inclined to assume academic roles in various institutions under INDU. A rough estimate of the total no of PhDs would put the figure at around 35-50. Of these, barely 15-20 of them are actively pursuing scholarship by contributing regularly to professional and technical journals, something which is absolutely essential to assume faculty positions at institutions of repute. Many have degrees from universities that are not very well known for scholarly rigour and I do not think there is anyone who has a PhD from a global university — quite a sorry state for a country with such a large military as India has.

With the formation of INDU a few years away, we still have time to put our house in order. While creation of world-class infrastructure is important, unless we have the right faculty and content developers, we stand no chance of gaining world-class stature.

It would be pertinent to learn from the Air University's experience in the U.S. in the mid-1990s. Facing a crunch of PhDs on the faculty, the University's Air Command and Staff College lost its accreditation for award of a post-graduate degree until it made good the numbers. We need to identify potential faculty members and identify opportunities at home and abroad that will facilitate quality PhDs in reasonable time-frames. It is time we change gear on INDU — there can be no better way to carry forward K. Subrahmanyam's legacy than to create a truly world-class Indian National Defence University.

(The writer is Assistant Chief of Air Staff. The views expressed are his own.)

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Printable version | Mar 1, 2021 4:34:17 AM |

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