Derision/controversy in Indian officialdom or outside it is not a new phenomenon for me. It has followed me ever since I returned to Assam way back in 1996 to take up the calling of a “conflict analyst”. It has manifested itself in one way or the other in every single turn that I have taken in the last quarter of a century.

Incidentally, I did not take on the tag “conflict analyst” on my own. It took time for it to seep in into both others who were closely watching my moves as well as into me. It was, moreover, not an appellation that came easily. One had to labour, persevere and produce “profitable” analyses that had to pass intense scrutiny. One had to also ensure that the right papers, conferences and sabbatical interludes were in ones kitty before one was recognised as a “conflict analyst” of some substance. But, most important of all, at least in the Indian context, was the fact that one had to have formidable “godfathers” who could ensure that the climb to the realm of “conflict analysis” is seamless. Gratefully I have had several, including the former governor of Assam and Jammu & Kashmir, Lt Gen (Retd) S.K. Sinha, former Chief Secretary of Assam, H.N. Das, Magsaysay award winner, Information Adviser to Lal Bahadur Shastri and noted journalist, B.G. Verghese and the legendary South Asia watcher and Brookings “thought leader” Stephen Philip Cohen.

High order analysis and consequently policy making on issue of national security in India has always been the undisputed domain of the people who sported three letters after their names, i.e., IAS or IPS! They were the “chosen ones” who were ordained for such serious business. Others, who aspired, toiled and produced “analytical pieces”—even if they approximated the celestial—were mere wayfarers who took to the “profession” only because they had nothing better to do. This is so in every single policy making body in India, from the apex National Security Council Secretariat under the Prime Minister’s Office to the Intelligence Branches of states where serious analysis has to be manufactured so that the business of “national security’ can continue without let and hindrance.

I have been lucky that I had been chosen to temporarily occupy certain offices in both New Delhi and Guwahati where lateral thinking is tolerated, but not respected. Indeed, the heads of the organisations in both the places actually picked me up, perhaps to the immense annoyance of others in the organisations who were careerists! But, notwithstanding the mentoring I was heir to, I had to “burn the proverbial midnight oil” to tailor my innards to suit systems that, as aforesaid, recognised analyses that spew only from the “twice-born” of the IAS-IPS variety. Anything—including faeces—that emanated from the “matchless cerebrum” of such a class was “ganga-jal,” and as I was once brusquely informed by a man whose sole duty was to attend calls and fix appointments everything else that sprung from self-anointed “conflict analyst” such as I was mere “tap-water”. It didn’t quite matter that I had fortified myself with tags by having studied, lectured and published throughout the world. My worth has never been measured by the quality of my work or the fact that I had been invited to places such as top think tanks and universities in the United States, France, United Kingdom and even China and had been part of Indian delegations for Track II Dialogue to Bangladesh, China and Myanmar. I had even been publicly recognised by specialists in such countries. Oh, the “reincarnates” would greedily gobble everything that I had to offer after every such visit, but when it came to even a “pat-on-the-back” for a job well done, the “holy hands” would withdraw in conceit. After all, I was only a lowly “conflict analyst”!

In any event, such acts were, one way or the other, connected to the primal objective of proclaiming that the product of an analyst can only have so much merit. To that end, unlike in the west, the term “analyst” has never quite attained the status it deserves in India and at best it is considered to be an appellation that conveys nothing. The ineffectual system that India has straitjacketed itself into would never witness the likes of Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice or Jake Sullivan for a very long time.

The National Security Adviser of India, for instance, whose job in recent years, has become one of the most important one in the country has never had an incumbent whose comprehension of security of the country in all its manifestations can be said to be full-bodied. J.N. Dixit was perhaps the sole National Security Adviser whose acumen, scholarship and comprehension of India’s foreign policy and security issues approximated what it takes to be in the “hot seat” of policy planning. All the others National Security Advisers have been—in my considered opinion—silhouettes of the “gigantic presence” that Dixit’s diminutive stature commanded. I have never met J.N. Dixit, but I received a very elegantly worded letter dated 27 December 2004—exactly a week before he passed away on 3 January 2005—in response to one of my books Terror Sans Frontiers: Islamist Militancy in North East India that I had sent him a few weeks ago. It was brief, but to a budding student of security—which I happily continue to be—even the terseness of the then National Security Adviser of India’s letter to me which among other pleasantries read “Terror Sans Frontiers is an important addition to my archives” was enough to fire my embryonic imagination.

Reading Dixit’s books which oozed brilliance and ploughing through his most enviable career profile was sufficient. Indeed, they left an indelible mark on my character that I decided to devote the rest of my life to India’s national security. Indeed, one of the reasons why I joined the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), albeit briefly (the hasty exit from which I have much to hold forth about one day soon!) was because of the impression Dixit made on me. It was left—however tangentially—for his then trusted deputy, Satish Chandra to recruit me. Indeed, those who affirm that the work culture of a place is fashioned top-down are correct. When giants depart, customs too leave with them. For some reason, India has never been able to incorporate the institutional memories of the colossal minds that once strode across its dappled expanse. Indeed, even the legacies that have been inherited from the colonial masters are but ones that do not have grandiose purity to it. No wonder therefore that even a Prime Minister of Nehru’s eminence had, on 20 November 1950, stated in Parliament that the McMahon Line “is our boundary—map or no map”.     

I have met others after Dixit who have taken his place as the National Security Adviser of India. But I can say—without fear of risking my association with some of them—that they are not a patch on Jyotindra Nath Dixit’s matchless persona. Fortunately for India, Dixit’s untimely demise has been filled by the vast cornucopia of knowledge that he has left behind by way of his works on foreign and national security policy including a collection of poems Self in Autumn. Looking back I wonder what Dixit would have made of the present government’s Neighbourhood First Policy, the Ukraine crisis or the manner in which India is dealing with the boundary issue with China for the matter. He would have, in all probability, tapped his pipe on the ashtray, frowned and used his favourite word “calibrate” to conjure up something like “the situation necessitates serious recalibration”. Readers of this piece may detect pretence or even a counterfeit sense of clairvoyance in me, but if “analysis” is still a palpable faculty in my repertoire, I can say for a certainty that India would have embarked upon a “course correction” exercise about some of its current national security dilemmas long ago were the likes of Dixit had been present to manoeuvre it.

The National Security Adviser of India’s job should be that of an honest broker of policy options for the Prime Minister. There are various institutions in the country who regularly advise him and there is a dedicated NSCS which is meant to work as a “clearing house” for the options that he can choose from. But if the receptacle itself has become a storehouse of biases and innuendoes then what can be expected of it by way of a filtration unit for sound national security policy options? Furthermore, it has become a veritable “parking slot” for the “three-lettered avatars” who do not wish to return to places such as back-of-beyond Manipurs or Assams. The plea, therefore, is for only for the adoption of a model that encourages lateral thinking and one that believes in neuro-plasticity, but also a dedicated service that specialises in the multitude of areas that make up a nation’s security. Clearly an analyst whose expertise extends only to “Drone attacks from Pakistan” cannot expect to also be knowledgeable about ULFA’s “Camp 779” in Myanmar’s Sagaing Division. Indeed, it is not expected of her!

But there should be absolute clarity about history, the facts as they present themselves on ground, the “other-point-of-view” and, of course, the need to tailor a comprehensive response to a problem which in the words of J.N. Dixit may be “subject to profound contradiction”.

(Jaideep Saikia is an internationally acclaimed conflict analyst and celebrated author of several bestselling books on security and strategy. He is also the sole Asian Fellow of the Irregular Warfare Initiative, West Point, USA)

Jaideep Saikia

Jaideep Saikia is a well-known terrorism and conflict analyst. He can be reached at jdpsaikia@gmail.com.