One assassination a hundred years ago sparked the First World War. The writer traces similarities between Serbian terrorists then and Pakistani terrorists now, and the actions taken — or not taken — by both governments.

Yesterday, June 28, exactly one hundred years ago, the Serbian terrorist, Gavrilo Princip, unwittingly started the First and Second World Wars that left more than a hundred million people dead before the madness gave over three terrible decades later. Along with five other young men, all about the same age as Ajmal Kasab and his companions, Princip and his companions lined up under successive lamp-posts along the quay that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir apparent to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was to drive down along with his wife, Countess Sophie Chotek, to the Sarajevo Town Hall for a formal welcome reception.

The five terrorists were infuriated because the Archduke and his consort had chosen the precise anniversary of the worst day in Serbia’s collective memory, the defeat of the Serbian Tsar, Dušan, by the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, more than five centuries earlier, but which rankled as the day when the dream of Greater Serbia was ended for half a millennium. In the eyes of all Serbian nationalists and terrorists, with the Ottoman hold on the Balkans collapsing, the time had now come to avenge that defeat. Just as six centuries of Muslim rule in Delhi, from 1192 AD when Muhammad Ghori established the Sultanate to 1858 when the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was deposed had reverberated in the minds of the Kasab gang of terrorists as the order to be re-established, so did the Serbian terrorists propose to reverse the 1878 occupation of Bosnia by Austria and its annexation to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1908 to pave the way to the re-establishment of Tsar Dušan’s Greater Serbian Empire that had perished on the Fields of Kosovo on June 28, 1389.

The K. Subrahmanyam report has indubitably established that plenty of intelligence about what was happening on the other side of the Kargil range was available with the Indian military and civilian authorities even as Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was preparing for his ‘historic’ bus-trip to Lahore in February 1999. The establishment brushed all this aside the better to concentrate on making a huge success, in event-management if not substantive terms, of the bus-ride. Not even the Pakistan government’s decision to cancel the half-hour bus-ride from Wagah to Lahore for security reasons alerted the Indian government to the fragile nature of the goodwill on display. So also did Oskar Potiorek, the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s Governor in Bosnia, ignore numerous intelligence warnings of the security dangers attendant on the Archduke’s insistence on visiting Bosnia as the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Bosnian army.

The Archduke’s adamant insistence on making the visit was as much a turning a blind eye to evidence as was Defence Minister George Fernandes being complicit in not passing on with adequate stress the information flowing into military intelligence of unseemly activity in Skardu. And for much the same reason as overtook Governor Potiorek: currying favour with the Boss. In Governor Potiorek’s case, there was the personal determination to show his authorities in Vienna how firmly and irreversibly he had consolidated the Empire’s annexation of Bosnia; in the case of Vajpayee’s cohorts, it was the earnest desire to not play spoil-sport to their hero’s race to the Nobel Peace Prize. Anything that would detract from the occasion as evidence of a conspiracy was brushed aside in 1914 by Vienna and Sarajevo just as unwanted evidence was studiously ignored by Delhi and Srinagar in 1999.

But there was an even more touching reason in the case of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his consort. They had been married on the same 28 day of June fourteen years earlier in 1900. It was a morganatic marriage — that is, Sophie could never become Empress nor her four children succeed their father because court protocol decreed that Countess Sophie did not have adequate blue blood flowing in her veins to have her seated on ceremonial occasions next to the heir apparent and certainly not as Empress after the octogenarian Emperor Franz Joseph passed on. As historian A.J.P. Taylor remarks, the one endearing feature of the heir-apparent’s character, for all his faults, was his enduring love for his wife. When he found that, as Commander-in-Chief of the Bosnian army, the same rules of protocol did not apply as in the Emperor’s court and, therefore, his consort could accompany him to Sarajevo as an equal, he determined on a second honeymoon and nothing would thwart him from his noble purpose, just as nothing would or could thwart Vajpayee from his.

We now learn from the autobiography of Nawaz Sharif’s former (and present) Foreign Minister, Sartaj Aziz, that the Pakistan cabinet was indeed briefed by army chief, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, in detail at the end of March 1999 — that is, a month after the Vajpayee visit and a few weeks before the Kargil invasion was to begin — and that on being told by Musharraf that his men could possibly be in Srinagar within a week of scaling the Kargil heights, Nawaz Sharif raised his hands and asked, with his Cabinet colleagues, for Allah’s dua. So also did the Serbian government in Belgrade know that something could go gravely wrong with the Archduke’s visit to Sarajevo but as they broadly shared the goals of their terrorists, even if they had nothing to do with this particular plot, the Serbian government played along while covering their tracks, just as Nawaz Sharif did about his government’s awareness of Musharraf’s Kargil misadventure. Credible denial, not action to halt the plot, was Sharif’s leitmotif as it was of the Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pašiæ and his Cabinet.

And the reasons for shying away from personal involvement but ensuring that nothing was done to stop the outrage from occurring also weirdly parallel those between the Serbia of yore and the Pakistan of the present. The arch Serbian plotter was Dragutin Dimitrijeviæ, known by his ‘takhallus’ of ‘Apis’ the Bee (the nickname he had acquired as a cadet for always buzzing around earnestly). He had earned his laurels by being the most ruthless of the regicides, who in 1903 had assassinated the previous Serbian King Aleksandar Obrenoviæ and his Queen (the two, by sheer coincidence, having been married just three days before Franz Ferdinand and Sophie in the face of similar furious objection from the court and the politico-military establishment — in Queen Draga’s case because she was a notorious nymphomaniac, the Interior Minister having lost his job because he protested to King Aleksandar that he had himself slept with the incoming Queen!) Apis had gone on to become the chief of intelligence (shades of ISI) and then split off to become the clandestine recruiter and trainer, like Ajmal Kasab’s ‘Major Iqbal’, of an army of subterranean terrorists picked up from the coffee-houses of Belgrade where unemployed but idealistic Serbian youth whiled away their time in useless, unrealistic political dreams — the massacre of kafirs to earn a quick passage to Paradise in the case of Kasab and his companions; the realisation of Greater Serbia in the case of Princip and his friends.

Apis took care to recruit for the Sarajevo mission boys suffering from terminal tuberculosis who knew they were destined to die young but preferred the glory of death for a noble cause to just wasting away in an infirmary. For the terrorists, of both the 20 and the 21 centuries, death held no fear and cyanide pills were thoughtfully provided in the event of capture. And where young Pakistanis have been fed on dreams of re-establishing global Muslim rule as in the century that followed the Prophet (pace Allama Iqbal’s Shikwa, or Complaint to Allah as to why he had snatched the world from Muslim hands, and his renowned poem on Granada, ‘Yeh Gumabde Miane’, rendered into immortal song by Malika Pukhraj), Serbian nationalism, and its appendage, Serbian terrorism, also thrived on ballads and epic songs woven around ‘a mythical pantheon’ that included ‘the celebrated assassin’ Miloš Obilic who was said to have infiltrated the Turkish camp and slit the Sultan’s throat. Matching the revivalist irredentism of Allama Iqbal was the 19 century Serbian writer, Garašanin, and the 1847 epic, The Mountain Wreath by the Prince-Bishop of Montenegro, which was to Serbian nationalism what Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya’s Anand Math was to Indian nationalism. Most significant of all, Apis’ Serbian Black Hand organisation operated independent of the Serbian government, but with both immunity and impunity, as does Hafiz Saeed’s Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Thus, when the Sarajevo assassination occurred, the Serbian government could carry conviction with most of the world, if not with Vienna, that whatever links anyone might wish to draw between the shadowy Apis and his merry band of terrorists, the Serbian government could not be fairly blamed. Even so, could the Pakistan government credibly distance itself from the 2001 attack on our Parliament and Mumbai 26/11 — at least in the eyes of the world, if not our own. And so also could Pakistan persuade the world to distinguish between the Pakistan government, on the one hand, and ‘rogue elements’ in the ISI and the Lashkar-e-Taiba, on the other. Moreover, the Belgrade government of 1914 could no more dare touch Apis than the Sharif government dare touch Hafiz Saeed.

When, therefore, Vienna laid at the door of Belgrade responsibility for the Sarajevo assassination, the government of Serbia protested that it had nothing to do with the assassination and was quite as keen as the Austro-Hungarian Empire to discover who the assassins were and who were behind them. This cut little ice in Vienna who insisted, as Delhi now does, that the Pakistan government own up, unveil the links between their agencies and the terrorists and demonstratively take action to bring the guilty to book. Belgrade then could no more meet these demands than Islamabad can today.

As the crisis deepened, it seemed to almost all the players that this was no more serious than the several crises that had beset the Balkans in the recent past, all of which had been defused by quiet diplomacy and a little sabre-rattling, most notably the crisis of the previous year, 1913, in which Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, had earned considerable kudos by convening a meeting in London of the envoys concerned and finding an interim solution. He floated a similar proposal in July 1914, but this time there were no takers.

Conscious too that Vienna and Belgrade were not the only players but had Germany behind Austro-Hungary and France behind Serbia, statesmen comforted themselves with the thought that all this was déjà vu, that the first Balkan crisis had been tided over and the much more serious Agadir crisis of 1911 over a German gun-boat, the Panther, having appeared off the Moroccan coast challenging French hegemony in North Africa and British colonial interests in all of Africa, had also been overcome. Why, therefore, could not an amicable solution be found despite Vienna having issued an ultimatum to Belgrade threatening invasion if the Serbian government did not provide satisfaction on a number of conditions put to Belgrade by Vienna that no self-respecting independent nation could possibly accept? Even Churchill thought it was “the most insolent document of its kind ever devised”. Yet, Belgrade accepted all the conditionalities but one.

That provided the casus belli that Vienna was obliged to follow, at Berlin’s urging, even as Belgrade’s nerve was being strengthened by Czarist Russia assuring them of Slavic solidarity in the event of Aryan-Magyar aggression by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. France was in two minds, President Poincare sailing to Russia to consolidate the military cooperation arrangements between Russia and France in the event of war, dragging along with him his reluctant pacifist and socialist Premier, René Viviani. Britain had its nerve stretched for it wanted no part of any of these quarrels despite the ‘military conversations’ it had had with France which effectively bound it to come to France’s help if France were invaded by Germany or Britain’s security threatened by Germany violating Belgium’s neutrality to gain access to Belgium’s Channel ports, principally Antwerp and Ostend.

Despite this tangled skein of alliances, so little was the actual outbreak of war anticipated that in the last week of July the Kaiser went on his annual cruise in the waters of the Baltic, sailing to his favourite summer haunts in Scandinavia; Poincaré and Viviani were also on the high seas; the German army commander, Moltke, and the Austrian army commander, Conrad, were both on vacation, as was half the British Cabinet and the Governor of the Bank of England. When Russia issued its first August ultimatum to Germany in the wake of the Austro-Hungarian bombardment of Belgrade at the expiry of its ultimatum, almost all the principal players were blissfully unaware that the worst war in human history had started.

On our sub-continent, we are almost as blissfully unaware of what would happen if, as is entirely likely, a similar scenario were to play out between Pakistan and India. There could be a massive terrorist attack on India from a base on Pakistan soil. Knee-jerk, we would, like the Austrians, demand immediate reprisals by the Pakistanis against all non-state and state actors responsible for the outrage. Pakistan, like the Serbian government, would hem and haw, not only because they do not know all that has happened but also because they do know that if they were to find out, all Hell might break loose. If then the arm-chair generals who are to be seen with their bristling moustaches and beetled eyebrows on our TV sets were to go ballistic, as I bet they would, our government would be forced to reveal its 56-inch chest. Any threat of war, especially between nuclear weapons-armed neighbours, would bring in outside interference. It is not difficult to guess who would play Kaiser’s Germany and who Czarist Russia. And even as in 1971, when no one but us was concerned with the merits of our case, so also would no outside power waste time or effort apportioning blame; we would both be held responsible. At this, national pride would triumph over international intervention, and just as Emperor Franz Ferdinand was prevented by the war machine from pulling back from the brink, as he had done on numerous previous occasions, so also would belligerent governments on both sides of our border find it impossible to counsel good sense in the face of the assault led by their respective TV anchors. “The nation wants to know…” And the nation’s youth would march off to their deaths and the nation’s old would await incineration in a nuclear holocaust.

The lesson for India and Pakistan of The Sleepwalkers who led their countries to collective disaster in 1914, a disaster that none wanted but none could prevent, is that menacing mutual brinkmanship must be replaced by pragmatic understanding. We in India need to understand that Pakistani terrorism cannot be ended for talks to begin; and that unless talks begin, there is no handle in the Pakistan government’s hands to contain India-specific targeted terrorism. We can climb as many pulpits as we wish, make as many impassioned appeals to the world and Pakistan as we desire, prepare ourselves for the worst and ready ourselves to inflict on Pakistan the worst, but the end result will be an Armageddon worse than anything our imagination can conceive or our mythology grasp, if we do not agree now to an ‘uninterrupted and uninterruptible’ dialogue with Pakistan. What overtook Europe could overtake us — unless we listen to the voice of Gandhi instead of Clausewitz and Nietzsche. It is by engaging with our opponents that we can turn them from friend to enemy; by confronting them, we could potentially turn our millions of Pakistani friends into implacable enemies. We cannot afford to sleepwalk our way to war. We must seize whatever opportunity presents itself, or which we ourselves can create, to make the 21 century the Asian century instead of repeating in Asia in the 21 century the horrors of Europe’s 20 century. Then perhaps the two World Wars might not have been fought in vain.

Mani Shankar Aiyar is a nominated Member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha.

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