‘What If’ scenarios as history lessons

Counterfactual history, also sometimes called virtual history, is a form of historiography that attempts to answer ‘what if ’ questions

“To study the past, as it was, is also to speculate about the past as it might have been,” says Ramachandra Guha, an Indian historian and writer whose research interests include environmental, social, political, contemporary and cricket history. He laments, though, that most professional historians would only provide an alternate interpretation of what had been – but not speculate on alternative scenarios. Venturing out to where few of his kind go, Guha has dared to speculate on a range of ‘what ifs’ for India, the rest of South Asia and the world.

Some of the questions he cites, in a 2004 essay, are common fodder for alternative history enthusiasts. What if Hitler had successfully invaded Britain in 1940? Would German now have been the language of international commerce? What if Lenin had died on the train that took him back to his homeland in 1917? Would Russia now be a constitutional monarchy on the British model?

Coming closer home, he poses some intriguing questions: What if Mohammed Ali Jinnah had died in 1958 instead of 1948? Would Pakistan then be as solidly established a democracy as India? And what if General Yahya Khan had allowed Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to take office as prime minister of Pakistan in 1970, to honour the popular mandate in his favour? Would there yet have been a Bangladesh (which only emerged after a liberation war in 1971)?

Guha points out that perceptive writers, not necessarily historians, have sometimes pondered on major ‘what if ’s of recent and distant history.

Leonard Woolf (1880-1969), a British civil servant and writer who spent several years in Ceylon in the early part of the last century, once noted that if the British government had been prepared to grant to Indians “what they refused in 1940 but granted in 1947—then nine-tenths of the misery, hatred and violence, the imprisonings and terrorism, the murders, floggings, shootings, assassinations and even the racial massacres would have been avoided; the transference of power might well have been accomplished peacefully, even possibly without partition”.

Counterfactual history, also sometimes called virtual history, is a form of historiography that attempts to answer ‘what if ’ questions known as counterfactuals. Beginning in the 1990s, there have been some popular books in the West exploring such questions arising from their own histories.

But, few such speculations have been done in our own region South Asia, or in the specific Lankan context. In 2004, the Indian news magazine ‘Outlook’ published a special issue devoted to some key ‘what if ’ moments in Indian history.

Building ‘what if ’ scenarios places history in an entirelydifferent perspective. We begin to realise how history has been defined by a series of coincidences and uncommon visions (or courage) of key individuals who were in the right place at the right time.

For some time, I have been interested in ‘what ifs’ in Sri Lanka’s history. Over a few days this February, I shared a series of 26 web memes on Twitter that I themed ‘What If Sri Lanka’ (hashtag: #WhatIfLka), each of them revisiting a defining moment or individual 0ver 70 years since independence (1948-2018). The response to this little experiment was very encouraging, with readers asking for more, and discussing missed opportunities or near misses. Some said it made them think of history in a new light – which was precisely what I wanted to accomplish in a land where history is too often treated as sacrosanct. In particular, I imagined scenarios where timely action could well have prevented the escalation of ethnic tensions into a full-scale civil war. What if anti-Tamil riots in many parts of Sri Lanka were dealt with more resolutely by police (and armed forces, when needed) first in May 1958 and then during the July 1983 riots? And what if law enforcement agencies had reacted quickly to prevent southern goons from setting fire to the Jaffna public library on 1 June 1981? More than any other incident, in my view, it was this dastardly crime that pushed most moderate Tamils over the edge.

Counterfactual history, also sometimes called virtual history, is a form of historiography that attempts to answer ‘what if’ questions known as counterfactuals

Then, there were various political blunders in post-independence Sri Lanka whose gravity became evident only in hindsight. What if both Sinhala and Tamil had been granted equal status as national languages from the very beginning (1956)? In reality, Tamil gained that status only years later – thereby causing much grievance to the largest minority group. We have yet to achieve language parity in how the state relates to its citizens.

What if one religion (Buddhism) in our multicultural land had not been elevated to special status in the 1972 Constitution, thereby ending the secular nature of our state? Drafters of the 1978 Constitution maintained the status quo, and the new Constitution’s makers are unlikely to change what has now become an entrenched provision.

What if governments of the day had not tried to extend their elected term in office in 1975 and 1982, each time triggering disastrous consequences for incumbents and the country?

If there was a general election in 1982 or 1983 instead of the infamous referendum (December 1982) to extend the term of the 1977 Parliament by another six years, the ruling UNP would very likely have won – albeit with a reduced majority. Such an outcome would have reduced the democratic deficit that followed the referendum, which in turn contributed to the second JVP uprising of 1987-89. Indeed, how much of bloodshed and blighting of lives could have been averted if only our leaders across the political spectrum and ethnic divide had been more cautious with their actions, and a bit less selfish?

One key lesson from seven decades of self-rule is that policymakers and law makers need to be more aware of the downstream consequences of what they do (or fail to do adequately or in a timely manner). Some outcomes are predictable (and therefore preventive action can be taken), while others are unintended and often unforeseen.

We are not expecting politicians to have perfect foresight – or to endlessly debate every decision and action. This is where public intellectuals and think tanks can play a part, crunching numbers or building various scenarios. The art of governance today requires a range of aptitudes that includes weighing evidence, listening to conflicting views, consulting widely and coping with some levels of uncertainty.

This is where ‘what if ’s of recent history can be instructive, if only as cautionary tales. Engaging in such exercises can also stretch our minds, making us realise how seemingly innocuous incidents or single individuals can shape events or processes that later assume great significance. Many examples of this are awaiting to be unearthed.

Tales of two great engineers, from two generations, illustrate this point.

The first is D J Wimalasurendra (1874-1953), the pioneer promoter of hydro electricity as a source of power for domestic and industrial use. Trained as a civil and electrical engineer, he made a strong technical and economic case for hydro power in the early 20th century. At the time, the country was totally dependent on imported petroleum  forpower generation. Having studied the hydro power generation potential of the Kelani River valley, the young engineer tried to get the colonial government of Ceylon to build one or more power plants. But neither the civil servants nor his fellow engineers showed any interest. So Wimalasurendra engaged in a long struggle – initially as a public official, and after retirement, as an elected legislator – to promote his vision. It literally took decades: The first stage of the Laxapana hydro power project was commissioned only in December 1950. Wimalasurendra, by then in his mid-70s, was the honoured guest. He later had a power plant named after him, and is known as the father of hydro power in Sri Lanka. What if, disheartened by naysayers, he had given up his quest for home-grown power?

My second example concerns the Mahaweli programme, the country’s largest development effort during the 20th century. Conceived in the 1960s, the multi-purpose, multi-dam programme was originally envisaged to be implemented in stages for 30 years beginning in 1975. The new government elected in July 1977 decided to accelerate its completion in six years. This announcement was made in the boardroom of the Mahaweli Development Board, where all officials had gathered. The board’s then-General Manager and all senior engineers argued that such a goal was ‘nearly impossible on account of the magnitude of the project and the lack of resources’.

Then-Prime Minister J R Jayewardene turned to Dr A N S Kulasinghe (1933-2006), one of the most accomplished Lankan engineers, who said without any hesitation that it could be done. Only one irrigation engineer shared that self-confidence. However, the decision was made – and the rest is history.

This incident was documented in the Kulasinghe Felicitation Volume published by the Institution of Engineers Sri Lanka in 2001. Its editor D L O Mendis says: “Kulasinghe was the only one in that room (or, for that matter, outside that room), who could have given the prime minister such an assurance that day. There is no doubt that the astute politician J R Jayewardene knew all about it, and had ample faith in Kulasinghe’s technical and managerial abilities.”

As chairman of the state-owned Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB), Kulasinghe played a major role in building the Victoria, Kotmale, Maduru Oya, Randenigala and Rantembe dams, as well as their associated tunnels and power houses. What if Kulasinghe was not present at that meeting? Or, if he too joined the chorus of naysayers? J R might have gone ahead with acceleration anyway, but with entirely foreign experts and advice.

Looking back at the past seven decades, there have also been extraordinary individuals whose sudden exits left big voids. Examples: popular actor-turned-political activist Vijaya Kumaratunga, who stood for a political solution to the ethnic crisis and was assassinated in February 1988, and the maverick tycoon Upali Wijewardene who disappeared mysteriously in February 1983 while flying back from Malaysia to Sri Lanka in his own Learjet.

What a difference could they have made in public affairs had they lived longer?