Sen and Ferguson Debate the British Raj and Counterfactual History

In the TNR, Amartya Sen and Niall Ferguson debate Ferguson’s Empire. Sen’s original piece:

When the East India Company undertook the battle of Plassey and defeated the Nawab of Bengal, there were businessmen, traders, and other professionals from a number of different European nations already in that very locality. Their primary involvement was in exporting textiles and other industrial products from India, and the river Ganges (or Hughly, as it is more often called in that part of India), on which the East India Company had its settlement, also had (further upstream) trading centers and settled communities from Portugal, the Netherlands, France, Denmark, Prussia, and other European nations.

Being subjected to imperial rule is not the only way of learning things from abroad, no matter how necessary such learning may be. When the Meiji restoration established a new reformist government in Japan in 1868 (which was not unrelated to the internal political impact of Commodore Perry’s show of force in the previous decade), the Japanese went full steam into learning from the West, sending people for training in America and Europe, and making institutional changes that were clearly inspired by western experience. They globalized themselves voluntarily. They were not coercively globalized by others. The shaking of India, too, could have come in non-colonialist ways.

Ferguson’s response:

I quite agree, and have said myself, that any assessment of the costs and benefits of British rule in India needs to make the counterfactual(s) explicit. No one claims India would have stood still if there had been no 1757. With all due respect, however, Professor Sen’s counterfactual of “Meiji India” lacks plausibility. Though I have often heard it argued, the notion seems to me utterly far-fetched that India could have adopted the Japanese route to economic and political modernization.

Sen again:

am glad that Ferguson agrees that India would not have stood still even in the absence of British conquest. But then he says: “Sen’s counterfactual of ‘Meiji India’ lacks plausibility.” “Meiji India”? But that surely is an idea of Ferguson’s, not mine. What I had, in fact, said was: “It is not easy to guess with any confidence how the history of the subcontinent would have gone had the British conquest not occurred. Would India have moved, like Japan, toward modernization in an increasingly globalizing world, or would it have stayed resistant to change, like Afghanistan, or hastened slowly, like Thailand?”

Even after overlooking that misattribution, it can, however, be asked whether Ferguson should be so sure that India could have done little of the kind that Japan did.