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Disputations: More on "Imperial Illusions"

Amartya Sen responds to Niall Ferguson's letter about the legacy of British imperial rule in India.

I am grateful to Niall Ferguson, whose insightful writings I admire, for bothering to respond to my essay. It is a pity that his response seems to be generated more by irritation than by reading or reflection. Ferguson says: "It is a complete misrepresentation to imply, as he [Sen] does, that I have argued anywhere that 'Americans [should] be inspired by ... early British rule in India.' " But where did I "imply" that Ferguson said anything like this about early British empire (to be distinguished from later days)? What I had, in fact, said was: "If Americans are to be inspired by the disciplined regularity of early British rule in India, they would do well to avoid reading Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, particularly Smith's discussion of the abuse of state power by a 'mercantile company that oppresses and domineers in the East Indies.' " While I did quote some remarks of Ferguson in celebration of the British empire in general (I used his words, not mine), not every defense of the British Empire has come from Ferguson alone. However, a puzzle that remains is how Ferguson can think that an empire that in his view became "benign" only in the mid-nineteenth century, after a century of doubtful practice, can deserve such admiration as would be needed to yield an invitation to America to learn from British imperial experience.

A second puzzle is how the history of British imperial rule after the mid-nineteenth century appears so "benign" to Ferguson. Even if we ignore the huge famine of 1769-70 with which the empire began (there had been none in the century before British rule was established) as being part of the problems of "early British rule," is there no governance problem at all in the continuation of famines in what Ferguson sees as the "benign" phase of the empire, ending with a large famine--the Bengal famine of 1943--just four years before Indian independence (India has had no such famine since independence). Ferguson simply attributes that last famine to the Japanese attack on Burma (in line with the views of earlier defenders of the non-culpability of the Raj), but as has been brought out by a number of empirical investigations of that famine, it was largely caused by huge policy blunders (my book Poverty and Famine, 1981, discusses the question in some detail).

I 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. His comparisons with "Qing China" and "Ottoman Turkey" are certainly worth considering, but does he not overlook here the extent to which there were early industrial and financial developments, as well as global affiliations, already in India? I commented on this in my essay: "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 ... 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." Despite the early history of industrial and financial developments in India, we cannot, of course, be sure what would have happened there in the absence of British conquest, but Ferguson's ridicule of what he calls "Meiji India" avoids the important issues involved.

As I argued in my essay, India got many important things from Britain: many of those things, such as Parliamentary democracy, a free media, legal recognition of individual rights, have flourished only after the Raj ended. But it should be possible to see the distinction between what India got from British contact and what was imposed on it by the strong arms of the Raj.

It has taken India some time to recover even the lost self-respect--and the respect of others--that are hard to sustain for a subjugated population. Gandhi had to establish his voice through non-violent protest, arrest and imprisonment, not through the benefaction of what Ferguson calls the "liberal empire." If an Indian industrial family finds it easy enough to buy the bulk of the British steel industry today, that does contrast with the inability of the same industrial family (the Tatas) to borrow small funds from the London money market in 1906 to start even a single steel mill in India. The depiction of the natives as having "a general disposition to deceit and perfidy," as J.S. Mill put it in his classic imperial book on India, would not have been particularly encouraging. Mill's book, by the way, was standard reading of all British officers going to India in what Ferguson sees as the "benign" phase of the empire. Happily, there was a Britain beyond the empire, and an India beyond its period of subjugation.

Amartya Sen is Lamont University Professor at Harvard University. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998.

By Amartya Sen