The Doctrine of Lapse

The Doctrine of Lapse

The Doctrine of Lapse was an annexation policy followed widely by Lord Dalhousie when he was India’s Governor-General from 1848 to 1856. It was used as an administrative policy for the extension of British Paramountcy.

Features of Doctrine of Lapse

Before the introduction of this doctrine, the princely states had a ritualised method of adoption practised for centuries  An heir apparent would eventually be selected from a pool of candidates, who were groomed for succession from an early age, called bhayats if no competent born-to son were produced (an obviously unsuitable or treasonous born-to son could be excluded from the succession). 

If the ruler died before adopting a successor, one of his widows could adopt an heir, who would immediately accede to the throne. The adoptee would cut all ties with his birth family. Once the Doctrine of Lapse came into place the following features were now faced by the Indian rulers.

  • According to this doctrine, any princely state under the direct or indirect (as a vassal) control of the East India Company, should the ruler not produce a legal male heir, would be annexed by the company. 
  • This was not introduced by Lord Dalhousie even though it was he who documented it and used it widely to acquire territories for the British.
  • As per this, any adopted son of the Indian ruler could not be proclaimed as heir to the kingdom. The adopted son would only inherit his foster father’s personal property and estates.
  • The adopted son would also not be entitled to any pension that his father had been receiving or to any of his father’s titles.
  • This challenged the Indian ruler’s long-held authority to appoint an heir of their choice.

Who was Lord Dalhousie

  • James Andrew Ramsay, was famously known as Lord Dalhousie.
  • From 1848 to 1856, he was the Governor-General of India.
  • His main intention was the expansion of the British rule in India.
  • The Doctrine of Lapse was introduced by him in India and he annexed eight states during his period.
  • The Second Anglo Sikh war was fought during his period and the whole of Punjab was brought under the British empire by him.

Some of the significant events that took place during his period are

1. Widow Remarriage Act, 1856

2. Woods Educational Despatch of 1854

3. First railway line from Bombay to Thane in 1853

4, Pegu (lower Burma) was annexed in 1852

5. Telegraph and postal reforms

The states that were annexed under this policy are given below in chronological order:

States Annexed by Doctrine of LapseYear of Annexation
  • In 1824, before the time of Dalhousie, the princely state of Kittur was acquired by the East India Company by this doctrine.
  • It was as per this policy that Nana Sahib, the adopted son of the Maratha Peshwa Baji Rao II was denied his titles and pension.
  • The final moment straw came when Awadh was annexed to the English East India Company under the terms of the Doctrine of Lapse on the grounds of internal misrule on 7 February 1856 AD. This annexation was one of the reasons for the Revolt of 1857.

Effects of Doctrine of Lapse

  • Many Indian states lost their sovereignty and became British territories.
  • This led to a lot of unrest among the Indian princes.
  • A lot of people were unhappy with the ‘illegal’ nature of this doctrine and this was one of the causes of the Indian Revolt of 1857.
  • Nana Sahib and the Rani of Jhansi had grievances against the British because the former’s pension was stopped by the British after his foster father died, and the Rani’s adopted son was denied the throne under the doctrine of lapse.
  • Dalhousie returned to Britain in 1856. After the Indian Revolt broke out in 1857, his governance was widely criticised as one of the causes of the rebellion.

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