DMPQ- How did ‘doctrine of lapse’ play an important role in the expansion of British empire ?

In simple terms, the doctrine stated that the adopted son could be the heir to his foster father’s private property, but not the state; it was for the paramount power (the British) to decide whether to bestow the state on the adopted son or to annex it. The doctrine was stated to be based on Hindu law and Indian customs, but Hindu law seemed to be somewhat inconclusive on this point, and the instances of an Indian sovereign annexing the state of his vassal on account of ‘lapse’ (i.e., leaving no issue as heir) were rather rare. Maharaja Ranjit Singh had annexed a few of his feudatory principalities on account of ‘lapse’. Likewise, the Company in 1820 acquired a few petty Cis-Sutlej states on the absence of heirs. Nonetheless, there was no clear-cut instance of an adopted son being deprived of an entire state or of such a state being regarded as a ‘lapse’.

Though this policy is attributed to Lord Dalhousie (1848-56), he was not its originator. It was a coincidence that during his governor-generalship several important cases arose in which the ‘Doctrine’ could be applied. Dalhousie showed too much zeal in enforcing this policy which had been theoretically enunciated on some previous occasions. His predecessors had acted on the general principle of avoiding annexation if it could be avoided; Dalhousie in turn acted on the general principle of annexing if he could do so legitimately.

It was a matter of chance that during Lord Dalhousie’s term many rulers of states died without a male issue and seven states were annexed under the Doctrine of Lapse. The most important of these were Satara (1848), Jhansi and Nagpur (1854). The other small states included Jaitpur (Bundelkhand), Sambhalpur (Orissa), and Baghat (Madhya Pradesh).

Lord Dalhousie annexed Awadh in 1856 after deposing Nawab Wajid Ali Shah on grounds of misgovernment. Thus Dalhousie annexed eight states during his eight- year tenure (1848-56) as governor-general. In these eight years, he annexed some quarter million square miles of the territory of India. His reign almost completed the process of expansion of British power in India, which began with the victory over Siraj-ud-daula at Plassey in 1757.

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