Doctrine of Lapse: British Imperial Policy in Colonial India

The tradition of adoption is very ancient in India, especially among Hindus. The adopted son, traditionally, enjoyed all kinds of rights, including that of inheriting the property from his 'patron father'. The rulers too had similar rights and they could make their adopted son their successor. The East India Company, in the beginning, honoured this old tradition of India. The Company's government declared in 1825—"Every ruler, under Hindu laws, is free to nominate his successor, real or adopted son. The Company's government is bound to accept this right." But after a few years, the Company changed its policy. In 1831, it declared at Bombay—"The Government may accept or reject, according to the situation, the application of Indian rulers to nominate their adopted son as their heir."

The Company's policy, in fact, was not clear. In some cases, it accepted the application while in other cases, it rejected it without any reason. For instance, the Company permitted Baijabai, the widow of Daulat Rao Sindhia, to nominate Jankoji, her adopted son, as the successor king in 1827. The Company, however, rejected the claim of Ram Chandra Rao's adopted son at Jhansi in 1835.

Lord Dalhousie (1848-56) made more clear rules related to the adopted son issue. He divided the Indian States into three categories:

1. The states which were created, directly or indirectly, by the British Charter;

2. The States which were subordinate to the British;

3. The States which were independent.

For the states of the first category, he announced that in the absence of a real heir, the state would be merged into British India. For the states of the second category, before nominating the adopted son as heir, permission from the East India Company's government was mandatory. The Company was free to accept or reject the application. The states of the third category were free to nominate anyone.

The policy of annexation, based on the first category of the state, is popularly known as the "Doctrine of Lapse". The first victim of this policy was Satara (1848). Appa Sahib, the King of Satara, died without a natural heir in 1848. Just before death, he had adopted a child but did not seek permission from the Company. Jaitpur and Sambalpur were the next victims (1849). Baghat (1850), Udepur (1852), Jhansi (1853), and Nagpur (1854) also became victims of the doctrine of lapse. Jhansi among them became the most famous. After the death of Raja Gangadhar Rao, his widow Rani Laxmi Bai fought for the rights of her adopted son. When she failed to get her right despite repeated attempts, she rebelled against the British in 1857.

Karoli was another state annexed by Dalhousie, but the Court of Directors overruled his decision and Karoli was permitted to nominate her adopted son as the successor king. The basis on which Dalhousie demarcated the boundary between independent and subordinate states was not clear. His claim that the British had created any state, directly or indirectly, was wrong. Most of these states (which were annexed) existed in one form or another. Many of them were practically independent, but theoretically under Mughal control. Thus, the issue of adoption should have been the Mughal's prerogative. But the Mughals were weak and the Company had become powerful. The Company used its power to annex Indian States on various pretexts. The Company had no legal or moral basis.

The doctrine of lapse became an important reason for unrest against the British, especially in the states which became its victims. This was clear in 1857 when the people, soldiers, and displaced rulers of those states joined hands together against the British. During the Viceroyalty of Lord Canning, when Crown rule was established, the adoption was legalised.

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