Doctrine of Lapse and its Consequences

Sansar LochanModernLeave a Comment

Dalhousie who came to India as the governor-general of the Company in 1848 was a rank imperialist in his designs and ambitions. He completed the consolidation of the British Empire in India and, to that end, adopted different means. The one was, of course wars. By this means, he annexed Punjab after the second Sikh War and lower Burma after the second Burma War. He annexed Awadh on the pretext of its maladministration by the Nawab. He occupied the states of Karnataka and Tanjore when their Nawabs died. He refused to pay the pension to Nana Sahib when his father, Peshwa Baji Rao died. Yet, another famous means of Dalhousie for extending the British empire was the Doctrine of Lapse. Some native states like Satara, Nagpur, Jhansi, Jaitpur, Sambhalpur etc. were annexed by him by this means.

Doctrine of Lapse

Every Hindu has a right to adopt a male child as his heir in the absence of a natural heir. It is sanctioned both by religion and society. The adopted son enjoys all rights and privileges and also shares all responsibilities as a natural heir to his father. In the beginning, the English accepted this right of Hindu native rulers. But gradually, they changed their policy. They declared that the subordinate rulers had to seek their permission in case any one of them wished to adopt a child as his heir. In 1831, the English government at Bombay claimed that the English had the legitimate right to grant or not to grant the permission sought by an Indian ruler to adopt a child as his heir. But how the British would use this right was not elaborated. The English accepted the right of adopting heirs to the thrones by Indian rulers completely in several cases while in many other cases they objected to it. The English, of course, desired that a native ruler who wanted to adopt a child should do so during his life-time, yet, in several cases they approved of the adoption of a child even after the death of a ruler. Daulat Rao Sindhia died in 1827. His widow Baija Bai adopted Jankoji as his heir after his death. When Jankoji died in 1843, another widow of Daulat Rao Sindhia, adopted Jayaji Rao as the successor to the throne. The English approved of the adoption in both the cases. Thus, by that time, the English were quite liberal in accepting the right of adoption of the Indian rulers. John Sulivan stated that the English permitted at least fifteen native rulers to adopt their heirs during the period 1826-48. Yet, there were several other instances when the English refused this right to different native rulers. Ramchandra Rag the ruler of Jhansi died in 1835. He adopted a child as his heir before his death but failed to get the approval of the English. The English refused to accept that child as the heir to the throne and gave the gaddi to Raghunath Rao, an uncle of Ramchandra Rao. But, by that time, the English had not asserted the right to annexing the kingdom of the deceased ruler to the British territory in case of the absence of a natural heir. They however, asserted this right afterwards. The rulers of Jalon, Kolaba and Mandavi were refused permission to adopt their heirs and their states were annexed by the English.

Lord Dalhousie Three Principles 

Thus, it is clear that by that time, the English had not come to adopt a fixed principle or policy concerning the right of the native rulers to adopt their heirs. But, when Lord Dalhousie came to India, he adopted certain principles. He divided the Indian states into the following three categories:

  1. Those states which, directly or indirectly, were created by the English.
  2. Those states which were dependent states of the English.
  3. Independent states.

It was further decided that the rulers of the states of the first category would not be allowed to adopt heirs to their throne, the rulers of the second category were bound to seek the permission of the English in cases of adoption which, however, could be granted or refused and the rulers of the third category were free to adopt their heirs.

Dalhousie annexed Satara, Jhansi, Sambhalpur, Nagpur and Jaitpur to the British territory during his tenure as the governor-general.

Scholars views on Dalhousie’s Doctrine of Lapse

The principles which Dalhousie devised for annexing these states have been challenged by the Indian scholars. They argue that it was wrong to assume that certain states were created by the English in India. Every state which was annexed by Dalhousie existed in its own right. The same way, there existed no dependent state of the English in India at that time. Legally, the Mughal emperor was the sovereign of India by 1858. In theory, all rulers of India were legally subordinated to him till he was removed from this position in 1858 by the English. Initially, the British also accepted the Mughal emperor as the sovereign of India. They received the right of Diwani in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa from the Mughal emperor. Then how and when did the British become the legal sovereign of India? Therefore, it is clear that the British had no legal or moral claim to be the sovereign of India but asserted the right simply on the basis of their power. Besides, the English had no clear-cut basis for making distinction between the dependent and the independent states. Dalhousie did not permit the ruler of the Karauli state to adopt his heir because he placed this state in the category of dependent states, but the Directors accepted him as an independent ruler and permitted him to adopt a child. Karauli was, thus, saved from annexation by Dalhousie.

There are many other scholars who have expressed their views in favour of or against the Doctrine of Lapse on grounds of morality. Some scholars have expressed the view that the practice of adopting an heir has been sanctioned to the Hindus by religion and society. The English, therefore, ought to have accepted it by all means. The assertion of the English to grant or not to grant permission to native rulers to adopt their heirs was completely against the Indian tradition. Mr. Bell wrote:  “Neither the kings of Delhi nor the Peshwas ever exercised or claimed the right of forbidding adoption in the families of dependent chieftains.” In fact, no sovereign ruler of India ever asserted this right in the negative in case of the Hindus. But, contrary to the opinion expressed above, Mr. Lee Warner wrote that the Peshwas enjoyed this right and permitted the subordinate rulers to adopt heirs and, in return, received presents or succession duty. Therefore, he reached the conclusion that the British were justified in asserting this right. But, the conclusion of Lee Warner is not reasonable. There exists no example when the Peshwas asserted this right in case of kings though, of course, they asserted it sometimes in case of petty chiefs. The Indians never accepted this right of the British. The annexation of Satara, Jhansi and Nagpur by the English was regarded as gross injustice against their rulers, by their subjects. The English had not included this right as one of the terms of the treaties which they had concluded with the Indian rulers. They had not made any such law also. Thus, the English had no legal or moral right to disallow the native rulers to adopt their heirs. They could not assert it even on the basis of tradition. Dalhousie claimed it simply because it gave him an easy lever in his hands for extending the British Empire in India.


The action of Dalhousie has been challenged on the ground of expediency as well. Of course, Dalhousie succeeded in extending the British Empire but it is wrong to suggest that the subjects of the annexed states felt happy as has been claimed by some British historians. When Nagpur, Jhansi and Awadh were annexed, Dalhousie claimed that not a murmur was heard beyond the palace walls because the people felt free from the tyrannical rule of their kings. But, the coming events proved otherwise. The subjects of these states supported their rulers against the British in the rebellion of 1857. Thus, the policy of the Doctrine of Lapse endangered the British empire. That is why after the revolt of 1857, the British accepted the right of the Indian rulers to adopt their heirs, Thus, the annexations of Lord Dalhousie on the basis of the Doctrine of Lapse were justified on no grounds — legal, moral, or expediency.

Points to remember

  1. The one means by which Dalhousie extended the British Empire was the Doctrine of Lapse.
  2. Every Hind. has a right to adopt a male child as his heir in absence of a natural heir and it is sanctioned both by religion and society.
  3. The English accepted this right but, later on, declared that the subordinate rulers bad to seek their permission in the matter.
  4. In 1831, the Bombay government asserted the right of refusing permission for adoption but did not make clear the reasons for refusal.
  5. However, prior to Dalhousie, the English did not adopt a fixed principle concerning it and, in most of the cases, the rulers were permitted to adopt their heirs.
  6. Dalhousie pursued a fixed policy concerning it and divided the native states into three categories, viz., states created by the English, dependent states and independent states.
  7. The rulers of the first category of states were not given the right to adopt their heirs, the rulers of the second category were bound to seek permission for it, and the rulers of the third category were free to adopt their heirs.
  8. Dalhousie did not allow the rulers of Satara, Jhansi, Sambhalpur, Nagpur and Jaitpur to adopt their heirs and annexed their states.
  9. The plea of Lee Warner in favour of Dalhousie that, prior to him, the Peshwas enjoyed the right of refusing permission to their subordinate rulers to adopt heirs has not been accepted by the majority of scholars.
  10. The policy of Dalhousie has been criticised by the majority of the scholars on the grounds that the English were not the legal sovereign of India by that time; there was no clear-cut basis for making distinction between the dependent and the independent states; the right was sanctioned both by Hindu religion and society; the right was never refuted by the Mughal Emperors or the Peshwas; the rulers were not obliged to seek permission for it by any treaty with the English or by any law made by them; and, the subjects of annexed states were so much annoyed that they actively participated in the revolt of 1857.

Source used : NCERT, Tamil Nadu Board, IGNOU Modern History, NIOS textbooks. Wikipedia notes for UPSC exam.

Tags : PDF for UPSC exam short notes on the Doctrine of Lapse by Lord Dalhousie. Doctrine of Lapse: Meaning, Features, Objective & its Impact. Essay.

Questions for UPSC mains :

Describe the Doctrine of Lapse. What were its consequences?

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