What is the Doctorine of Lapse?
The final wave of annexations occurred under Lord Dalhousie who was the Governor-General from 1848 to 1856. He devised a policy that came to be known as the Doctrine of Lapse.
The doctrine declared that if an Indian ruler died without a male heir, his kingdom would “lapse” and become part of Company territory. One kingdom after another was annexed simply by applying this doctrine: Satara (in 1848), Sambalpur (in 1850), Udaipur (in 1852), Nagpur (in 1853), and Jhansi (in 1854).
Finally, in 1856, the Company also took over Awadh. This time the British had an added argument – they said they were “obliged by duty” to take over Awadh to free the people from the “misgovernment” of the Nawab! Enraged by the humiliating way in which the Nawab was deposed, the people of Awadh joined the great revolt that broke out in 1857.
The Doctrine of Lapse: Setting up a New Administration
Warren Hastings (Governor-General from 1773 to 1785) was one of the many important figures who played a significant role in the expansion of Company power. By his time the Company had acquired power not only in Bengal but also in Bombay and Madras. British territories were broadly divided into administrative units called Presidencies.
There were three Presidencies: Bengal, Madras, and Bombay. Each was ruled by a Governor. The supreme head of the administration was the Governor-General. Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General, introduced several administrative reforms, notably in the sphere of justice.
From 1772 a new system of justice was established. Each district was to have two courts – a criminal court (faujdari adalat ) and a civil court (diwani adalat ).
Maulvis and Hindu pandits interpreted Indian laws for the European district collectors who presided over civil courts. The criminal courts were still under a qazi and a mufti but under the supervision of the collectors. A major problem was that the Brahman pundits gave different interpretations of local laws based on different schools of the dharmashastra.
To bring about uniformity, in 1775 eleven pandits were asked to compile a digest of Hindu laws. N.B. Halhed translated this digest into English. By 1778 a code of Muslim laws was also compiled for the benefit of European judges.
Under the Regulating Act of 1773, a new Supreme Court was established, while a court of appeal – the Sadar Nizamat Adalat – was also set up at Calcutta. The principal figure in an Indian district was the Collector. As the title suggests, his main job was to collect revenue and taxes and maintain law and order in his district with the help of judges, police officers, and darogas. His office – the Collectorate – became the new center of power and patronage that steadily replaced previous holders of authority.