The doctrine of lapse was a policy of annexation initiated by the East India Company in the Indian subcontinent about the princely states, and applied until the year 1858, the year after Company rule was succeeded by the British Raj under the British Crown.
Elements of the doctrine of lapse continued to be applied by the post-independence Indian government to derecognise individual princely families until 1971, when the recognition of former ruling families was discontinued under the 26th amendment to the Indian constitution by the Indira Gandhi's government.
According to the doctrine, any Indian princely state under the suzerainty of the East India Company (EIC) (the dominant imperial power in the Indian subsidiary system), would have its princely status abolished (and therefore be annexed into British India) if the ruler was either "manifestly incompetent or died without a male heir". The latter supplanted the long-established right of an Indian sovereign without an heir to choose a successor. In addition, the EIC decided whether potential rulers were competent enough. The doctrine and its applications were widely regarded as illegitimate by many Indians, leading to resentment against the EIC.
The policy is most commonly associated with Lord Dalhousie, who was the Governor General of the East India Company in India between 1848 and 1856. However, it was articulated by the Court of Directors of the East India Company as early as 1847 and several smaller states had already been annexed under this doctrine before Dalhousie took over the post of Governor-General. Dalhousie used the policy most vigorously and extensively, though, so it is generally associated with him.
At the time of its adoption, the East India Company had imperial administrative jurisdiction over wide regions of the subcontinent. The company took over the princely states of Satara (1848), Jaitpur and Sambalpur(1849), Bhagat (1850), Udaipur (1852), Jhansi (1854), Nagpur (1854), Tore and Arcot (1855) under the terms of the doctrine of lapse. Awadh (1856) is widely believed to have been annexed under the Doctrine of Lapse. However, it was annexed by Lord Dalhousie under the pretext of mis-governance. Mostly claiming that the ruler was not ruling properly, the Company added about four million pounds sterling to its annual revenue by this doctrine. Udaipur State would have local rule reinstated by the EIC in 1860.
With the increasing power of the East India Company, discontent simmered among many sections of Indian society, included disbanded soldiers; these rallied behind the deposed dynasties during the Indian Rebellion of 1857, also known as the Sepoy Mutiny. Following the rebellion, in 1858, the new British Viceroy of India, whose rule replaced that of the East India Company, renounced the doctrine.
The princely state of Kittur ruled by Queen Chennamma was taken over by the East India Company in 1824 by imposing a 'doctrine of lapse'. So it is debatable whether it was devised by Lord Dalhousie in 1848, though he arguably made it official by documenting it.
Dalhousie's annexations and the doctrine of lapse had caused suspicion and uneasiness among most ruling princes in India.
Dalhousie vigorously applied the lapse doctrine for annexing Indian princely states, but the policy was not solely his invention. The Court of Directors of the East India Company had articulated this early in 1834. As per this policy, the Company annexed Mandvi in 1839, Kolaba and Jalaun in 1840 and Surat in 1842.
The Doctrine of lapse was widely considered illegitimate by many Indians. By 1848, the British had immense power in India, since they were the de facto rulers of territories such as Mysore, Bengal, Odisha, Bihar, as well as the princely states of Rajasthan, Sind, Patiala, Carnatic, Bombay, Nabha, Kapurtala and many others.
The rulers of the remaining provinces which had not been annexed yet by the British did not stand a chance against their mighty forces. Not willing to spend huge amounts of money and soldiers, the Indian rulers had no option but to give in to this policy. This caused increased resentment against the British Empire in India, which was one of the causes of the Uprising of 1857.
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After Indian independence in 1947, the Indian government continued to recognize the status of former princely families though their states had been integrated into India. Members of the former ruling families were granted monetary compensation in the form of privy purses, which were annual payments in support of the grantees, their families, and their households. In 1947, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel proposed the unity of India under the government's rule.
In 1964, Maharaja Rajendra Prakash of Sirmur, the last recognized former ruler of Sirmur State, died without either leaving male issue or adopting an heir before his death, though his senior widow subsequently adopted her daughter's son as the successor to the family headship. The Indian government, however, decided that in consequence of the ruler's death, the constitutional status of the family had lapsed. The doctrine of lapse was likewise invoked the following year when the last recognized ruler of Akalkot State died in similar circumstances.