Lord Dalhousie redux

Indians are regarded as being short on historical memory. But they more than make up for it by being long on tradition. That could be one reason why the BJP has reinvented Lord Dalhousie’s Doctrine of Lapse. It was a device to take over more territory.

Everyone thought the doctrine had been abandoned in 1890, when it was used for the last time. No such luck.

It was reincarnated in the Government of India Act of 1935. The gora babu felt it was all very well to empower the natives but, you know, within reason.

And, since our Constitution’s genes are descended from it, it was preserved as Article 356 in it. It allows the Centre to discipline pesky states.

It was Indira Gandhi, actually, who exhumed the lapsed Doctrine of Lapse in 1976 via Article 356. She dismissed the DMK government in Tamil Nadu for misbehaviour. 

After that the Centre dangled Lord Dalhousie’s skeleton before state governments for 18 years. Then in 1994 the Supreme Court’s Bommai judgment reinterred it for good.

Now the BJP has come up with V2 of the Dalhousie Doctrine, which allows incompetence to be invoked as a reason. To understand this a brief tutorial is in order.

Dalhousie’s dodge 

By the mid-1800s, the East India Company was running huge swathes of India. But India had had its revenge. It made the Company bankrupt by about 1800. So it was in constant need of money. 

That meant taking over more land for the revenue from it. The annexation of Awadh, it might be noted, added around four million pounds per year to British revenue. 

The idea was also to unify the currency. The British had issued their first coins in 1835 to minimise the conversion costs of the various Indian coins. It was, if you like, a weak version of demonetisation which failed.

But nothing helped. So in 1847 Lord Dalhousie, who was regarded as being a nuisance in English politics, was sent to India as Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief.

Like the present government, he worked for 16 to 18 hours a day in the furtherance of the Company’s cause. He had but one goal: To expand Company rule in India.

Towards this end, he revived a policy that had first been used by Company Bahadur’s directors in 1834. Dalhousie told Indian rajas that if they were stupid enough to die without a male heir, their kingdom would lapse to the Company.

This was firmly grounded in British common law, which said that if someone died without a male heir, the property was automatically transferred to the Crown. As India was a British possession, the law applied here as well.

The medieval name for this law was escheat. No pun was intended. It derives from a Latin word which refers to a feudal estate “falling out” of the possession of the owner. The practice was finally abolished only in 1925.

In India, between 1834 and 1856, around 35 of these little and big kingdoms were taken over. But unlike in England, for India the absence of a male heir was not the only criterion. Incompetence was also a reason for annexation. Dalhousie merely removed the ‘es’ from escheat.

But that wasn’t all. Competence or its absence was decided by the Company, depending on the need for money. Wajid Ali Shah of “the Oude” was adjudged incompetent by Dalhousie and since he had no male heir, the Oude was taken over. 

As mentioned earlier, his territory yielded four million pounds annually to the British, more than enough to justify Colonel Outram’s outrageous conduct. 

BJP’s reason

The reason I mention all this is that ever since the BJP pulled off its coup in Bihar, its spokespersons have been invoking a version of the incompetence clause against the Congress.

“Do you expect us to twiddle our thumbs while the Congress gets its act together,” they have been asking TV anchors. Vide Dalhousie duty has been inserted into political morality.

Ergo, never mind voters’ preferences. Just go in and stage a perfectly constitutional coup whereby even if you lost the election, you still get to form the government.

Duckworth and Lewis are also English. Their rule allows a team to win a cricket match after losing it. No appeal is allowed.

But the rule is contingent on rain disrupting the game. It now looks as if we have our very own Duckworth-Lewis rule now. No appeal is permitted here, either. 

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