Indirect British rule in the subcontinent

ByZoya Ansari

Designation: She has a good deal of teaching experience and possesses a keen historical sense


November 26, 2022

Indirect British rule in the subcontinent

Zoya talks about a novel system of governance

Though Indirect British rule in the subcontinent through indirect means was never a novel means of governance but the way it was practiced by the British in the subcontinent was quite exceptional as they ruled yet remained mostly hidden from public eye with the local rulers seen doing their bidding. The need for resorting to such rule arose because the British rule always remained a minority rule and, unlike previous foreign rulers, they never assimilated themselves within the local milieu. With expansion of their rule they realised the limitations of manpower particularly after the eruption of mutiny of 1857 that perpetually damaged the trust they had in the indigenous manpower they had hired during their expansion. They concluded that they could only manage their Indian Empire through military fiscalism and indirect rule on areas as much as possible.

The alternative to direct rule known as political residencies that became a vital part of British Raj gradually emerged and remained constant till the end of British dominion. After 1857 residencies became symbolic of new relationships between the British and the princely states that were given fresh lease of life as they supported the British during the turmoil. During the course of time the residency system held sway over some 550 substantial Indian states covering approximately two-fifth of the subcontinent. The British fully realised that ruling through indirect means was the only alternative available to them and they exercised it with tremendous prudence and dexterity.

From the outset the British maintained that it was impossible to achieve a precise definition of the paramountcy they exercised over the Indian states. The treaties which had been concluded could never be regarded as definitive simply because no such agreement could survive indefinitely in its original form. In order to deal with changing needs and circumstances a body of political practice or usage was gradually built up. Such usage was employed primarily to promote imperial interests and to supply imperial needs, as in the case of laws relating to the construction of roads and railways and the development of commercial policy and frequently new principles established in relations with one state were subsequently taken to apply to all states.

To ensure their control, the British adopted and perfected the mechanism of the subsidiary alliance implying that in return for a tribute or subsidy or the lease of productive territories, they engaged to support a ruler against his enemies and to maintain their own troops in his lands as garrisons. The first major Indian princely state tied to this system was Awadh whose Nawab Shuja-ud-Daula, agreed to a subsidiary treaty in 1765. These types of schemes were to be adopted many times over the whole subcontinent in the next half century as a mode of securing a stable frontier for British commercial interests and payment for British troops. This system was replicated later with the difference that the local rulers were singularly turned into puppet rulers who did what they were advised by the British residents to do.

It was not given any credence that in practice alliances put intolerable strains on fragile Indian states whose rulers were never certain of their revenue. Shortfalls in subsidiary payments faced the British with mutinies among their own unpaid troops and led to annexation in order to stabilise the financial situation. The British gave the title of resident to their representative in a state denoting their peculiar role as the ultimate paramount power simply because as a commercial company it could not appoint full ambassadors or deal with sovereigns on the basis of de jure equality.

Appointing a resident had advantages to the Company not only of lower cost but also of raising fewer questions of ceremony and precedence. Although official policy called for intervention in external, not internal, affairs of states, in fact residents followed Company interests above all others and on occasions engaged in deep intervention in domestic matters and the resident played a major role in the state administration. There emerged a situation whereby under a dominant resident the relationship between resident and ruler was reversed though whenever suited internal intervention was minimal. The situation was always fraught with danger because inflated egos could exacerbate situation on the ground but such volatility was always taken for granted and required precautions were included in the manual of procedures given at the disposal of respective residencies.

The residency became an extremely attractive mode of employment for the employees of the British civil servants whether employed in the civil service or the army. With the passage of time the number and scope of residents increased dramatically with residents guiding the states into running their affairs. The residents understood that service in a residency could prove the key to British success as well as their own. The service in this respect was generally split into three areas: political, judicial and revenue out of which the political was much the most attractive. After 1858, however, much of the appeal of the political line faded when routine replaced dynamism and glamour, as a result of the new British policy of stabilised relations with the Indian states.

A clear change in indirect rule could be gleaned from the fact that after 1858, the British government resolved to make the remaining states bastions of loyalty to the British monarch through indirect rule as they were the ones who could realise that their survival was essentially dependent upon British support through military means. The British also withdrew somewhat from earlier efforts to reform Indian society that they thought were against the grain of Indian perception and was not amenable to persuasion, and therefore, from the need for direct rule. By ensuring the loyalty of India’s princes and the continuity of its traditional institutions – primarily through the careful guidance of residents – the British Empire was intended to be eternal. Instead of dynamic changes in the relationship between them and the princes, therefore, residents were expected to guarantee stability as much as possible.

The success of the residency system however was based upon the fact that throughout the process, there remained the underlying assumption that there was a legitimacy attached to the princes as a whole, even if such legitimacy was overridden by the circumstances of the day resultantly on most occasions the British attempted to preserve a local ruler under indirect rule. Where they deposed an incumbent they continued to accord him titles, dignity and an appropriate pension even in exile. The Company restored most of the defeated rulers to their thrones and where it deposed a particular ruler, he was usually replaced with a relative.

On the one hand the British tended towards indirect rule with a respect for India’s hereditary rulers, which required a relatively low investment of manpower and money and on the other the British felt an obligation to provide moral and efficient administration for the people. The Company attempted to isolate states from each other by inserting residents as an exclusive medium for political communication. Residents negotiated treaties binding most rulers to communicate officially with each other only through residencies and British surveillance over rulers and courts established an enforced monopoly on interstate political communication. TW

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