For a federal polity

Published : May 12, 2001 00:00 IST

Unfederal Features of Indian Constitution by Aladi Aruna; Mathivanan Publications, Chennai; pages xv+616; Rs. 495, $ 25.

THE nation-state has offered the primary framework to organise most of the world's affairs. One's "survival, well-being, identity and freedom" have all been wrapped up in being a citizen of a particular country. Although nation-states have been reasonably successful in providing a binding social order to humanity, they have largely failed the citizens in some crucial areas. One of them is the expression of socio-economic-political aspirations of local cultures. The centralised, repressive state often tends to suppress it.

Consequently, there is a struggle worldwide to rediscover the state. There is a general trend now among nationality groups to reclaim cultural identities and reconnect them to the world by creating an autonomous or separate polity. These nationality groups, while yearning for self-determination, often look for some loose supportive structures. The need for wider, less assertive structures of authority based on broader political values is deeply felt. Concurrently, another political project is taking shape. Some nation-states such as the Western European countries, Nordic countries, and South-East Asian states are trying to form cohesive regional communities or unions.

These opposing trends of "state-breaking" and "state-building" leave one wondering if some drastic changes are in the offing in the Indian political organisation. Concentrating on the challenging case of India, Aladi Aruna's book Unfederal Features of Indian Constitution advocates a middle position in the above dilemma. The book shuns both the disintegration of India and the burdensome centralisation. Aruna, Minister of Law in the Tamil Nadu government and a senior leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), echoes his party's line: "Autonomy for the States; federation at the Centre."

This book is the latest contribution of the Dravidian political movement in Tamil Nadu to the ongoing debate on Centre-State relations. One of the pet themes of the DMK, it appeared in the party's 1967 election manifesto and in the speeches of the party's founder and first Chief Minister (1967-69), C. N. Annadurai. The DMK government headed by M. Karunanidhi set up in September 1969 the Rajamannar Committee, which sought the views of the majority of national and State-level leaders in the three branches of the state (the legislature, the executive and the judiciary) on Centre-State relations. Based on this Committee's report, which was submitted in May 1971, Karunanidhi himself moved a resolution in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly in April 1974 and had it passed after a five-day discussion. Ever since, State autonomy has been a major ideological issue of the DMK as well as its breakaway groups such as the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK).

The main objective of the book, as declared by the author, is to delineate the unfederal and anti-federal features of the Indian Constitution and highlight "the extent to which our Constitution is an antithesis of true federal constitutionalism or constitutional principles". The author points out that both the executive head of a State (Governor) and the head of the State judiciary (Chief Justice of the High Court) are appointed by the Union government from outside the concerned State and these officials remain under the Union government's control. The third wing of the State government is not quite free either. The Chief Minister, his Cabinet and the entire State Assembly, duly elected by the people, can be thrown out of power by Article 356 of the Constitution.

Aladi Aruna describes in exhaustive detail in six chapters "the imperialistic powers being enjoyed by the Union". Some of the unfederal features that have been taken up for closer scrutiny include Articles 200 and 201 of the Constitution, which deal with the Governor and the President giving assent to a Bill passed by a State legislature, and Article 356 "which empowers one elected government to remove another elected government; one sovereign legislature to overthrow another sovereign authority." The author further contends that the Constitution-makers have adopted a discriminatory policy in providing powers to the President, who is elected by an electoral college, and to the Governor, who is appointed by the President. He concludes that "they have favoured a titular head for the Centre but a titanic head for the State".

The author also complains that the Centre has been provided with more revenue sources to make the States fall in line with its policies and principles. Similarly, he finds fault with the authoritarianism of the judiciary over the States. For instance, he cites Article 141 of the Constitution, which establishes the supremacy of the Supreme Court by saying that "the law declared by the Supreme Court shall be binding on all courts within the territory of India". The verb "declared" implies the law-making role of the court, which would adversely affect the interests and powers of the States, he says.

Distinguishing a federation from a confederation, the author opts for the former. Confederation is "a kind of league of independent nations" but federation is "born out of the will of the people of the units with shared sovereignty". In other words, the Central government in a confederal set-up has no right to have direct contact with and control over the people but in a federal arrangement, the national government also administers and controls the people directly. The constituent units of a federation that desire to create a national government agree and assign certain powers to the national government voluntarily and retain the residuary powers with them. These units, according to Aruna, neither surrender their full sovereignty nor allow any loss of their independence for the sake of the union. Generally speaking, matters of national importance such as defence, foreign affairs, inter-State communications and currency would be assigned to the Union government and regional matters such as education, health, irrigation and forest could be the State government's domain.

At the broader theoretical level, federalism, Aruna posits, has four essential characteristics. The first is "the recognition of two governments, one at the Centre and the other at the Provinces". The second feature is the clear demarcation of power between the Centre and the States. The third requirement of federalism is a written Constitution whose provisions are binding on the Central and State governments. And the fourth is independence of the judiciary, which may have to deal with cases between the national government and provincial governments and also among provincial governments. A simple Centre-State binary could be misleading in this day and age when two other powerful forces are also at work.

While globalisation brings in multinational corporations, global financial institutions, foreign governments and other such global actors into the picture and put new demands on the Central and State governments, many Central and State governments around the world are also boldly embarking upon devolutionary programmes and policies such as the panchayati raj. Do these developments not affect the Centre-State relationship in new ways? Does "autonomy" not have to be looked at from a few more angles now? For instance, why do municipal and panchayat officials tend to use the same language and tone that the State governments often use to address the Central government?

Although the book discusses the heavy political, economic and legal costs of backbreaking centralisation and the effects of unfederal and anti-federal aspects of the Indian Constitution in these spheres of national life, it strangely leaves out the socio-cultural realm. The pet issues of the DMK, national language and reservation, have not even been mentioned.

Lucidly written and coherently argued, this book is definitely a useful addition to the debate on Centre-State relations. The book that problematises some of the broader thematic issues as well as a few specific constitutional technicalities is not by any means a string of moans and groans. In fact, valuable suggestions and recommendations are strewn all over the book. Had some of the historical digressions, sensational exaggerations ("invasions of the Centre", for example), and the DMK affectations been avoided, the book would have been even more interesting.

S. P. Udayakumar is the Director of South Asian Community Centre for Education and Research (, Chennai.

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