Federalism and its alternatives

Although there is a natural tendency in India’s political culture in favour of a federalist style of thinking, the Constitution has been rightly constructed by political theorists as basically unitary, qualified by some federalist features.

Published : Nov 21, 2018 12:30 IST

The Constituent Assembly in session.

The Constituent Assembly in session.

A DEFINING moment in the history of the new republic of India came when the Constituent Assembly discussed the issue whether India should have a federal or a unitary constitution. Probably a similar moment is looming in the horizon when we look at the prospect of the general election within a year from now. The question facing India today is not merely a matter of the choice facing political parties, between forming an alliance ( gathbandhan ) or going it alone. The implications extend beyond such electoral tactics. Since the adoption of the Indian Constitution, scholars have puzzled over its character—is it unitary or federal, is it a centralised power system qualified by federal features or the other way around? These are some characterisations that have been suggested.

The question that demands attention now is whether the time has come to rethink the present mix between a federal and a centralised political system. That is to say, we need to rethink the historical change. We should rethink the conceptual approach that originally determined the judgement of the Constituent Assembly in the days immediately following Independence. The factors were as follows: (a) The inertia to stay within the guidelines set by British Indian legislation, such as the Government of India Acts of 1909, 1919 and 1935, and the nationalist discourse in response to such legislation. (b) The possibility of the princely states not opting in 1947 for union with the Indian republic. (c) The divisive impact of the recent history of communal conflict and riots of the 1940s on popular mentality obviously influenced political leaders’ choice in favour of a strong central authority that would stand for political unity. Congress leaders such as Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel strongly opposed inimical action by some princely states so as to save the territorial integrity of the new republic.

For the above reasons, the issue of federalism needs to be considered not only from the angle of electoral strategy for political parties but also as an issue in constitutional thinking. The relevant issues belong to three different domains. The first is the domain of the practitioners in politics or the political leadership. The second is the domain of political and constitutional thinkers. Beyond that there is a third domain to consider in pursuit of the idea of federalism. And that is the domain of the historian.

Tagore’s & India’s unity

The history of the freedom struggle in the late 19th and early 20th centuries demonstrates that the Indian nationalist movement was thinkable only in terms of an idea of national unity, or the conception of a composite culture that overcame differences. One of the architects of this cornerstone of Indian constitutional thinking was, needless to say, Jawaharlal Nehru, who was inspired by Rabindranath Tagore’s concept regarding India’s unity. Tagore was one of the earliest nationalist thinkers to apply his mind to the question, What united India, a country divided by religious beliefs and languages and ethnicity and loyalties to regional traditions?

Tagore’s answer, in a little-known article in 1902, was as follows: “We can see that the aim of Bharatvarsha has always been to establish unity amidst differences, to bring to a convergence different paths, and to internalise within her soul the unity of the severalty, that is to say to comprehend the inner union between externally perceptible differences without eliminating the uniqueness of each element…. Bharatvarsha has endeavoured to tie up diversities in a relationship. If there be genuine differences, it is possible to accommodate in its appropriate place such differences. You cannot legislate unity into existence. Elements which cannot assimilate need to be recognised and put in their appropriate separate places…. Bharatavarsha knew the secret of this mode of unification…. Bharatvarsha limited the conflict between opposing and competing elements in society by keeping them separate and at the same time engaged in a common task that brought diverse elements together…” (“Bharatvarsher Itihas” (The history of India), Bangadarshan , 1902, see R. Tagore, Itihas , pages 10-11).

This idea of unity within diversity became a central feature of the nationalist approach to the issue of Indian unity. In the Constituent Assembly, the makers of the Constitution used the concept of a composite culture repeatedly. The conceptualisation of India as a syncretic civilisation gave birth to the idea of a “composite culture” characteristic of India. (I draw upon my recent book, Talking Back: The Idea of Civilisation in the Indian Nationalist Discourse , OUP, 2011.) In the Constituent Assembly, that idea was invoked in incorporating in the Constitution a foundational principle “wherein adequate safeguards shall be provided for minorities, backward and tribal areas, and depressed and other backward classes” and in securing “freedom of thought, expression, belief, faith, worship” as well as other safeguards against infringement of the rights of citizens and other constituent elements in the Indian nation. Nehru, in proposing the above resolution on the fifth day of the Assembly, said that it was part of “the high adventure of giving shape, in the printed and written word, to a Nation’s dream and aspiration” ( Constituent Assembly Debates , Volume I, page 5). Debates in the Constituent Assembly on the question of Hindi as rashtrabhasha also brought to centre stage the concept of a composite culture.

The constitution makers searched for the key to national unity and their answer was the formula of composite culture. This was clearly in recognition of the autonomy and individuality of each element in that composite culture, each identity being perceived in terms of language, religion, community, ethnicity, etc. That approach to the idea of unity in diversity accommodated a federalist style of thinking.

However, when the constitution makers turned to the issue of distribution of political power, the issue of choosing between centralisation and federalisation, the formula they adopted tended to lean towards centralisation or a unitary constitution. Thus, we face a paradox of huge importance. On the one hand, there was a strong emphasis on the autonomy of each in the individual component culture, while on the other, the constitutional formula for the distribution of political power had a centralising or unitary bias to the detriment of autonomies. This is an inconsistency that can be explained historically. In the days when the Constitution was being made, many political leaders feared that the very idea of India was endangered.

If the princely states took away from the incipient Indian republic large chunks of the population living in Hyderabad or Kashmir or Travancore and Cochin or the Punjab princely states, etc., for whom was the Constituent Assembly writing a constitution? What would remain of India if there was no strong central authority to settle issues in disputes between religious communities or linguistic groups or regions? These were the concerns that compelled the makers of the Constitution to make room for a strong central government in a unitary constitution. Further, the constitution makers used extensively the provisions inherited from British Indian legislation in respect of law and order, the centralised command structure, and the subordination of fractional interests to the larger interests of the Indian empire. These laws and regulations in pre-independent India were strongly in favour of a system of centralised power suitable for an alien power ruling over an empire, a system that was easily translated into a unitary constitution for the Republic of India.

Hence, we see that because of certain historical circumstances the Constitution contains a bias towards centralisation, although the very idea of Indian unity accommodated autonomy of component elements in a composite culture constituting India. There is a huge paradox here. Arguably, history shows that there is a natural proclivity in India’s political culture towards the autonomy of the constituent elements, that is, a tendency in favour of a federalist style of thinking. The conflict between the natural tendency and the rigidity of the written Constitution evinced itself in debates between the proponents of central authority and those of a more federalised distribution of power, which led to various efforts for reconciliation such as the Sarkaria Commission and to constitutional amendments.

Historical evidence

Of the many historical instances, one springs to mind. Some contemporary observers—for example, Abul Mansur Ahmad, the Secretary of the Bengal Muslim League, who was involved in the process of Partition in 1947—believed that East Pakistan was conceived originally as a part of a federation of autonomous provinces. The resolution on Pakistan proposed by Bengal’s erstwhile Chief Minister A.K. Fazlul Haq (1873-1962) at the Lahore session of the Muslim League in 1940 mentioned East Bengal as a future member of Pakistan along with other provinces with a Muslim majority in population. The important feature of the resolution was that Pakistan was represented as a plurality, as a collection of several provinces. This resolution drafted by Fazlul Haq and passed with acclamation by the Lahore session of the Muslim League was distorted and misinterpreted in the years immediately preceding 1947. While Fazlul Haq had proposed a federal Pakistan with autonomous provinces including Bengal, later Mohammad Ali Jinnah and his followers like M.A. Ispahani deliberately distorted the resolution during the deliberations of the Muslim League on the eve of Partition. Jinnah’s object was to emphasise the unitary character of Pakistan as opposed to the emphasis on federal autonomy in Fazlul Haq’s original resolution.

There is an interesting anecdote in Abul Mansur Ahmad’s memoirs. The details of the incident vary in different versions, but the substance of the story is the same and is as follows. When the resolution on Pakistan was moved in the Lahore session by Fazlul Haq, the Bengal leaders in the Muslim League formed the impression that they were voting in favour of a federal constitution. This belief was founded on the wording of the resolution, which mentioned different parts (in plural) of the state to be reconstructed as Pakistan. According to Abul Mansur Ahmad, in the months leading to the creation of Pakistan, he pointed out to Jinnah that the original resolution had mentioned parts (in plural) of Pakistan with the aim of creating a federal Pakistan. But Jinnah’s lobby rejected the idea that the original intention behind Fazlul Haq’s resolution was to project Pakistan as a result of the union of several parts in a federal structure. (An account of the politics of those times can be reconstructed from Abul Hashim, In Retrospection ; Abul Mansur Ahmad, Amar Dekha Rajnitir Panchas Bachhar ; M.A. Ispahani, Quaid-i-Azam Jinnah As I Knew Him .)

The substance of the anecdote was that to the astonishment of Abul Hashim, Jinnah said that there was a typing error in the copy of the 1940 resolution of Fazlul Huq. Jinnah on the basis of his own reading presented a resolution bereft of the original notion of a loose federation of autonomous provinces of British India as the future Pakistan. Thus, the original proposal for Pakistan had come from Fazlul Haq in the form of a loose federation of autonomous provinces, but the one the League acted upon in 1946-47 was a distorted version that projected a unitary and not a federal constitution.

The federalist approach was prominent in the political strategy of the Congress leader Chittaranjan Das in his brief meteoric rise to leadership. Not only did he uphold the claim of Bengal to autonomous decision-making within or without the Indian National Congress, but he also asserted the same claim on behalf of all provinces, especially those that differed from the central leadership of the Congress. Chittaranjan Das’ views in this regard were moulded by the Congress politics of those times, in particular the conflict between the “no changers” and the “pro-changers”. In fact, in his last political testament—his speech at the Bengal Provincial Conference on May 2, 1925, a few weeks before his death—Chittaranjan Das was forthright in proclaiming the federalist faith. He declared that there was no clash between Bengali regional patriotism and a more broadly conceived Indian nationalism.

“Nationalism is merely a process of self-realisation, self-development and self-fulfilment. It is not an end in itself…. It seeks a Federation of the States of India; each free to follow, as it must follow, the culture and the tradition of its own people; each bound to each in the common service of all; a great federation within a greater federation, the federation of free nations….” (C.R. Das, Speech at Provincial Conference, Faridpur, May 2, 1925, as quoted in N.C. Ghosh, Chittajayee Chittaranjan , page 336). There can be no doubt that if Chittaranjan Das had not died in 1925, he would have followed the political agenda of federalism.

A federalist way of thinking is reflected in two ways. One way is the institution of federalist features in the Constitution, rules and regulations. The other way is not to institute any formal rule but to create a political culture that accommodates pluralism. In the 1920s and 1930s, we see the second of these two processes in evolution. The 1920s witnessed the representation of the Indian National Congress in that light. A federalist culture is reflected in a new interpretation of the role of the Congress. This interpretation was that the presence of different political groups, each with its own approach, was compatible with a conception of the Congress party as a forum for many views and action programmes. As early as 1920, Mahatma Gandhi had envisaged the evolution of the National Congress into a conglomerate of parties or at least as a forum impartially allowing representation of all divergent views.

Gandhi made a significant statement in Young India in this regard: “Hitherto, the Congress has represented only one party, but it cannot be kept any longer as a one party organisation if it is not to have seceders from it on an increasing scale from year to year. Measures must be devised whereby all parties can be represented on it and the annual assembly can retain its truly national character” (“The Congress”, Young India , January 7, 1920). And again: “The Congress must, if it is to serve the country, more and more tend to represent not one view but many” (“The Reform Resolution in the Congress”, Young India , January 14, 1920). Gandhi regarded the Working Committee as a sort of executive arm reflecting the majority opinion, while “the Congress represents the whole nation”, and may therefore have every view and all parties (“The Working Committee and its Functions”, Young India , June 29, 1921).

In April 1920, after accepting the presidentship of the Home Rule League, he issued a statement elaborating on his idea of the “no-party” national character of the Congress: “I do not consider the Congress as a party organisation, even as the British Parliament, though it contains all parties... is not a party organisation” (B. Pattabhi Sitaramayya, History of the Indian National Congress , Madras, page 326).

In the late 1920s, one can see the Congress leadership groping towards the following political position: the Indian National Congress was not just a political party but a movement subsuming a conglomeration of political formations ranging from the smallest voluntary association to full-fledged parties. To the extent that it functioned as a party, it would adopt a liberal stance, an openness to other political parties. Only then could it serve its higher purpose, to represent the political will and unity of the nation as a whole. In April 1927, the Maharashtra Provincial Congress Committee adopted a significant resolution: “Congress should aspire to act not as a propagandist for one particular view of national salvation, much less for any particular interests in the country. It should be... taking upon itself the duty and the responsibility of reconciling as far as possible the growing conflict of different interests in India. The Congress should be in itself... an arbitration board for this special purpose. Congress will retain the respect and love of Indian people as a whole only if it puts herself on that higher plane” (AICC Papers, file no. G-39 (iii)11927, Resolution of Maharashtra Provincial Congress Executive Committee, April 3, 1927).

It is interesting to see similar views voiced in Bengal about the same time. “The Congress is the main agency for the unification of the nation. Congress will unite under its flag all the people of all classes in India by providing equal protection of interest to all.” The Congress was thus to spearhead the struggle for political independence, which was also a struggle against foreign economic exploitation, and this had to be given primacy over all other struggles ( Atmashakti , Calcutta, August 24, 1928).

Explosion in journalism

We have highlighted some important instances of a federalist approach in the political discourse. What explains this federalist turn in the 1920s? It is notable that it coincided with an explosion in Indian journalism. Unfortunately, the subject is studied in fragments, such as Bengali journalism, Marathi newspapers, and so forth. If one takes a comparative view, one notices that the foundations of journalism were laid in the 1920s. In 1920, Aaj in Hindi and Navakal in Marathi; in 1922, Ananda Bazar Patrika in Bengali; and in 1923, Mathrubhumi in Malayalam and Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar in Gujarati, all these major newspapers began their life within a span of three years. This sudden jump in the number of vernacular newspapers reflects a new demand for news and political opinion leadership because of a new factor in Indian politics: the expansion in franchise brought about by the Government of India Act, 1919. That law lowered the qualifications, particularly qualification in terms of property rights, of rate of tax payments, etc., for those who could vote. In consequence, the number of voters in India increased by about five lakhs in the first five years after it was passed. This was one of the findings of an inquiry committee headed by Sir C. Sankaran Nair in 1929 (Sir Sankaran Nair, Chairman, Report of the Central Committee on Franchise, Calcutta).

In choosing between the federal idea and its opposite, our attempt to understand the issue facing us will be limited unless we go beyond the domain of politicians deciding electoral strategy to the wider domain of the political scientist addressing constitutional questions, and to the still wider domain where we need to consider the conflict between a conception of composite culture and a highly centralised power structure institutionalised by the Constitution.

To sum it up, in the political discourse in India in the decades before Independence, we have evidence of a line of thinking that was federalist in tone. A point that needs to be made is that we must recognise that a distinction may be made between what one may call the federalist style of thinking and federalism in its institutional forms. The federalist style of thinking was not adequately reflected in the Constitution that the Constituent Assembly put together. It has been rightly constructed by political theorists as basically a unitary Constitution, qualified by some federalist features. Perhaps, historians have not paid sufficient attention to some questions. Why was the impact of the federalist style of thinking limited in the last years before the creation of the Indian republic? How did a unitary constitution become the model? That is another story. And we may return to it soon.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment