Federalism and its alternatives-2

A look at what motivated the leaders of nationalist or subnationalist movements to waver between the federal and unitary models of a constitution and eventually choose a predominantly unitary one.

Published : Dec 19, 2018 12:30 IST

December 29, 1948: After the accession to India of the princely state of Hyderabad and Berar, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru; Asaf Jah VII, the last Nizam of the state; and then Major General Jayanto Nath Chaudhuri, who served as the Military Governor of Hyderabad state from 1948 to 1949.

December 29, 1948: After the accession to India of the princely state of Hyderabad and Berar, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru; Asaf Jah VII, the last Nizam of the state; and then Major General Jayanto Nath Chaudhuri, who served as the Military Governor of Hyderabad state from 1948 to 1949.

A T one time a favourite question in the public service examination was, Is the Constitution of the Indian republic unitary or federal? Variances of this question appeared in various guises and that tendency was enhanced by the opinion of authorities in political science who gave ambiguous answers. For example, a common answer was that the Constitution since the 1950s has been unitary with some federal features, or that it has been federal with unitary characteristics.

The failure to give an unambiguous answer to the question is due to, among other reasons, the fact that political leaders and thinkers in India swayed like a pendulum between the unitary and federal models. In the 1920s, Chittaranjan Das in Bengal and Motilal Nehru in Uttar Pradesh within the Indian National Congress, and in the Muslim League crucially important leaders such as A.K. Fazlul Haq, the erstwhile Chief Minister of undivided Bengal in the 1930s, were inclined towards the federal model. Again in the 1940s, various regional leaders based in Bombay (now Mumbai) and Calcutta (now Kolkata) displayed similar tendencies. They ultimately managed to reach a consensus in 1946-47.

The question that we need to address is, what motivated the leaders of nationalist or subnationalist movements to waver between the federal and unitary models and eventually choose a predominantly unitary constitution? Why did the federalist leaders fail to keep their followers faithful to the federalist line? Further, earlier, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, why did the proponents of the unitary constitution fail to attract more adherents to join the battle for a unionist model?

Princely states

A part of the answer to this question may be found in the history of the relationship between the princely states and the government of India from 1858 to 1947. That relationship was determined by the provisions of the treaties, agreements and conventions developed through practice and diplomatic precedence. The complex knowledge of that relationship supposedly resided in the so-called “Foreign Political Department” of the Government of India, staffed by officers specially trained for that purpose.

The Political Department was the repository of all the rules governing the relationship between His Majesty’s government and each princely state. The assumption was that the princely states were independent entities but their sovereign rights were suspended and vested in His Majesty’s government’s hands. It was also assumed that upon termination of the treaties, agreements, and so on, sovereignty would revert to the original sovereigns, that is, the princely states. The reversion of sovereignty was merely a matter of theory, and the actual right to rule was exercised by the British India government to the extent it desired. This was the theoretical basis of the relationship between His Majesty’s government and the princely states. The grant of independence to India would naturally mean the termination of the above arrangement.

The prospect of such a termination opened up the possibility of a new relationship between (a) an independent princely state and the Government of India within the republic, (b) the merger of a princely state with the Indian republic and (c) merger with Pakistan.

As regards the first of these alternatives, there were very few princely states that were large enough or strong enough to aim at an independent status, and in any event they could be pressured by India or Pakistan to join either of them. Only in a few instances did Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel have to resort to pressure tactics. It is quite unnecessary to chronicle that history. It suffices to say that by and large the outcome of this process was that the British Indian theory of sovereignty was honoured, and with one or two exceptions accessions of princely states with India or Pakistan coincided with the proportion of the Hindu or Muslim population.

Exaggerated views on disintegration

There is a certain tendency in the media today to exaggerate the possibility of the disintegration of India in 1947 with the refusal of the princely states to join the new republic of India or their secession. There is no doubt that, to his credit, Vallabhbhai Patel stood firm against pressures from all quarters and ensured the accession of the princely states, whose princes were viewed with suspicion, and in those times his success earned him immense popular support.

However, how real was the apprehension of the possibility of the princely states declaring their independence? We must remember that they were systematically demilitarised by the British Indian government. An essential condition forced upon them was the absence of any army. A princely state was rightly described as a “protectorate”; it was assured of protection by the British government of India, and in turn the it gave up its sovereign right to maintain a military force. Further, access to arms was almost as difficult for the population in princely states as it was for native subjects in British Indian territory under the Arms Act from the1870s.

On the whole, the fear of resistance to accession to the Indian republic was greatly exaggerated and was based on slender evidence. Secondly, the few states that might have been inclined to join Pakistan were isolated and, with the exception of Kashmir, had no easy access to Pakistan.

Thirdly, the State People’s movement had isolated the princes from a substantial section of the population of the princely states. Congress leaders from the provincial level to Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru personally participated in the State People’s agitation. What is more, the autocracy and the immoral conduct of the heads of the princely states were unacceptable to the politically conscious observers in these states and in British India, so in the event of such a prince attempting resistance, he could not have expected much support from his subjects or from British India.

Above all, the fact hidden in the subtext in the documents of the period is that the government in New Delhi had been in control of the affairs of the princely states since the suppression of the great uprising of 1857. The Foreign Political Department in Delhi was in the controlling position, and the retention of sovereignty by the princely states was a matter of abstract theory that was easily set aside in favour of India in 1947.

Bias for centralisation

For all these reasons, it would be a mistake to exaggerate the significance of the few secessionist attempts on the part of the princely states in 1947.

The colonial state in India was also inclined to empower the central decision-making bodies in the Government of India rather than provincial authorities. This bias was institutionalised in the Government of India Acts of 1919 and 1935, which put in the hands of the Lieutenant Governors in the provinces, as representatives of the Governor General of India, the power to overrule and even to dismiss the governments under them and thereafter the power of governance passed into the hands of the central government. These provisions in the Government of India Act of 1919 were reproduced almost verbatim in the Act of 1935.

Again, in both Acts, the distribution of subjects between the central and provincial governments was heavily biased in favour of the central government. The above tendencies in the Government of India Acts occurred while changes within the Indian National Congress Party reinforced the same centralising tendency. The membership fee to the Congress Party was reduced to four annas (i.e., one-fourth of a rupee), and there was a huge growth in the numbers of Congressmen enrolled as full members of the party.

Moreover, the Congress set up provincial and district committees almost replicating the structure of the British Indian administration. As the Congress expanded and as the number of its members and functionaries at different district and provincial levels proliferated, the political presence of the Congress Party began to be felt at different levels: in committees supervising municipal councils, in school and college committees, in the directorship of banks and cooperative bodies of various kinds and various other public bodies. Thus, Congress members began to enter decision-making positions in public institutions, and many of them were nominated while smaller proportions were elected.

We must not forget that J.B. Kripalani, the president of the All India National Congress, declared at the Meerut Session in November 1946 that the constitution to be promulgated soon “will be a democratic constitution and will be federal in character” ( The Statesman , November 23, 1946). However, Kripalani qualified that statement and reminded his audience that centralisation of power was a necessity in respect of national economic interest and external and internal security. When B.R. Ambedkar presented the Draft Constitution to the Constituent Assembly, he described it as federal, though the word was not used in the Preamble to the Constitution. At the same time, the necessity of conceding the idea of a unitary constitution and centralisation was clear in the distribution of power.

Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, on the other hand, was in favour of small regional parties and believed that it was an error to make the Constitution federal because “it runs counter to the unity and indivisibility of Bharat”. In fact, it is tempting to hazard the guess that an ideology based on one-party rule would favour a unitary constitution. And as and when a party attains a position close to that, it would prefer a unitary constitution (or something close to that). Organiser, the mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh,upheld “the torch of undivided Bharat”, which was regarded by that journal as a major contribution of Upadhyaya (Organiser, April 6, 2016). In the context of Upadhyaya’s political philosophy, it was claimed by his followers that the fundamental principle of decentralisation was incomplete with the notion of a unitary constitution.

The Union Powers Committee of the Constituent Assembly observed: “We are unanimously of the view that it would be injurious to the interest of the country to provide a weak central authority which would be incapable of ensuring peace of coordinating vital matters of common concern and of speaking effectively for the whole country in the international space” ( Constituent Assembly Debates , Vol. II, page 657). The Union Constitution Committee decided that there should be three legislative lists and that residual matters should go to the union and not the States.

Ambedkar described the outcome of the negotiations between the idea of a unitary and a federal constitution very well as follows: “These provisions make the Indian Constitution both ‘Unitary as well as Federal’ according to the requirements of time and circumstances. In normal times, it is framed to work as a federal system. But in times of war, it is designed as to make it work as though it was a unitary system.”

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