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Evolution of federal India

Publication Date : 05-09-2012

 

I am sharing my thoughts on the Indian experience of federalism not in the hope that they prove instructive for the current debates in Nepal, but to provide the context and background of India’s democratic experiment, which includes federalism.  The nature of federalism in Nepal will necessarily have to conform to the genius and needs of the Nepali people.

India is a “Union of States” organised as a sovereign, secular, socialist, democratic republic. The Union is unalterable and inviolable, but not so the Indian States and their boundaries. The words, “federal” and “federalism” do not feature in the text of the constitution. Even so, as the 1994 judgement of the nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India clearly established, federalism is a basic feature of India’s Constitution. India’s States, according to the judgment, “are neither satellites nor agents of the Centre” and “have as important a role to play in the political, social, educational and cultural life of the people of the Union.”

The tussle between the power of the centre and the states has been a part of Indian federalism since the beginning.

Responding to the criticism that the draft Constitution had too much of centralisation, and that States had been reduced to municipalities, in his speech in the Constituent Assembly on Nov 25, 1949, the penultimate day before the adoption of the Constitution, the Chairman of the Drafting Committee, BR Ambedkar, clarified the fundamental principle on which rests the relationship between the Centre and the States:

“The basic principle of federalism is that the legislative and executive authority is partitioned between the Centre and the State not by any law to be made by the Centre but by the Constitution itself. This is what our Constitution does...The Centre cannot, by its own will, alter the boundary of that partition.  Nor can the judiciary.”

The overriding powers of the Union in times of a grave emergency arising in the country can turn India into a unitary State. But the invocation of these powers is confined only to extreme contingencies.

Federalism in India is not just a constitutional construct, it is a living and growing idea, whose progressive concretisation is intermediated by India’s evolution. The pluralist impulse in India has become stronger over time, and is now better subsumed and articulated within constitutional boundaries.

The State Restructuring Commission, set up in 1954, began the process of remaking the Indian Union from 1956. We now have 28 States and seven Union Territories. The States were variously constituted over time, on the basis of linguistic boundaries, ethnic identities, and as in the case of Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, regional and territorial backwardness.

The unitary bias in India’s Constitution comes from several sources. Given the trauma of partition and the challenge of integration of the princely states, including the outbreak of hostilities related to Jammu & Kashmir, maintenance of national integrity became an important priority for the members of our Constituent Assembly. The compulsion to create a centralised State was buttressed by the meltdown of administrative control and the inability to contain communal violence that accompanied India’s partition, as also the armed uprising in Telengana led by the Communist Party of India. The progressive social and economic outlook of the Indian National Congress also necessitated the centralised direction of government.

A longer term factor that worked towards India’s centralised federalism was the colonial subjugation of India by a singular power. It was natural that opposition to it would be expressed in terms of singularity of a united nation. Nationalist historians extolled the virtues of India’s historic unifiers and State builders, Ashoka and Akbar. There was an entrenched belief among people across India that the British prevailed and ruled over the country for so long because of India’s predisposition to disunity and the absence of nationalistic spirit. Indeed, in this respect, Nepal was seen as a contrast to India.

In Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote with a sense of admiration that Nepal was the only truly independent nation of South Asia. And, as the day of India’s independence drew closer, the national leaders became convinced that India could not possibly attain its true potential without effective direction being provided by a strong central government.

Two new factors have affected Indian federalism since the 1990s. The first is the politics of coalition that shapes the Union Government. The coalitions at the centre now comprise multiple regional parties. These small parties are critical to ensuring stability to the coalitions. Indeed, the national parties in India cannot hope to constitute a government without regional and local allies. As a consequence, the states of the Indian Union exercise a greater measure of autonomy than is allowed to them strictly on the basis of the division of powers provided in the Constitution.

Another significant change has come about as a consequence of the unshackling of the Indian economy, the deregulation of domestic business, the de-licensing of industry, and encouragement to investments. This has led to competition and differentiation among States which are increasingly asserting their autonomy in shaping their growth and development.

The Indian Constitution may not be a perfect text. It has, however, a distinct merit, that of its adjustable capacity by the facility of easily amending its provisions, to grow in accord with the contingencies of India’s evolution and the aspirations of its citizens. By ensuring that a problem in one or many States of the Union does not consume the country as a whole, the federal structure has helped maintain India’s unity and integrity. Indeed, India’s relative stability and progress would not have been possible without the institutions to promote democracy and federalism.

This is an adaptation of remarks by Indian Ambassador to Nepal Jayant Prasad at a conference on federalism jointly organised by Centre for South Asian Studies, Kathmandu, and Centre for Security Analysis, Chennai on August 30.

 

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