Federalism and its Discontents

The doctrine of states’ rights in India

01 February 2019
Buyenlarge / Getty Images
Buyenlarge / Getty Images

THE INDIAN CONSTITUTION IS A CURIOUS DOCUMENT. It begins with some perfunctory, if resonant, phrases about justice, liberty and equality before embarking upon a detailed outline of the institutions of the new state. Much of it is devoted to setting out mechanisms of power and methods of exercising it—the British state provides the template for parliamentary government; the American example is reflected in a federal arrangement, with power shared between the centre and states. There are significant differences: the 13 colonies that made up the United States enjoyed an independent existence long before the nation was born. In India, the nation-state comes first, and retains the power to reshape its units. The Rajya Sabha was created to represent their interests, with seats allocated roughly in proportion to population.

Federalism was to play a fundamental role in shaping the social and economic landscape of independent India. Designed to defuse potential conflicts arising out of the country’s heterogeneity, it rapidly acquired a second function—that of managing the pace and direction of social change in the interests of regional elites. This was a process marked by conflict and compromise: conflicts between upper and middle castes (ending, as such struggles tend to do, in an uneasy alliance), and concessions to plebeian castes and interest groups at different times and places. The purpose was not so much to inhibit change as to deflect it, to make sure the deeper roots of power and privilege remained undisturbed. It is this submerged aspect of federalism that forms the subject of my essay.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, debates about India focussed largely upon economic policy and the prospects of democracy. In the 1980s, as armed revolts erupted in Kashmir, Punjab and Assam, anxiety about the country’s long-term survival grew. In the 1990s, economic policy once again took centre stage as supporters and opponents of “liberalisation” wrangled, with the benefit of hindsight, over the appropriateness of Nehruvian economic strategies. As growth rates took off, the mood became more positive and self-congratulatory. With the election of Narendra Modi’s government in 2014, the pendulum swung back again—the Bharatiya Janata Party’s capture of state institutions and growing mob aggression mean that the prospects for secularism and democracy look significantly bleaker than they did 10 years ago.

Shashank Kela is the author of a historical monograph, A Rogue and Peasant Slave: Adivasi Resistance 1800-2000 (2012), and a novel, The Other Man (2017), in addition to literary essays and scholarly papers. Currently he's at work on his second novel.

Keywords: indian constitution federalism nationalism