Federalism in Indian Constitution
Art. I of the Indian constitution calls “India that is Bharat” “a union of states.” The term federation is absent in this description. Yet experts agree that Indian constitution is a federal constitution, though as a federation India is different from either the U. S. or the Canadian federation.
A federation is a political contrivance to reconcile national unity with state rights. A federation is essentially a composite polity consisting of a national or central government administering subjects of national interest and a number of governments of the component units of federation called the state or provincial governments. Such governments administer subjects of essentially local interest. There may be same subjects concurrently administered both sets of governments.
A written and usually rigid constitution embodies the distribution of subjects between the two sets of authorities. The constitution is made rigid in order that neither the central nor the state governments may alter the constitutionally ordained distribution of powers acting alone.
A federation also has a supreme judiciary to act as guardian of the constitution. This is necessary to make the national and state governments operate within their constitutionally allotted sphere and prevent either from overstepping its bounds.
Finally, a federal constitution is appropriate only in a federal society. A government cannot be federal unless the society is federal. India, a mosaic of sub-culture groups like the Bengalees or Biharis is undoubtedly a federal society. Hence our constitutional system is logically federal.
The Indian constitution satisfies all criteria of a federal constitution.
There are two sets of governments—the union government and the governments of the states, there is a constitutional distribution of powers between the centre and the states, there is a written and somewhat rigid constitution and finally there is a supreme court acting as the guardian of the Constitution.
Yet India does not fit into any classic type of federation.
Federations come into existence through a centrifugal or centripetal process. When a pre-existing unitary state is loosened into autonomous units to form a federation, a centrifugal federation such as Canada comes into existence. A centripetal federation on the other hand is one when preexisting independent states unite together to form a federation. India combines centrifugality and centripetality. Centrifugality is noticeable in the reconstitution of British India into Indian states and centripetality is to found in the integration of Indian states into the federation.
Again, in a federation, the units i.e. the states or the provinces are autonomous. Both the centre and the states derive their authority from the constitution. States are in no way subordinate to the centre. The U. S. federation has been described by Lincoln as the indestructible federation of indestructible states. On this point, Indian federation is very different from most other federations. One may say that India is an indestructible federation of very much destructible state. While the phrase union of states in Art. 1 ensures that there will always be some states in India, the existence and continuance of any particular state, says West Bengal, is not ensured. In fact since the reorganization of states since 1956, quite a number of existing states have been abolished and a large number of new states have been curved out of the territory of existing states.
Again the distribution of powers between the centre and the states is heavily tilted in favor of the states. In the U. S. A. only enumerated powers have been given to the federal government and in Canada the enumerated powers are entrusted to the provinces. Since the enumerated powers are few and residues are many, the states in the U. S. A. and the centre in Canada are very strong.
In India, powers have divided with the help of three lists: central, state and concurrent. The central list not only contains 97 items, it also contains most important and crucial powers. The state list contains 66 items and the concurrent list contains 47 items. On subjects in the concurrent list, both the central and the state legislatures may legislate. In case of conflict, central legislation prevails.
Even on state subjects, the central legislature may pass laws when as per Art. 249. Two-thirds of the Rajya Sabha supports a resolution to in accordance with that effect.
Again emergency provisions of the Indian constitution operate to the detriment of state-autonomy. In cases of national emergency under Art 352 and break down of constitutional machinery under Art. 356, the state autonomy is reduced to nullity. Prof. D. N. Banerji rightly observes that India is federal state in normal times but a unitary state in times of emergency.
Again though Indian constitution is rigid, the degree of rigidity is much smaller than in a normal federation, Art. 368 of the constitution prescribe the procedure of amendment. Major portion of the constitution may be amended by the central legislature in the ordinary process of law-making. Participation of the states is not required at all. In the U. S. A. amendments require ratification by three-fourths of the states.
In India, the state governors are mere agents of the centre. They are appointed by the President. The healthy convention that the state Chief Minister is consulted before appointing a governor, is not always observed.
Again higher positions in the state services are manned by central services officers of the I. A. S and I. P. S cadre. Such officers also act as levers of central control over state administration.
Moreover, though our union legislature is bicameral, India’s upper chamber i.e. Rajya Sabha is not constituted on the principle of equality of representation of the federation units. Consequently some states e. g. U. P., have overwhelming representation in both chambers of the union Parliament. Such a scheme makes states like U. P., India’s heartland while states with smaller representation are reduced to the status of rim-land.
Finally, India has one unified citizenship as contrasted with the double citizenship in the U. S. A., one integrated judicial system, topped by the Supreme Court of India, one election commission for the whole country and one single constitution, serving as the constitution of the union and the states. Only the state of Jammu and Kashmir has a special status under article 370 of the constitution. All these point towards a strong unitary bias of our constitution.
All constitutions are framed to meet the needs of the society. In India a strong centralised federation was a socio-political necessity. A vast country with diverse linguistic religions and ethnic groups needs a strong central government to hold the parts together. As it is there is a strong fissiparous tendency in India and hence the need for a strong centre.
At the same time regional and subculture groups require autonomy for their development. It is only through the growth and development of different regions and sub-culture groups that India as a whole may develop.