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Mainstream, VOL LX No 5, New Delhi, January 22, 2022

Foundations of Indian Republic De-based: The Case of Federalism | D Raja

Friday 21 January 2022, by D Raja

by D Raja *

We have entered the 72nd year of our Constitution’s coming into force declaring India a Sovereign Democratic Republic. This is also the 75th year of gaining independence from the British colonialism. The government of the day is observing it as ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’. The celebrations are already mired in controversy as the ruling regime is trying to further its communal agenda by falsifying and distorting history.

The RSS and its outfits, which had no role in the freedom movement are now distributing certificates of nationalism and patriotism, trying to fit the diverse freedom movement of our country in their singular, monolithic Hindutva framework. This is harming the legacy of our great struggle and the Constitution built on that legacy.

Our Republic taking birth on the January 26, 1950 and the moment our Constitution came into force were big steps for the nation, longing to achieve the ideals of Justice, Equality, Liberty and Fraternity, enshrined in the Preamble. Our struggle against the British was a long one with many ups and downs, glorious victories along with setbacks. Indians were resolutely bound together in the fight against colonialism.

Our Constitution tried to give a definite shape to the aspirations of the people for a Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic through provisions like Fundamental Rights to all citizens, irrespective of their religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, Directive Principles of State Policy and affirmative action. In a country of sub-continental proportions like India and its phenomenal diversity of climate, language, culture, regions and political traditions, it was and is necessary that the ideals mentioned in the Preamble should extend to all levels of governance in a Federal setting. The overall emphasis on equality in the Constitution is visible in other arrangements made around federal spirit and ideas.

Federalism of any kind rests on a written Constitution and on the supremacy of the Constitution. Conscious of the differential needs of the populations of different states, the Constitution makers themselves made provisions for an equitable share of powers and responsibilities for different levels of governments. The lists in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution — Union, State and Concurrent — are a good example of this division wherein each level of government has its own sphere enabling context-sensitive decision-making and absence of clashes around authority. Later, institutions for Local Self Government were also added through the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution strengthening grassroot democracy and wider participation in decision-making.

Articles 246 and 243 G provide for this division of responsibilities. Article 280 provided for the constitution of Finance Commission to clearly define the financial relationship and terms between the Union and the state governments. Apart from these institutions and the Rajya Sabha, Constitution makers also left much scope for consultative and deliberative bodies as to further strengthen the spirit of co-operation and federalism. Article 263 provided for the establishment of an Inter-State Council for smooth transition of business between Union and states and resolution of disputes, which was constituted after the recommendation of the Sarkaria Commission in 1990 through a presidential order.

The Planning Commission always had space for discussion on issues concerning the federal nature of the polity and was sensitive to the different developmental requirements of states. The Inter-State Tribunals, National Development Council and other informal bodies have served as vehicles of consultations between the Union, states and UTs. These bodies have been instrumental in tackling many difficult issues democratically through deliberations while upholding the co-operative spirit between the Union and states.

The Supreme Court after the judgment in the Kesavananda Bharati case, recognised federalism as a basic feature of the Indian Constitution. Justice Sarkaria and Justice Punchhi Commissions have also recommended ways to improve Centre-State relations and reinforce the spirit of federalism. Historically, these institutions and practices have played an important part in the solidification of norms for the equitable distribution of authority between the different constituents of the State. The norms evolved thus have been simple: respecting the jurisdictions, rule through consensus, being sensitive to diversity and mutual respect.

Certain scholars have pointed out towards the unitary bias in the Indian Constitution in the form of Emergency Provisions, President’s Rule, Office of Governor, All India Services, etc. Our Constituent Assembly was full of legal luminaries and individuals moved by high ideals of democracy but they were not operating in a historical vacuum. India was a newly independent state with little experience of democratic practices among the masses.

Dr Ambedkar summarised the situation with emphasis on cultivating constitutional morality: “Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.” Moreover, India gained its independence in the aftermath of the Second World War and on the onset of the Cold War. Western Imperialism, colonisation and its use of regional rivalries and hostilities to destabilise the Indian democratic development did not cease to be a threat. After much deliberations and cautions, the framers of the Constitution did place Emergency Provisions in the Constitution but with the sincere expectation that it would never be used.

Debating Emergency Provisions contained in Articles 352 to 360, including provisions for the President’s Rule in Article 356, Dr Ambedkar responded to the concerns of the most democratic minds present in the Constituent Assembly by saying: “I share the sentiments that such Articles will never be called into operation and they remain a dead letter” and characterised the Constitution as “framed to work as a federal system”. Dr Ambedkar repeatedly emphasised that it is a Federal Constitution. Unfortunately, this is not so in our times as we are witnessing the worst assault on federal system and institutions.

The Planning Commission was scrapped as part of the initial decisions of the Modi government. The Inter-State Council has only met once in the last seven years under Modi, the National Development Council has not met at all under his regime. The tenure of the 15th Finance Commission was mired in controversy and many states expressed apprehensions about devolution. The misconceived GST has already taken away much autonomy available to states and has made the country’s indirect tax regime unitary in nature. Many important and politically sensitive decisions were made without reference and consultation with the concerned states. Article 370 was removed without any consultation with the provincial state Legislature.

The Parliament has legislated on ‘Agriculture’, entry No 14 in the State List of the Seventh Schedule to enact the three contentious farm laws, clearly overstepping its jurisdiction and imposing a law on states. Similarly, the model APMC Act is being imposed on states. Students in Tamil Nadu have committed suicides over the discriminatory nature of the NEET examination. Other centralised examinations are also unfavorable to languages spoken in different parts of India and education boards of different states. The New Education Policy has been flagged as encroaching on the federal nature of the polity.

The BSF’s jurisdiction was extended in Assam, West Bengal and Punjab without any consultation with the concerned states. The constitutional offices of governors and Lt governors have come under scrutiny several times in recent years for encroaching on the powers of state executives and legislatures. Further, governors of certain states were accused of working as the long arm of the Union government instead of working as the Constitutional heads of the state. Allegations have been made of governors influencing legislators to destabilise elected governments, installing governments preferred by the Union government and BJP-RSS. Very recently, the rejection of the Republic Day tableaux of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal by the Union government prompted protests by the respective states and believers of federalism.

These developments stem from an ideology, which has utter disregard for the diversity of the country and contempt for constitutional values. These are rooted in the monolithic conception of the country, which is the hallmark of RSS-BJP. Their obsession with homogeneity and the idea of ‘Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan’ blinds them to the benefits of diversity in our country. Instead, they try to impose their own straitjacket on the matters of religion, language, caste and gender going into controlling the minute details of life according to RSS philosophy, like the choice of partner to apparels. This philosophy of uniformity and flattening out diversity has disastrous consequences for our Republic, society and ways of life.

Starting with ‘One nation, One tax’, the battle cries of RSS-BJP are now ‘One nation, One Election’ and as their obsession with homogeneity suggests, they can escalate into ‘One Nation, One Language’ or ‘One Nation, One Religion’ anytime, plucking the progressive ideals of secularism, tolerance and mutual respect turning our soil undemocratic again. It should be underlined that Article 1 of our Constitution declares that “India that is Bharat is a union of states”, devolution of powers is necessary in such a setting with diverse constituents. Conscious recognition of the federal character of our polity and struggling against the unidimensional flow of power, the RSS and BJP are imagining, is essential to protect our national character with all its diverse constituents and constitutional guarantees.

A struggle at all levels against the Union government’s encroaching nature should be waged. Our struggle should be to oust the communal-fascist forces from power. We should strive for making our government as a government of the people, by the people and for the people. The contemporary history calls upon citizens to intensify the struggle to reclaim our Republic.

* (Author: D Raja is General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI))

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