• Lex Specialis

Principles of Federalism in the Indian Constitution

Ajay T.K.

Introduction to the concept of Federalism

A federal Government is a system of government that separates the power between the central government and state government of the country. Indian Constitution is said to be a federal structure only because it is said that it has clear demarcation of boundaries between the central & the state government similar to that of the U.S. India having legislative and executive authority divided between the centre and the state. However, as per Article 1 of the Indian Constitution, India is described as a Union of States. The states have limited powers and cannot break away from the union. Which means they have surrendered their rights to secede. In a true federation, the states or units will have the freedom to come out of the union. Hence India is not truly a federal GOvernment but forms a hybrid of a federal and a unitary form of government which is also referred to as a quasi-federal government.

There are some chief essentials for a constitution to be federal, these are -

1. Dispersion of powers between the center and the unit states forming federation among a number of coordinate bodies, controlled by constitution.

2. Rigidity – neither the center nor the state has power to amend the provision of constitution relating separation of powers.

3. A written constitution

4. Domination of the constitution – neither of center or state have power to nullify the constitution

5. An independent body and unprejudiced authority (Eg. Judiciary)

India and Quasi-Federalism

As mentioned above the Indian Constitution has both Unitary and Federal aspects. This gives rise to its quasi-federal nature. The center can impinge upon areas under the state in some cases, which is against the principle of the constitution. Its unitary nature arises during the period of wars or emergency period. A federal system creates an avenue for both centre and state to coordinate powers of each other. In fact, the basic principle of federalism is that the legislative, executive and financial authority is divided between the centre and the states not by law passed by the center but the Constitution itself. The Constitution of India has defined well, the powers of the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary. Courts enforce fundamental rights and provide remedies for breach. If they were deprived of this power, it would lead to failure of democracy and undermine the spirit of the constitution.

The first significant case where this issue was discussed at length by the apex Court was the State of West Bengal V. Union of India. The main issue involved in this case was the exercise of sovereign powers by the Indian states. The legislative competence of the Parliament to enact a law for compulsory acquisition by the Union of land and other properties vested in or owned by the state and the sovereign authority of states as distinct entities was also examined. The apex court held that the Indian Constitution did not propound a principle of absolute federalism.

In Ganga Ram Moolchandani v. State of Rajasthan the Supreme Court restated: Indian Constitution is basically federal in form and is marked by the traditional characteristics of a federal system, namely supremacy of the Constitution, division of power between the Union and States and existence of an independent judiciary. In Pradeep Jain V. Union of India, the Apex Court expressed that India is not a federal State in the traditional sense of that term. It is not a compact of sovereign States which have come together to form a federation by ceding undoubtedly federal features. The apex Court in ITC LTD v Agricultural Produce Market Committee expressed a similar opinion.

Federal Features of Indian Constitution

  1. Types of Government - India has a union and central government. Central government covers the whole country and state governments work for the states. Both the governments have their own duties.

  2. Division of Power

The Seventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution provides how the division of powers is made between the state and the central government. The Seventh Schedule is further classified into lists, these are -

  • Union List - Matters on which the Central Government can make laws.

  • State List - Matters on which the State Government can make laws.

  • Concurrent List - Matter on which the State and Central Government can make laws on.

  1. Supremacy of the Constitution

The Constitution of India is regarded as the Supreme Law of Land. The Constitution of India is above the citizens and organisations in the country. No law can be passed against the Constitution of India.

2. Written Constitution and Bicameral Legislature

The Constitution of India is a written constitution and detailed. Also, legislation is Bicameral. Two houses, the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. The constitution of India comprises federalism features, for example, division of power, supreme judiciary, two sets of government, bicameral-legislation and so on which plainly shows its Federal nature. The constitution of India comprises of federalism features, for example, division of power, supreme judiciary, two sets of government, bicameral-legislation and so on which plainly shows its Federal nature. The division of power among state and central government shows the federal nature of India and supremacy of judiciary shows the outright power of the court that its choice is preeminent and official upon all courts. Nonetheless, the forces given to the central government have more weight in comparison with the state government.

Non-Federal Features of the Indian Constitution

  • Division of power is unequal

It is known that the center has been given more powers than the state government. In a federal system, power is supposed to be divided equally among all units.

  • Flexible Constitution

India has only one single constitution which can be amended by the Indian parliament. On most of the subjects, the parliament does not require the approval of the states but in the case of a true federal system, both center and state government take equal part in the amendment of the constitution. Also, the constitution allocates only single citizenship whereas a federal system guarantees dual citizenship.

  • Parliament does not represent the states equally

In India the upper house (Rajya Sabha) and lower house (Lok Sabha) do not have equal representation in states. The state which is more populous have more representatives in the Rajya Sabha than the state which is less populous. But, in a true federal government the upper house of the legislature has equal representation from the constituting states.

  • Proclamation of emergency

President of India has been given emergency powers by the constitution of India. However, he can execute such powers and declare an emergency in the country under three conditions. Once an emergency is declared by the president the central government becomes dominant and the state governments come under the total control of it. The state governments lose their liberty and this is against the principles of a federal government.


Dr. Ambedkar listed several features of the draft constitution which mitigated the rigidity and legalism of federalism in his historic speech in the constituent assembly in november 1949. Articles 249, 250, 252, 352, 353 and 368 provide powers to parliament to legislate on executively state subject matters. The quasi-federal nature of the Indian Constitution contains various features of federalism and unitary form of government. To conclude, the quasi-federal system of the Indian Constitution makes it unique and helps the courts to enforce the spirit of the constitution.

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