July 6, 2022

Is India a federation?- Here is what Justice Ahmadi said in bommai case

India, as the Preamble proclaims, is a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic. It promises liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship, besides equality of status and opportunity. What is paramount is the unity and integrity of the nation. In order to maintain the unity and integrity of the nation our Founding Fathers appear to have leaned in favour of a strong Centre while distributing the powers and functions between the Centre and the States. This becomes obvious from even a cursory examination of the provisions of the Constitution.

The meaning of Federalism

In order to understand whether our Constitution is truly federal, it is essential to know the true concept of federalism. Dicey calls it a political contrivance for a body of States which desire Union but not unity. Federalism is, therefore, a concept which unites separate States into a Union without sacrificing their own fundamental political integrity. Separate States, therefore, desire to unite so that all the member-States may share in formulation of the basic policies applicable to all and participate in the execution of decisions made in pursuance of such basic policies.

Thus the essence of a federation is the existence of the Union and the States and the distribution of powers between them. Federalism, therefore, essentially implies demarcation of powers in a federal compact.

The first Federation

The oldest federal model in the modem world can be said to be the Constitution of the United States of America. The American Federation can be described as the outcome of the process of evolution, in that, the separate States first formed into a Confederation (1781) and then into a Federation (1789). Although the States may have their own Constitutions, the Federal Constitution is the suprema lex and is made binding on the States. That is because under the American Constitution, amendments to the Constitution are required to be ratified by three-fourths of the States. Besides under that Constitution there is a single legislative list enumerating the powers of the Union and, therefore, automatically the other subjects are left to the States. This is evident from the Tenth Amendment.

Of course, the responsibility to protect the States against invasion is of the Federal Government. The States are, therefore, prohibited from entering into any treaty, alliance, etc., with any foreign power. The principle of dual sovereignty is carried in the judicial set-up as well since disputes under federal laws are to be adjudicated by federal courts, while those under State laws are to be adjudicated by State courts, subject of course to an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States. The interpretation of the Constitution is by the United States Supreme Court.

Indian Federalism

We may now read some of the provisions of our Constitution. States.

Article 2 empowers Parliament to admit into the Union, or establish, new States on such terms and conditions as it thinks fit.

Under Article 3 Parliament can by law form a new State by separation of territory from any State or by uniting two or more States or parts of States or by uniting any territory to a part of any State; increasing the area of any State; diminishing the area of any State; altering the boundaries of any State; or altering the name of any State.

The proviso to that article requires that the Bill for the purpose shall not be introduced in either House of Parliament except on the recommendation of the President and unless, where the proposal contained in the Bill affects the area, boundaries or name of any of the States, the Bill has been referred by the President to the Legislature of that State for expressing its views thereon.

On a conjoint reading of these articles, it becomes clear that Parliament has the right to form new States, alter the areas of existing States, or the name of any existing State. Thus the Constitution permits changes in the territorial limits of the States and does not guarantee their territorial integrity. Even names can be changed. Under Article 2 it is left to Parliament to determine the terms and conditions on which it may admit any area into the Union or establish new States. In doing so, it has not to seek the concurrence of the State whose area, boundary or name is likely to be affected by the proposal. All that the proviso to Article 3 requires is that in such cases the President shall refer the Bill to the Legislatures of the States concerned likely to be affected “to express their views”.

Once the views of the States are known, it is left to Parliament to decide on the proposed changes. Parliament can, therefore, without the concurrence of the State or States concerned change the boundaries of the State or increase or diminish its area or change its name. These provisions show that in the matter of constitution of States, Parliament is paramount. This scheme substantially differs from the federal set-up established in the United States of America.

The American States were independent sovereign States and the territorial boundaries of those independent States cannot be touched by the Federal Government. It is these independent sovereign units which together decided to form into a federation unlike in India where the States were not independent sovereign units but they were formed by Article 1 of the Constitution and their areas and boundaries could, therefore, be altered, without their concurrence, by Parliament.

It is well-known that since independence, new States have been created, boundaries of existing States have been altered, States have been renamed and individual States have been extinguished by parliamentary legislation.

The legacy of Government of India Act, 1935

Our Founding Fathers did not deem it wise to shake the basic structure of Government and in distributing the legislative functions they, by and large, followed the pattern of the Government of India Act, 1935. Some of the subjects of common interest were, however, transferred to the Union List, thereby enlarging the powers of the Union to enable speedy and planned economic development of the nation. The scheme for the distribution of powers between the Union and the States was largely maintained except that some of the subjects of common interest were transferred from the Provincial List to the Union List thereby strengthening the administrative control of the Union.

Under the Government of India Act, 1935, the residuary power was not given either to the Union Legislature or to the provincial legislatures, but under our Constitution, by virtue of Article 248, read with Entry 97 in List 1 of the Vllth Schedule, the residuary power has been conferred on the Union. This arrangement substantially differs from the scheme of distribution of powers in the United States of America where the residual powers are with the States.


The Preamble of our Constitution shows that the people of India had resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign Secular Democratic Republic and promised to secure to all its citizens Justice, Liberty and Equality and to promote among them all Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation. In the people of India, therefore, vests the legal sovereignty while the political sovereignty is distributed between the Union and the States.

Article 73 extends the executive power of the Union to matters with respect to which Parliament has power to make laws and to the exercise of such rights, authority and jurisdiction as are exercisable by the Government of India by virtue of any treaty or agreement. The executive power which is made co-extensive with Parliament’s power to make laws shall not, save as expressly provided by the Constitution or in any law made by Parliament, extend in any State to matters with respect to which the Legislature of the State also has power to make laws.

Article 162 stipulates that the executive power of a State shall extend to matters with respect to which the Legislature of the State has power to make laws provided that in any matter with respect to which the Legislature of a State and Parliament have power to make laws, the executive power of the State shall be subject to, and limited by, the executive power expressly conferred by the Constitution or by any law made by Parliament upon the Union or authorities thereof.

It may also be noticed that the executive power of every State must be so exercised as not to impede or prejudice the exercise of the executive power by the Union. The executive power of the Union also extends to giving such directions to a State as may appear to the Government of India to be necessary for those purposes and as to the construction, maintenance of means of communication declared to be of national or military importance and for protection of railways.

The States have to depend largely on financial assistance from the Union. Under the scheme of Articles 268 to 273, States are in Certain cases allowed to collect and retain duties imposed by the Union; in other cases, taxes levied and collected by the Union are assigned to the States and in yet other cases taxes levied and collected by the Union are shared with States.

Article 275 also provides for the giving of grants by the Union to certain States. There is, therefore, no doubt that States depend for financial assistance upon the Union since their power to raise resources is limited. As economic planning is a concurrent subject, every major project must receive the sanction of the Central Government for its financial assistance since discretionary power under Article 282 to make grants for public purposes is vested in the Union or a State, notwithstanding that the purpose is one in respect to which Parliament or State Legislature can make laws. It is only after a project is finally sanctioned by the Central Government that the State Government can execute the same which demonstrates the control that the Union can exercise even in regard to a matter on which the State can legislate.

In addition to these controls Article 368 confers powers on Parliament to amend the Constitution, albeit by a specified majority. The power extends to amending matters pertaining to the executive as well as legislative powers of the States if the amendments are ratified by the legislatures of not less than one-half of the States. This provision empowers Parliament to so amend the Constitution as to curtail the powers of the States. A strong Central Government may not find it difficult to secure the requisite majority as well as ratification by one half of the legislatures if one goes by past experience. These limitations taken together indicate that the Constitution of India cannot be said to be truly federal in character as understood by lawyers in the United States of America.

When the Union Government issued a notification dated May 23, 1977 constituting a Commission of Inquiry in exercise of its power under Section 3 of the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952, to inquire into certain allegations made against the Chief Minister of the State, the State of Karnataka instituted a suit under Article 131 of the Constitution challenging the legality and validity of the notification as unjustifiable trespass upon the domain of State powers. While dealing with the issues arising in that suit State of Karnataka v. Union of India

Beg C.J., examined the relevant provisions of the Constitution and the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952, and observed in (AIR) paragraph 33 as under: (SCC p. 645, para 34)

“In our country, there is at the top a Central or the Union Government responsible to Parliament, and there are, below it, State Governments, responsible to the State Legislatures, each functioning within the sphere of its own powers which are divided into two categories, the exclusive and the concurrent. Within the exclusive sphere of the powers of the State Legislature is local government. And, in all States there is a system of local government in both urban and rural areas, functioning under State enactments. Thus, we can speak of a three tier system of Government in our country in which the Central or the Union Government comes at the apex…….”

It would thus seem that the Indian Constitution has, in it, not only features of a pragmatic federalism which, while distributing legislative powers and indicating the spheres of governmental powers of State and Central Governments, is overlaid by strongly ‘unitary’ features, particularly exhibited by lodging in Parliament the residuary legislative powers, and in the Central Government the executive power of appointing certain constitutional functionaries including High Court and Supreme Court Judges and issuing appropriate directions to the State Governments and even displacing the State Legislatures and the Governments in emergency situations, vide Articles 352 to 360 of the Constitution.


It is common knowledge that shortly after we constituted ourselves into a Republic, the Princely States gradually disappeared leading to the unification of India into a single polity with duality of governmental agencies for effective and efficient administration of the country under central direction and, if I may say so, supervision. The duality of governmental organs on the Central and State levels reflect demarcation of functions in a manner as would ensure the sovereignty and integrity of our country. The experience of partition of the country and its aftermath had taught lessons which were too fresh to be forgotten by our Constitution makers. It was perhaps for that reason that our Founding Fathers thought that a strong Centre was essential to ward off separatist tendencies and consolidate the unity and integrity of the country.

A Division Bench of the Madras High Court in M. Karunanidhi v. Union of India while dealing with the contention that the Constitution is a federal one and that the States are autonomous having definite powers and independent rights to govern, and the Central Government has no right to interfere in the governance of the State, observed as under:

“[T]here may be a federation of independent States, as it is in the case of United States of America. As the name itself denotes, it is a Union of States, either by treaty or by legislation by the concerned States. In those cases, the federating units gave certain powers to the federal Government and retained some. To apply the meaning to the word ‘federation’ or ‘autonomy’ used in the context of the American Constitution, to our Constitution will be totally misleading.”

After tracing the history of the governance of the country under the British rule till the framing of our Constitution, the Court proceeded to add is follows:

“The feature of the Indian Constitution is the establishment of a Government for governing the entire country. In doing so, the Constitution prescribes the powers of the Central Government and the powers of the State Governments and the relations between the two. In a sense, if the word ‘federation’ can be used at all, it is a federation of various States which were designated under the Constitution for the purpose of efficient administration and governance of the country. The powers of the Centre and States are demarcated under the Constitution. It is futile to suggest that the States are independent, sovereign or autonomous units which had joined the federation under certain conditions. No such State ever existed or acceded to the Union.”

Under our Constitution the state as such has no inherent sovereign power or autonomous power which cannot be encroached upon by the Centre. The very fact that under our Constitution, Article 3, Parliament may by law form a new State by separation of territory from any State or by uniting two or more States or parts of States or by uniting any territory to a part of any State, etc., militates against the view that the States are sovereign or autonomous bodies having definite independent rights of governance.

In fact, as pointed out earlier in certain circumstances the Central Government can issue directions to States and in emergency conditions assume far reaching powers affecting the States as well, and the fact that the President has powers to take over the administration of States demolishes the theory of an independent or autonomous existence of a State. It must also be realised that unlike the Constitution of the United States of America which recognises dual citizenship [Section 1(1), 14th Amendment], the Constitution of India, Article 5, does not recognise the concept of dual citizenship. Under the American Constitution all persons born or naturalised in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside whereas under Article 5 of the Indian Constitution at its commencement, every person domiciled in the territory of India and

(a) who was born in the territory of India; or

(b) either of whose parents was born in the territory of India; or

(c) who has been ordinarily resident in the territory of India for not less than five years immediately preceding such commencement shall be a citizen of India.

Article 9 makes it clear that if any person voluntarily acquires the citizenship of any foreign country, he will cease to be a citizen of India. These provisions clearly negative the concept of dual citizenship, a concept expressly recognised under the American Constitution. The concept of citizenship assumes some importance in a federation because in a country which recognises dual citizenship, the individual would owe allegiance both to the Federal Government as well as the State Government but a country recognising a single citizenship does not face complications arising from dual citizenship and by necessary implication negatives the concept of State sovereignty

Thus the significant absence of the expressions like ‘federal’ or ‘federation’ in the constitutional vocabulary, Parliament’s powers under Articles 2 and 3 elaborated earlier, the extraordinary powers conferred to meet emergency situations, the residuary powers conferred by Article 248 read with Entry 97 in List 1 of the VlIth Schedule on the Union, the power to amend the Constitution, the power to issue directions to States, the concept of a single citizenship, the set-up of an integrated judiciary, etc., etc., have led constitutional experts to doubt the appropriateness of the appellation ‘federal’ to the Indian Constitution.

Said Prof. K.C. Wheare in his work Federal Government:

“What makes one doubt that the Constitution of India is strictly and fully federal, however, are the powers of intervention in the affairs of the States given by the Constitution to the Central Government and Parliament.”


Thus in the United States, the sovereign States enjoy their own separate existence which cannot be impaired; indestructible States having constituted an indestructible Union. In India, on the contrary, Parliament can by law form a new State, alter the size of an existing State, alter the name of an existing State, etc., and even curtail the power, both executive and legislative, by amending the Constitution. That is why the Constitution of India is differently described, more appropriately as ‘quasi-federal’ because it is a mixture of the federal and unitary elements, leaning- more towards the latter but then what is there in a name, what is important to bear in mind is the thrust and implications of the various provisions of the Constitution bearing on the controversy in regard to scope and ambit of the Presidential power under Article 356 and related provisions.


S.R. Bommai vs Union Of India; 1994 AIR 1918, 1994 SCC (3) 1