December 4, 2022

Is Indian Constitution Federal or Unitary? – Views of Ambedkar and Krishnamachari

From the time, Indian constitution came into effect, to the present day, a lot of energy has been devoted to the question whether our constitution sf federal or leaned to unitary type of system? Although, In the words of constitution, India has adopted federal system but it is not based on strict federalism like America. There are many provisions in the constitution which indicate that our constitution has unitary features.

The lawmatics already published an exhaustive article on the federal character of Indian constitution.

In present article, we will refer the speeches of the members of constituent assembly and discussion of supreme court to understand why our constitution did not adopt strict federalism.

Constituent Assembly

Shri T.T. Krishnamachari

T.T. krishnamachari

Answering the criticism of the tilt towards the Centre, Shri T.T. Krishnamachari, during debates in the Constituent Assembly on the Draft Constitution, had stated as follows:

“Sir, I would like to go into a few fundamental objections because as I said it would not be right for us to leave these criticisms uncontroverted. Let me take up a matter which is perhaps partly theoretical but one which has a validity so far as the average man in this country is concerned. Are we framing a unitary Constitution? Is this Constitution centralizing power in Delhi? Is there any way provided by means of which the position of people in various areas could be safeguarded, their voices heard in regard to matters of their local administration?

I think it is a very big charge to make that this Constitution is not a federal Constitution, and that it is a unitary one. We should not forget that this question that the Indian Constitution should be a federal one has been settled by our Leader who is no more with us, in the Round Table Conference in London eighteen years back.”

“I would ask my honourable friend to apply a very simple test so far as this Constitution is concerned to find out whether it is federal or not. The simple question I have got from the German school of political philosophy is that the first criterion is that the State must exercise compulsive power in the enforcement of a given political order, the second is that these powers must be regularly exercised over all the inhabitants of a given territory; and the third is the most important and that is that the activity of the State must not be completely circumscribed by orders handed down for execution by the superior unit.

The important words are ‘must not be completely circumscribed’, which envisages some powers of the State are bound to be circumscribed by the exercise of federal authority. Having all these factors in view, I will urge that our Constitution is a federal Constitution. I urge that our Constitution is one in which we have given power to the Units which are both substantial and significant in the legislative sphere and in the executive sphere.”

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

B.R. Ambedkar

In this context, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, speaking in the Constituent Assembly had explained the position in the following words:

“There is only one point of Constitutional import to which I propose to make a reference. A serious complaint is made on the ground that there is too much of centralization and that the States have been reduced to Municipalities. It is clear that this view is not only an exaggeration, but is also founded on a misunderstanding of what exactly the Constitution contrives to do. As to the relation between the Centre and the States, it is necessary to bear in mind the fundamental principle on which it rests.

The basic principle of Federalism is that the legislative and executive authority is partitioned between the Centre and the States not by any law to be made by the Centre but the Constitution itself. This is what the Constitution does. The States, under our Constitution, are in no way dependent upon the Centre for their legislative or executive authority. The Centre and the States are co-equal in this matter. It is difficult to see how such a Constitution can be called centralism.

It may be that the Constitution assigns to the Centre too large a field for the operation of its legislative and executive authority than is to be found in any other Federal Constitution. It may be that the residuary powers are given to the Centre and not to the States. But these features do not form the essence of federalism. The chief mark of federalism, as I said lies in the partition of the legislative and executive authority between the Centre and the Units by the Constitution. This is the principle embodied in our Constitution.”

Supreme Court

In re: Under Article 143, Constitution of India, (Special Reference No. 1 of 1964)[1] (Paragraph 39 at 762)], Supreme Court ruled thus:

“In dealing with this question, it is necessary to bear in mind one fundamental feature of a Federal Constitution. In England, Parliament is sovereign; and in the words of Dicey, the three distinguishing features of the principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty are that Parliament has the right to make or unmake any law whatever; that no person or body is recognised by the law of England as having a right to over-ride or set aside the legislation of Parliament, and that the right or power of Parliament extends to every part of the Queen’s dominions.

On the other hand, the essential characteristic of federalism is “the distribution of limited executive, legislative and judicial authority among bodies which are coordinate with and independent of each other.

The supremacy of the constitution is fundamental to the existence of a federal State in order to prevent either the legislature of the federal unit or those of the member States from destroying or impairing that delicate balance of power which satisfies the particular requirements of States which are desirous of union, but not prepared to merge their individuality in a unity. This supremacy of the constitution is protected by the authority of an independent judicial body to act as the interpreter of a scheme of distribution of powers.

Nor is any change possible in the Constitution by the ordinary process of federal or State legislation. Thus the dominant characteristic of the British Constitution cannot be claimed by a Federal Constitution like ours.”

In the case of State of Karnataka v. Union of India & Anr. [1978 (2) SCR 1], Justice Untwalia observed as follows:

“Strictly speaking, our Constitution is not of a federal character where separate, independent and sovereign State could be said to have joined to form a nation as in the United States of America or as may be the position in some other countries of the world. It is because of that reason that sometimes it has been characterized as quasi-federal in nature”


[1] [AIR 1965 SC 745