Sometime ago, I happened to read an article in The Wall Street Journal. It talked about the measures being adopted by the ‘federal government of India’ to rescue the stranded people. Somehow, the word ‘federal’ associated with the Indian government struck me. It appeared to be a misfit, almost erroneous. I thought it might be because the Indian government is typically called the ‘Central Government’, the ‘Centre’, the ‘Union Government’, or simply the ‘Government of India’. The usage of the word federal is more common in the US. Even if we look at the judgment in the court cases, the Indian government is called as the ‘Union of India’. Although, India has a federal system of governance, where there is devolution of powers between the central government and the state governments, why is that we do not hear this term more often? Is usage of the term ‘federal government of India’, then, incorrect?
In order to understand more about it, we need to go back to our history and civics lessons. There are records of a riveting debate, regarding the naming of our country, among the members of the Constituent Assembly. There are two full sessions dedicated only to the amendments to the Draft Constitution, as prepared by Dr. Ambedkar, regarding this subject. Article 1 of the Constitution of India says India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States. During the debate session on November 15, 1948, Prof. K.T. Shah moved an amendment where he wanted India to be called as a Secular, Federal, Socialist Union of States. He opined that the term ‘Union’ might erroneously give an impression that India is a unitary state, where the central government has complete authority over running the country. "Lest the term ‘Union’ should lead any one to imagine that it is a unitary government I should like to make it clear, in the very first article, that it is a `federal union'. By its very nature the term `federal' implies an agreed association on equal terms of the states forming part of the Federation."
Mehboob Ali Baig Sahib Bahadur also supported the amendment by Prof. Shah as he believed that adding the word ‘federal’ would make it difficult in the future for any political power-seeking party to convert India into a unitary form of government, that might lead the country to turn into a fascist and a totalitarian state. Maulana Hasrat Mohani went to extent of saying that Dr.Ambedkar had some personal motive in naming the country as per his whims and he wanted to establish a ‘Union’ similar to one as proposed by Adolf Hitler. “You may take it from me; he wants this Union to be something like the Union proposed by Prince Bismarck in Germany, and after him adopted by Kaiser William and after him by Adolf Hitler.”
It is then H.V. Kamath brought to the attention of the members, a footnote in the Draft Constitution where Dr. Ambedkar explains the use of word ‘Union’. The term ‘Union’ has been adopted from the British North America Act, 1867. The Act says, “Whereas the provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, have expressed a desire to be federally united". Subsequently in the Act, the word ‘federal’ was dropped, and only the word ‘Union’ was retained. Similarly, he felt that there should be an emphasis on the unity of India. There has always been a tendency to disintegrate given the bloody history of our country and to prevent any further tendency of the states to get out of India, the word ‘federal’ should be omitted from the article. As the features of a federation have already been included in the Constitution, there is no further reason to add this word.
Dr. Ambedkar, then, said that all the changes to the name were completely unnecessary as the people, all along, have wanted that this country should be known as India without giving any indication as to what are the relations of the component parts of the Indian Union in the very title of the name of the country. He said, “India has been known as India throughout history. Personally I think the name of the country should not in any sense give any indication as to what are the subordinate divisions it is composed of.”
Consequently, the amendment regarding the addition of the word ‘federal’, which does not occur anywhere else in the Constitution, was defeated, although the debate continued on the other names India could have. Therefore, the usage of the term ‘federal government of India’ is not incorrect per se but given the historical context where it was specially dropped after a debate, its usage should be avoided.
Reading the debates of the founding fathers of our Constitution, I am amazed by the diversity of their thought process. My personal favorite anecdote in the entire debate is when B.M. Gupte argues that although India might be a federal state but its character is more of a decentralized unitary government and there are many characteristics of subordination of the states. If the constitution were of a federal character there would be no provision in it for the constitutions of the units; in a proper federal constitution, the constitution of the units is not given at all. Here we are providing for the constitution of the States. The Governor is appointed by the Centre. Indeed, our government is federal but with a strong unitary character.
These debates reemphasize how far ahead our founders were in their thinking. There is also an enriching conversation on the coinage of word India in the debate that could be a subject of another article. Anyone who is interested in understanding more about policy must read these debates and get fascinated by their sheer brilliance.