Federal polity usually refers to the political system in a country with a written Constitution defining and delimiting the powers and functions both of the central or federal legislature and government on the one hand and local or state legislatures and governments on the other.

In a classical federation like that of the United States, sovereignty is divided between the federal and state institutions, both partaking of sovereign powers in their respective spheres.

Federation, literally and historically is the result of an agreement. It is when two or more sovereign States resolve to surrender a part of their sovereignty and join hands to constitute a new union, a federal polity is born. It is a union without the constituting units losing their own identities. However, there are also instances where an existing unitary system may decide to share powers with the units under an agreed system of devolution or distribution of powers. Canada and India are examples of such polities. But, in every case of federalism–classical or otherwise (i) the Constitution occupies the supreme position. It is written and relatively rigid, that is, not easily amendable; (ii) there are at least two levels at which government functions. In other words,two separate governments Federal and state coexist, and (iii)as the arbiter of any disputes between the federation and the units also between the units themselves, the highest judiciary federal court or supreme court enjoys great authority and prestige.


There is perhaps no other comparable example of classic plural society and massive federal polity that is representative, republican and parliamentary, uniting and protecting under its umbrella numerous linguistic, regional and other diverse identities. As has been well said , India is a continental federal polity constituted into a single territorial sovereignty as a result of historical forces.

The underlying principle of the Indian politico-social system from the  ancient times down to the beginning of the British rule was, as Sri aurobindo says,that of a synthesis of autonomies of the village,the town,the local or regional,territorial or other administrative units. The kingdom or a confederated republic was often a means of holding together and synthesizing a free and living organic system of autonomies.

The only function of the unionizing agency was to establish paramountcy with a view to strengthening security against external enemies and ensuring greater oneness, peace, trade and prosperity among the participating autonomies. Thus, during the ancient and medieval times, all major political units were sort of unions of autonomies and in modern terminology, they could be called federal or confederal states.

When the British power was established in India, it was highly centralized and unitary. To hold India under its imperial authority, the British had to control it from the centre and ensure that power remained in their hands. A strong central authority was for the British both an imperial and an administrative necessity. The Joint Committee on Constitutional Reforms in 1934 observed.

The Government of India Act of 1935 proposed to set up a federal polity in India, with a Central government and Provinces deriving their jurisdiction and powers by direct devolution from the Crown.The 1935 Act sowed the seeds of Pakistan and the many maladies and difficulties we are faced with today.

The Federation envisaged by the 1935 Act never came into being.only the Provincial autonomy part of the 1935 Act was put into operation. Even this experiment was short-lived. The country as a whole continued to be ruled under the 1919 act by a central authority only until 1947.

When the Constituent Assembly first met in 1946 and early 1947, the idea was to have a federation with a Centre having limited powers. For the Congress, it was a compromise to prevent the partition of the country on communal lines. Before the Union Constitution Committee could transact any worthwhile business, the Mountbatten Plan of 3 June 1947 was announced whereby all hopes of preserving the unity of India vanished and the partition of the country on communal lines became a settled fact.

Once partition had become a reality, there was no need t o appease the Muslim League and restrict the powers of the Union Government. Also, after the partition, there were no ethnic groups which could be readily territorially identified although there was plenty of non-territory linked diversity. The Union Constitution Committee meeting of 6 June 1947 tentatively decided that the Constitution should be a federal structure with a strong Centre and that there should be three exhaustive lists with residuary powers vesting in the Centre.

The Drafting Committee decided in favour of describing India as a Union, although the federal facade or the outer trappings of a federal structure remained as a historical hang-over. The emphasis India being a ‘Union’ was to convey the fact that it was not the result of a compact or agreement between the constituent units but a declaration by the Constituent Assembly deriving its authority from one people of India.


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