The Leading Challenge for Federalism: Accommodation of Human Diversity

Amaresh Bagchi, in a special article in the Sept 20 edition of the Economic and Political Weekly explains how ironing out the diversity inside India under the pretext that we're all Indians basically weakens India:

The attraction of federalism as a system of governmental organisation, it may be reiterated, lies among other things in its commitment to diversity, rather than homogeneity and to quote Kincaid again, “in its promise not to obliterate one’s home, village, city, province, nation, region or continent in the course of delegating powers to general and functional jurisdiction of larger territorial scope”. In the last analysis it is a matter of one’s identity. No doubt one can have several identities but as Amartya Sen put it in one of his many illuminating lectures:

...subjugating all affiliations to one overarching identity – that of membership of one national polity or people – misses the force and far-reaching relevance of the diverse relations that operate between persons. The political conception of a person as a citizen of a nation, important as it is cannot avoid all other conceptions and the behavioural consequences of other forms of group association [Sen 1998].

A great merit of federalism lies in its promise of respecting plurality of identity of human beings. An ardent federalist like Kincaid was constrained to draw attention to the potential erosion of federal systems in today’s era of regional integration and globalisation. In western Europe, presumably in self-interest, regional and local governments as well national governments have ceded considerable authority to the EU. At the same time global market competition is creating pressures on all governmental systems to deconcentrate or decentralise certain powers in order to give constituent governments more freedom and authority to compete for investments and trade and to enable the enterprises to compete in the large markets. However, he reminds readers: “The accommodation of human diversity, remains the leading challenge for federalism. It is also the leading challenge for the world” [Kincaid 2002: 13].


Sen, Amartya (1998): ‘Reason before Identity’, Romans lecture for 1998, OUP, New Delhi.

Kincaid, John (2002): ‘Introduction’ in Ann L Griffiths and Karl Nerenberg (eds), Handbook of Federalism, Forum of Federations, Ottawa.


Whether India is “federal” has been a matter of continuing debate. Many are inclined to treat the constitutional structure of India as quasi-federal, citing its unitary features. However federalism as a basic feature of India’s constitution has been acknowledged by the Supreme Court in the celebrated Bommai case.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, India is not a truly federal country. It remains quasi-federal in nature. And as time goes by, instead of becoming more federal in character, shockingly, people want to make it more and more unitary. This is unacceptable and should be resisted at all costs.

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