States and the Union: The beginning of the relationship

When the discussion about Union-state relations started before independence, the thinking was to have a weak Union govt, and for states to have residual powers. Then, Partition happened.
Photo of former Tamil Nadu CM M Karunanidhi from the Rajamannar Committee Report
Photo of former Tamil Nadu CM M Karunanidhi from the Rajamannar Committee Report
Written by:

This piece is a part of TNM's reader-funded Cooperative Federalism Project. Indian residents can support the project here, NRIs, please click here.

Fifty-two years ago, M Karunanidhi did something unprecedented. The year was 1969, and he had become the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for the first time. In September of that year, he constituted a committee to "examine the entire question regarding the relationship that should subsist between the Centre and the States in a federal setup, with reference to the provisions of the Constitution of India..." The committee headed by Dr PV Rajamannar was the first such to be set up by a state government.

The discussion on the relationship between states and the Union government had started before independence. The Government of India Act of 1935 (the basis of our Constitution) provided a system of federal states with some autonomy without risking the country's unity. Lack of political consensus prevented these provisions from coming into effect. After that, a cabinet mission sent by the British Government to India proposed a weak Union government with control only over foreign affairs, defence, and communication. The commission proposed that the residuary powers should remain with the provinces.

This thinking about a weak Union government continued in the initial days of the framing of the Constitution. It was a middle ground to prevent the breaking up of the country. But after the British government announced the country's partition, there was a change in how the Constitution framers thought about the relationship between the Union and the states.  The Union Powers Committee of the Constituent Assembly, Chaired by Jawaharlal Nehru, reflected this shift. In its second report in July of 1947, it stated, "Now that partition is a settled fact, we are unanimously of the view that it would be injurious to the interests of the country to provide for a weak central authority which would be incapable of ensuring peace, of co-ordinating vital matters of common concern and of speaking effectively for the whole country in the international sphere." The committee proposed that the "soundest framework for our constitution is a federation with a strong centre". It also recommended that the residuary powers be in the domain of the Union government.

The country's division directly influenced how the Constituent Assembly framed the relationship between the Union and the states in the Constitution. But after the shadow of partition disappeared, regional political parties slowly started questioning the domineering attitude of the Union government. Chief Minister Karunanidhi gave the Rajamannar committee a specific mandate: "to suggest suitable amendments to the Constitution so as to secure to the States the utmost autonomy.”

This pointed reference about suggesting constitutional amendments was in response to the report of a commission established by the Union government. A few months before the setting up of the Rajamannar committee in 1969, the Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) had submitted a report on Centre-State Relations to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Its first recommendation was that "No constitutional amendment is necessary for ensuring harmonious relations between the Centre and the States ...". But the relations between the states and the Union were far from harmonious.

Till 1967, the Congress had government both at the Union and in the states. The ARC noted that, "A single party in control over affairs at the Centre as well as in the State with a powerful leadership at the Centre provided an alternative and extraconstitutional channel for the settlement of Centre-State problems.” This resolution mechanism that the ARC brushed off with the phrase "extraconstituional channel" was essentially senior Congress party leaders internally troubleshooting any issues that cropped up between the Union and state governments.

But this ad hoc intraparty mechanism only lasted until Congress was the ruling party at the national and state levels. The general and Assembly elections in 1967 changed this position. It was in these elections that Congress lost power in multiple states. For example, in Tamil Nadu, DMK formed the government for the first time. And it was the role of the Governor in making and breaking governments that first opened to the public the differences between the Union and states.

In West Bengal, the United Front, an alliance of 14 parties, joined hands to form a coalition government with Congress in the Opposition. Chief Minister Ajoy Kumar Mukherjee led the government with Jyoti Basu as the Deputy CM. But the coalition did not last long, and Governor Dharam Vira dismissed the government after eight months. In the Assembly, the Speaker called the Governor's actions unconstitutional and adjourned the House leading to a deadlock. Midterm elections in the state in 1969 led to the return of the second United Front government.

It is a constitutional requirement that the Governor address the newly elected legislature. The United Front government gave the Governor a speech to read that contained two paragraphs about the unconstitutional dismissal of their earlier government by the Congress government at the Centre. Governor Dharma Vira skipped those two paragraphs while addressing the West Bengal Legislature. Opposition parties in Parliament raised the issue and criticised the Governor's conduct. They moved a motion disapproving of the Governor's actions and calling them against the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Even though the motion was defeated, it successfully highlighted the Union government's interference in state affairs. Half a century later, the role and conduct of the Governor is still a contentious issue between states and the Union.

(In the next part, meddling Governors and other discordant notes in the relationship between the states and the Union.)

Chakshu is Head of Legislative and Civic Engagement and Mridula manages citizen outreach programs at PRS Legislative Research, an institution that is making the legislative process better informed, more transparent and participatory. Views expressed are the authors' own.

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute