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Editorials/Opinions Analyses For UPSC 14 September 2021


  1. In Manipur, a case for asymmetric federalism

In Manipur, a case for asymmetric federalism


The article talks about asymmetric federalism and how institutionally accommodating tribal distinctiveness will promote the State’s (Manipur) integrity.


GS-II: Polity and Governance (Constitutional Provisions, Basic structure of the Constitution, Federal Structure)

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. What is Asymmetric Federalism?
  2. Asymmetric Federalism in practice in India
  3. Reasons of asymmetric federalism in India
  4. Issue with Asymmetric Federalism
  5. Driving force of federalism in India
  6. Destabilising Potential of Asymmetric Federalism:
  7. An integrationist approach:
  8. Recent Developments in Manipur:
  9. Conclusion

What is Asymmetric Federalism?

  • In a federal arrangement, the constituent units are identified on the basis of region or ethnicity, and conferred varying forms of autonomy or some level of administrative and legislative powers.
  • “Asymmetric federalism” is understood to mean federalism based on unequal powers and relationships in political, administrative and fiscal arrangements spheres between the units constituting a federation.

Asymmetric Federalism in practice in India

  • Special provisions to some states: Special provisions’ applicable to States are mainly in the form of empowering the Governors to discharge some special responsibilities. E.g. Articles 371 to 371J
  • Union Territories: These are directly administered by Centre. Also, there are Union Territories with a legislature, and Union Territories without a legislature.
  • Tribal areas and scheduled areas under 5th and 6th schedule.
  • Economic asymmetry: E.g. Finance Commission Grants, providing funds to local bodies, state disaster relief funds and compensates for any revenue loss to states after devolution of taxes.

Reasons of asymmetric federalism in India

  • Economic reasons: Motivation for special status may be purely for expanding economic opportunities and securing freedom from exploitation by larger and more powerful members of the federation. E.g. The erstwhile distinction of special category and non-special category status states.
  • Political factors and preserving group identities: 5th and 6th schedules provide for special governance measures in regions inhabited by ‘Scheduled Tribes’ and ‘tribal areas’ in the country. They aim to protect the Scheduled Tribes in the country by enabling them to develop autonomy and preserve their land, economy, and community.
  • Cultural factors: There are various clauses in Articles 371 to 371J which accord special powers to various states. These special provisions include respect for customary laws, religious and social practices, and restrictions on the migration non-residents to the State. E.g. Article 371G contains special provisions to preserve the religious and social practices of Mizos in Mizoram and their customary law and procedure.
  • Historical: Asymmetric arrangement is also shaped by how British unified the country under their rule and later the way in which the territories were integrated in the Indian Union. E.g. erstwhile Article 370 for Jammu & Kashmir.
  • Administrative and other factors: Union territories were created because they were too small to become independent states or they could not be joined with their neighbouring countries on the account of cultural differences.

Issue with Asymmetric Federalism

  • Antagonists of asymmetric federalism increasingly rally around the idea of a monolith, homogenous nation.
  • As a normative idea and an institutional arrangement that supports the recognition and provision of an expansive ‘self-rule’ for territorially concentrated minority groups, asymmetric federalism has recently received negative media coverage in India.
  • This is driven by the argument that giving distinctive constitutional status to territorially concentrated minorities would promote centrifugal tendencies (moving or tending to move away from a centre).
  • It is argued that it would over time inhibit national/state integration, development, and peace.

Destabilising Potential of Asymmetric Federalism:

  • Charles Tarlton, the American political scientist who developed the idea of asymmetric federalism, was mindful about the destabilising potential it has, if not properly harnessed.
  • For instance, the unsuccessful experience of east European communist states to hold together in the 1990s gave rise to deep suspicion about asymmetric federalism.
  • The argument that asymmetric federalism fosters subversive institutions, political instability and breakup of States had also informed the minds of some of the founding fathers of the nation, when they participated in India’s Constituent Assembly debates.
  • For some, the question of envisioning distinctive rights and asymmetric constitutional provisions is considered inconsequential given that India has become a ‘homogenous Hindu nation’ after Partition.
  • Such a majoritarian standpoint sits uneasy with the idea of ‘autonomous’ district councils proposed by the Gopinath Bordoloi Committee. Gopinath Bordoloi Committee was a sub-committee of the Constituent Assembly that sought to accommodate the distinctive identity, culture and way of life of tribal groups in the Northeast by envisioning self-rule.

An integrationist approach:

  • While members like Jaipal Singh and B.R. Ambedkar recognised tribal distinctiveness and underscored the need for separate institutional accommodation, Kuladhar Chaliha, a prominent member from Assam, brought in an integrationist approach when he openly advocated assimilation of tribal groups.
  • Chaliha reinforced his integrationist push by contending that tribal self-rule would leverage “tribalstan” or “communistan” and would be detrimental to India’s territorial integrity and security.
  • This integrationist approach has been invoked to delegitimise continuing demand for constitutional asymmetry in Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh and in various other places in Northeast India.

Recent Developments in Manipur:

The Manipur government recently took steps to:

  1. stop the introduction and passage of the Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Council (Amendment) Bill, 2021, and
  2. induct nine Assembly members from the valley areas into the Hill Areas Committee.
  • This points towards the Manipur government following the integrationist approach.
  • While the Manipur government says that the Bill is a sensitive matter requiring legal approval by the Department of Law and Advocate General of the State, the Speaker’s order to induct nine Assembly members from the valley areas is seen as a direct assault on the Hill Areas Committee and the constitutional protection accorded to the Hill Areas of Manipur under Article 371C. It amounted to a transgression of a domain exclusively reserved for the President of India under the Manipur Legislative Assembly (Hill Areas Committee) Order, 1972.
  • This project is increasingly seen as the majoritarian state’s attempt to transgress and snatch away tribal lands through legal manipulation and sacralisation projects.

Driving force of federalism in India

As BR Ambedkar had put it, “India’s Draft Constitution can be both unitary as well as federal according to the requirements of time and circumstances.” The imperatives of security, state building, and economic development are always allowed to trump federal pieties. Following Four things sustain federalism:

  1. The first was a genuine concern about whether a centralised state could accommodate India’s linguistic and cultural diversity. The States Reorganisation Act and the compromises on the issue of languages was a victory for federalism. It allowed India to use federalism to accommodate linguistic diversity.
  2. The second underpinning of federalism is actual distribution of political power. The rise of coalition governments, economic liberalisation, regional parties, seemed to provide propitious ground for political federalism. Political federalism is quite compatible with financial, and administrative centralisation.
  3. The third thing that sustains federalism is the political and institutional culture. Because of the increasing presidentialisation of national politics, a single-party dominance with powerful messaging power, and change in forms of communication, the attribution of policy successes or failures might change, diminishing the stature of chief ministers considerably.
  4. The fourth thing that sustained federalism was what Louise Tillin has brilliantly analysed as “asymmetrical federalism” — special exemptions given to various states. But asymmetrical federalism has always been subject to three pressures. For Kashmir, asymmetrical federalism came to be seen as the source, not the resolution, of the security threat. Even in the North-east, local conflicts within the scheme of asymmetrical federalism and a discourse of security allowed the Centre to step in.


  • The attempt to increase membership of the six district councils to 31 members each and secure more powers to the councils by giving more developmental mandate is welcome.
  • However, the reservation of one-fourth of the seats to socio-economically backward communities may complicate the delimitation of constituencies.
  • Besides, reserving merely three nominated members for unrepresented tribes/women is also simply not enough.
  • How the Hill Areas Committee and various tribal groups strategically navigate their politics to offset the majoritarian impulse to manipulate the legal and political process to dilute the existing constitutional asymmetry remains to be seen.
  • There is a lack of sincere commitment to promote tribal development, identity and culture that Article 371C seeks to bridge.
  • Recognising and institutionally accommodating tribal distinctiveness not just as a matter of political convenience, but as a valuable and enduring good will be key to promote the State’s integrity, stability and peace in the long run.

-Source: The Hindu

July 2024