Asymmetric Federalism: India’s Union of State

This blog is inscribed by Anirudh Grover.


Charles Tarlton defined the contours of Asymmetric Federalism in 1965 describing it as an arrangement wherein component units do not share conditions and concerns common to the federal system in its entirety.[1]Essentially Asymmetric federalism can be understood to be a flexible type of union with some federative units in the constitution or a type of federalism which is based on unequal powers between the units constituting a federation.[2]

Further the asymmetry is both horizontal (amongst the states) and vertical (between the centre and states).  A Federation can be understood as an ‘indestructible union of destructible states’ which basically highlights the idea of equality which is prevalent between the state and the centre and therefore neither has the power to make inroads into the defined the authority and functions of the other unilaterally.[3] However in practice such purists form of federalism is rarely seen; even though the constitution guarantees equality to every state such equality can hardly be perceived as the centre dominates all the major spheres such as political and administration.[4]

Historical Background

The unequal distribution of powers between the centre and the state owe much to the historical and political factors. The cabinet mission sent by British government in 1946 recommended to have a federal constitution with the central government dealing with important aspects such as defense, foreign affairs and communications and rests vested with essentially two groups the Hindus and the Muslims.[5] However due to the insisting of Muslim league party for a separate nation led to the formation another separate nation comprising only of Muslims which failed to the formation of the type federal government the British cabinet had suggested and instead the founding fathers of the Indian constitution suggested to form a federation with a stable union government to hold together diverse economic, linguistic and cultural entities and to avoid fissiparous tendencies.[6] The idea of making a stable central government was also found desirable to unify the country, comprising regions directly ruled by the British and 216 princely states and territories.

Asymmetric type of arrangement has a long history; it goes back to how the British ruled and unified the country and later under their control how various principalities were integrated to form a union. The territories under the direct control of the British were easily integrated into the union; however, other territories were negotiated and given some levy or special powers, and thereafter they were integrated as well.[7] The constitution, which was adopted in 1950itself, had differentiated the states into four categories. The provincesdirectly ruled by the British were classified a Part ‘A’ states, the princely states which had a relationship with the government of India based on individual treaties signed were classified as part ‘B’ states such as Hyderabad, Mysore, Jammu, and Kashmir. After that, the remaining princely  states acceding  to the union were grouped under Part ‘C’ states.[8]Finally, territories ruled by other foreign powers such as French and Portuguese gaining independence and the areas not covered in any of the above three categories were classified as Part ‘D’ states or union territories and were brought together under the direct control of the union.[9]

Comparitive Analysis

In the leading case law of SR Bommaivs. Union of India.[10]It was held that the most commonly invoked model could be seen in the United States; as a result, it was clear that it is a federation of states, which means that the federal government does not have powers to alter or add new territories.[11] Whereas in India, in accordance with Article 1[12]&Article 2[13] of the Constitution, the central government has the power to create new states, admit new territories, alter their boundaries and their names and unite or divide the states by passing bills in the parliament.[14]In India, the powers to make laws not specified in the constitution, i.e., the residuary powers, are vested with the parliament; on the other hand, in the United States, these powers are vested with the State. Thereafter the states in India are very much dependent on the center; for instance, in matters of fiscal policies, the states have limited power to raise their own resources, which as a result, increases the dependency of the states .It is clear that even though the states are sovereign in nature, however in practice, the powers of the state are not in coordination with the center, and that is why India is known or often described as ‘Quasi –Federal.’[15]

Examples Of Asymmetry

While India, like other countries, has abundant features of de facto asymmetry, it has limited de jure asymmetry, which can be explained further with the help of four significant examples or kinds of asymmetry in practice in Indian federalism.[16] First is the universal asymmetry affecting all the units; for instance, the Rajya Sabha or the upper house of parliament represents the states based on the population of each state and not on the basis of formal equality between the states like in the United States. As a result of this,UP due to the size of the population has 31 seats in the upper house while other states like Meghalaya, Mizoram, Manipur and Goa and Union territories like Pondicherry have just one seat each.[17] 

Further, the second kind of asymmetry is in relation to the administration of tribal areas, intrastate regional disparities, law and order situation and fixation of the number of seats in the legislative assemblies in the legislative assemblies for various states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Assam, Manipur, Andhra Pradesh Telangana,Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Goa under Article 371[18] of the constitution of India.[19] Thereafter the union territories are also a representation of asymmetry in India; these UTs were created for varied reasons. Either they were too small to form a state, or they were too diverse and difficult to merge into the nearby states. Finally, the fourth example is Article 370[20] of the Indian Constitution, which was recently removed on August 6, 2019, but was one of the most significant reasons.[21]  Due to the presence of Article 370 in the Indian Constitution, the state of Jammu and Kashmir was given a special status, and therefore the constitution of India was not applicable in Jammu & Kashmir.

Additionally any act of parliament could not apply to this state unless it was endorsed by the state legislature.[22]Further, there are other examples of asymmetry as well like Article 371-A[23] which provides special provisions for the state of Nagaland, Article 371-B[24] which provides special provisions for Assam, Article 371- C[25] contained special provisions for the hilly areas of Manipur, Article 371- D[26] and Article 371–H[27]  provides for special provisions for the Andhra Pradesh. Further Article 371-F[28] Article 371-G[29] contains special provisions for the State of Mizoram & Andhra Pradesh,respectively.

Reasons For Asymmetry

Many scholarly writers have regularly cited India as an extremely successful federal democracy, which displays ample features of asymmetry.[30] India being a diverse country with many different religions and cultures, holds together interests and diverse socio cultural groups around the founding belief of unity in diversity.[31]The institutional celebration of “unity in diversity” by envisioning an asymmetric federal framework is not a deliberate choice. However, it is also an ineluctable outcome of India’s longstanding experience as a pluri cultural society.[32]It is regarded as home to four major religions of the world, viz, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism. India also has a vast population of Muslims, which is just next to Indonesia and Pakistan with respect to the concentration of the Muslim population.[33]

The Constitution of India in the 8th Schedule[34] has 22 languages, but there are many other languages that are not scheduled but are prevalent in the territory of India. Given this vast diversity, there is inherent fear among the political elites that excessive federalism might unleash destabilizing forces.[35]The asymmetrical framework facilitates public recognition of cultural differences and allows certain territorial concentrated ethno cultural minorities to have extensive self- rule within the schema of a shared rule.[36]  Further, India’s federal framework acts as a useful resource to address the question of recognition and accommodation of ethno cultural minorities, and thereby it mandates multicultural path, which helps sustain cultural diversity within a unified and integrated polity. Driven by “collective unitary minds” and the fear that that excessive federalism might unleash destabilizing forces, the founding fathers and political leaders of the day favored a strong union.[37]


In conclusion, the author would like to say that asymmetry in administrative, political, and economic spheres in federal systems is unavoidable, and in fact, it is necessary for not only to come together but also to hold together.[38]Further given the diversity in our country, the author think it is relevant to have an asymmetric federal framework which helps to treat unequal differently and equals equally as mentioned in Article 14[39] of the Indian Constitution which says that the underlying principle of equality is not the uniformity of treatment of people in all aspects but instead to give them the same treatment is those aspects in which they are similar and different in those aspects in which they are different.[40]


  1. Sonia Dasgupta, Article 370: An Example of Asymmetrical Federalism, 11 NUALS L.J. 27 (2017)
  2. M. GOVIND RAO & NIRVIKAR SINGH, Asymmetric Federalism in India
  3. REKHA SAXENA, Is India a Case of Asymmetrical Federalism?, Vol. 47, No. 2, Economic and Political Weekly. 70-71, 73- 75, ( 2012)
  4. Louise Tillin, United in Diversity? Asymmetry in Indian Federalism, Vol. 37, No. 1, Oxford University Press, 45-67, (2007)
  5. SR Bommai vs Union of India, A.I.R. 1994 SCC 1918 (India)
  7. Rekha Saxena, Revisiting Unity And Diversity In Federal Countries, Brill & NIJHOFF 362-383 ( 2018)
  8. INDIA CONST. 8th Schedule
  9. Vn Shukla, Constitution Of India, 50 (EBC 13TH ED).

[1] Sonia Dasgupta, Article 370: An Example of Asymmetrical Federalism, 11 NUALS L.J. 27 (2017)

[2] M. GOVIND RAO & NIRVIKAR SINGH, Asymmetric Federalism in India,


[4] REKHA SAXENA, Is India a Case of Asymmetrical Federalism?, Vol. 47, No. 2, Economic and Political Weekly. 70-71, 73- 75, ( 2012) , JSTOR

[5] Louise Tillin, United in Diversity? Asymmetry in Indian Federalism, Vol. 37, No. 1, Oxford University Press, 45-67, (2007), JSTOR


[7]Supra note 2

[8]Supra note 5


[10]SR Bommai vs Union of India, A.I.R. 1994 SCC 1918 (India)


[12] INDIA CONST. art 12

[13] INDIA CONST. art 13

[14]Supra note 2

[15]Supra note 5

[16]Supra note 1

[17]Supra note 2

[18] INDIA CONST. art 371


[20] INDIA CONST. art 371


[22] Id

[23] INDIA CONST. art 371, cl. A

[24] INDIA CONST. art 371, cl. B

[25] INDIA CONST. art 371, cl. C

[26] INDIA CONST. art 371, cl. D

[27] INDIA CONST. art 371, cl. H

[28] INDIA CONST. art 371, cl. F

[29] INDIA CONST. art 371, cl. G

[30] 11 Rekha Saxena, Revisiting Unity And Diversity In Federal Countries, Brill & NIJHOFF 362-383 ( 2018)


[32] Id

[33] Id

[34]INDIA CONST. 8th Schedule

[35]Supra note 30

[36] Id


[38]Supra note 2

[39] INDIA CONST. art 14

[40]Vn Shukla, Constitution Of India, 50 (EBC 13TH ED).

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