One of the early moves of the present Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led Tamil Nadu government, which came to power in May 2021, was to jettison the phrase “Central government” in official communications.

Tamil Nadu’s decision to address the Government of India as the Union government (Ondriya Arasu) instead of the Central government (Mathiya Arasu) was avowedly directed at halting the growing attrition of Indian federalism.

As Aazhi Senthilnathan, a writer and Tamil language activist, remarked, this change in nomenclature was necessitated by the threat to the federal structure and autonomy of the state.

Federalism has indisputably become a basic concept in Indian politics, much like in the 1930s and 1940s. Concepts are not mere words. An important feature that distinguishes concepts from words is their ambiguity. For German historian Reinhart Koselleck, basic concepts are “indispensable to any formulation of the most urgent issues of a given time”. They are also “highly complex, always unavoidable, ambiguous, controversial, and contested.”

Today, federalism shapes our political language and discourse such that the semantics of federalism are central to power struggles between the centre and units, resisting the unprecedented growth of unitary features and, more importantly, scripting a political language that remembers and recovers a federal tradition that respected the autonomy of the Indian states.

Tamil Nadu’s act of semantic resistance should speak to a larger project of recovering a political language of federalism that safeguards the rights of the Indian states. Yet, the terms of the debate are much more complex than one might think.

The distinction between the Union or Federal government and Central government is historical and was debated widely in the 1930s and 1940s. The making of India into a “Union” as opposed to a Federation in 1950 made the difference between union and centre less consequential. Union, as opposed to federation, was founded on the belief that the constituent states had no original sovereignty.

History of the central government

Both the colonial government and the Indian leaders used the words “centre” and “central government” frequently. The Government of India Act of 1919 talked about the central legislature and the central government in distinction to local governments and local legislatures. As long as the British ruled India, the central government meant the Governor-General in Council, and provincial or local governments meant the Governors-in-Council.

It is worth mentioning that today, the word “local” by no means would refer to a state government, but only to a municipal or panchayat government. The “centre” in colonial India connoted the seat of the government of British India. The British Indian state was a highly unitary state with centralised control, and thus, centre and central government were important categories in imperial constitutionalism.

The Indian nationalists, too, spoke in a constitutional language that accepted the semantics of colonial governance. The Nehru Report (1928), the first major nationalist articulation of an Indian constitution, liberally used the phrase “central government”. The authors of the report went on to the extent of asking for extraordinary powers for the central government, including annulling the Acts of the provincial governments, for “no Central Government can be carried on without those powers”.

By the late 1920s, there was widespread acceptance of the fact that the future constitution of India would have to be federal. The Simon Commission (1927-’29), appointed to recommend the principles of a future constitution for India, argued in its report for a federation of India consisting of both British India and princely states. The main task ahead was the makeover of a unitary colonial state into a federal state. Thus, a new constitutional category called “federal,” as opposed to central, began to dominate late colonial Indian politics.

In most schemes for federation adumbrated in the 1930s, one would see a careful distinction between central and federal. Central subjects/central government were to refer to the Government of India when it dealt with matters common to British provinces. Federal subjects/federal government were to refer to matters of all India concern, that is, matters that affect both the provinces and the princely states.

This is the same sense in which Akbar Hydari, prime minister of Hyderabad, advanced his “Federal Scheme for India” in October 1930, just before the First Round Table Conference met in London. In the archives relating to the Political Department that managed the relations with the princely states, one would find files relating to the distinction between federal and central in the 1930s. The princely states were the federal elements in India’s changing constitutional edifice in the 1930s, for only in relation to them could federal, as opposed to central as a constitutional category, could exist.

In their desire to emulate the Westminster-type parliamentary government, the Indian nationalists became unabashed advocates of a powerful central government. This became an important point of divergence between the nationalists and the princes, and the minorities.

The Muslim League, on its part, had long been skeptical of a powerful central government. MA Jinnah’s Fourteen Points, in response to the Nehru Report, demanded that residuary powers be vested in the states rather than the centre. Provincial autonomy and a limited centre would remain a feature of various Muslim federal imaginings throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

The constituent assembly

In the Constituent Assembly, various arguments for and against a strong center were advanced. The drafting committee, led by BR Ambedkar, unapologetically stood for a strong central government. The words “centre” and “central government” are strewn all over the debates, even as those very words did not find a place in the fine print of the Constitution in 1950.

Ambedkar, in particular, used “centre” at crucial moments in the debate. While debating what is now Article 356 (in the Draft Constitution, Article 278), Ambedkar said that “whether there is good government or not in the province is for the Centre to determine”. This is one indicator of his thought process and, in some ways, makes legible the comment made by politician Dr Lokanath Misra in the Constituent Assembly that “Dr. Ambedkar has taken everything to the centre”.

Leaders like Hasrat Mohani and Damodar Swarup Seth vigorously opposed the centralisation and lack of sovereignty of the states, with Swarup ominously remarking that too much centralisation would lead to “totalitarianism.”

A meeting of the Constituent Assembly in 1950. Credit: in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Constituent Assembly debates show us that even as India was to be a Union of States, it was by no means going to be a federation of the kind that was advocated by the princely states and minorities. In princely and minority thought, animated by a strong sense of regionalism and provincial autonomy, the central government was to only have a bare minimum of functions, with most of the subjects divided between the center and the provinces.

The Concurrent List, where the centre and the states have concurrent jurisdiction, was to remain very short. The fact that India ended up with a much larger Concurrent List than anyone had thought in the 1930s or 1940s, itself, speaks to the increasing dominance of a nationalist thought that sought to reproduce the unitary structure of the colonial state in a free India.

On September 2, 1949, this was precisely the charge that Hasrat Mohani lodged against Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru in the Constituent Assembly, that by increasing central powers, they have created a “Unitary Indian Empire” much like the “old British Unitary Indian Empire”.

The consolations of language

This detour through history shows us that both union government and central government are appropriate terms to address the Government of India, which is the only legal and constitutional entity recognized outside India; central or union government is a matter of domestic importance alone.

The history of Indian nationalist thought and its foundational role in the making of the postcolonial Indian state is indexed through both phrases. Even as the phrase “central government” does not figure in the written constitution, it points us to the fact that the text of the constitution is not a satisfactory register of the political language in which it was conceived and debated prior to its writing.

An undated cartoon by OV Vijayan. Taken from Rama Sundar and Nancy Hudson-Rodd (eds), Tragic Idiom: O.V. Vijayan’s Cartoons and Notes on India (Kottayam: D. C. Books, 2006).

Tamil Nadu’s recalcitrance opens us to a new world of political language. Remembering lost battles and alternate political trajectories mostly depend on concepts and idioms that appear distant in our everyday language. The fact that in many Indian languages, a distinction between “union” and “central” can be hard to sustain also points us to the conjoined status of union and centre as opposed to federal, which is a distinct category of political and legal thought in most languages.

The union was umbilically tied to the centre at the birth of its creation, and this perhaps speaks to the paucity of words that can meaningfully distinguish between union and center in political terminologies and discourses. For instance, in Malayalam, federation or federal government (samyuktabaranam) and unitary government (aikyabaranam) mean distinct things, though the distinction between centre and union is very tenuous.

Centre means kendram, and union means aikyam/ekata. But Malayalam has no word to distinguish between centrally-ruled areas from Union Territories, for both mean kendra barana pradesham (much like Hindi).

The detractors of Tamil Nadu’s move allege that Ondriya Arasu does not really mean a union government but a sub-district or lower-level structure. This perhaps points us to the challenge of recovering federal concepts in languages that lack such proper concepts yet are essential for claims-making in India today.

Calling India a federation, or referring to the Government of India as the central government could be seen as outside the text, for neither federation/federal nor central make an appearance in the Constitution. Yet, federation is a sui generis linguistic and political category that exists in most Indian languages.

While ruling and opposition parties alike like to see India as a federation regardless of the constitutional silence on this term, it should matter the least for all concerned that Tamil Nadu is choosing to use a term that is appropriately constitutional. Tamil Nadu’s stance conveys to us the urgency of recovering a language of federalism that must distinguish between union and centre, even as the languages we speak do not neatly grant us that separation.

The complex history of the separation between the central and federal and the conjoined status of union and centre at the founding of India make such a task meaningful in resisting the growing centralisation in India.

Sarath Pillai is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of India. His first book project examines the rise and fall of federalist ideas in late colonial India. His Twitter handle is @i_sarathpillai

This article was first published on India in Transition, a publication of the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.