One Body, Many Heads: A Discussion on (De)centralization
This paper sets out to investigate the many thoughts and opinions of national leaders on the ideas of centralization and decentralization. Politicians such as Nehru, Gandhi, and Jinnah all had opposing and varying views, each based on their personal political agendas. Everyone had a certain vision of how a post-independence India should be governed, whether the state should be given the most power or if it should there be a more federal system, allowing each state more autonomy. In a country as diverse as India, which way would be best in order to achieve unity so as to never again allow foreign rule to gain the upper hand on Indian rulers, has certainly been a subject of many debates.
The Indian National Congress was the main political party at the time of the freedom struggle, with the Muslim League being the primary opposition party. Jinnah’s demand for a more federal and decentralized system of government was moulded by the Congress into a demand for a separate state, Pakistan. The INC leaders had their hearts set on ruling India with a strong centre, while maintaining a democratic form of government, with certain federal characteristics. This decision was taken keeping in mind the wide diversity prevalent in India at the time. There existed various opinions on how India should be governed post-independence, with differing views on how best unity may be achieved in order to ensure a foreign rule may never again gain the upper hand on Indian rulers and politicians.
The Constituent Assembly had two factors to keep in mind while drafting the Constitution of India. One being the immediate set of problems prevalent at the time, i.e. the communal riots between Hindus and Muslims, rehabilitation of those who were displaced due to the partition, the use of diplomatic and military methods in order to retain the princely states and intervene while they intended to become sovereign states as well as the use of military in the south, with uprisings by the communist parties, and the other being the long term pertinent political decisions. The short-term problems required having a pro-Centre government post independence, in order to ensure unity in the country and avoid a possible ‘Balkanisation’. That being said, the majority of the Constituent Assembly consisted of Hindus, who comprised the majority population of India, especially post Partition, when 6.5 million Muslims migrated to Pakistan.
The members of the Assembly had a particular vision for independent India – they believed that having a strong center was imperative to lay the foundation for a united India with the many diverse and culturally different sections of society in order to create a distinct national identity. A strong centre was also more effective in bringing about a State-Capitalist path of development than the provincial state. Additionally, a strong centre is more likely to succeed in reducing class inequalities as well as regional disparities in order to fulfill socio-economic objectives as envisioned by the Assembly. These long-term goals only reinforced idea of the members of the Assembly, that a more centralized form of government is necessary to also tackle the immediate problems of communal violence, refugee crisis, and communism.
Debates on the Issue
One of the more prominent figures of the Assembly, K.M. Panikkar wrote a statement that emphasized on the fact that had the partition not taken place, India would have had to implement a federalist form of government with limited powers given to the centre, in order to cater to the needs of the Muslim League. In essence, the Assembly largely seemed to be satisfied with the existence of these large number of Muslim majorities, which allowed them to further their centralized agenda without interference. Although Nehru was initially a supporter
of socialist federalism and the autonomy of the princely states as well as other regions of India, he echoed these similar centralist views when it came to the drafting of the Constitution as well as when it came to his ruling ideology post-independence. He viewed the Muslim League and their demands as a limitation on the scope of central authority. Had they been a political presence in India, their needs would have curbed the administrative needs of India.
After the partition was finalized, Nehru expressed that the majority of the Assembly was of the opinion that not constructing a pro Centre government would be detrimental to the development of the nation. Other members such as Jaspat Roy Kapoor, Jagat Narain Lal, and Ram Chandra Gupta envisioned a centralistic rule, but viewed it from a Hindutva angle and said that historically, India has always been ruled over by foreigners when a decentralized form of power was otherwise prevalent.
Those who opposed centralization were viewed as an antinational or a foreign spy, because they so strongly believed that India needed unity and a centralized form of government. Jagrat Narain Lal said that the solidarity in India has been broken on multiple occasions, allowing
foreigners easy access into the political scene of the nation. Also putting forth a Hindutva thought process, Ram Chandra Gupta essentially said that had the partition not taken place, the provincial governments would have been left to make all their own autonomous decisions on almost all matters except for communication, defence, etc. Instead, the partition did rightly require a strong centre and that is what the Constitution provided.
Someone who had no Hindutva vision, BR Ambedkar, was also an ardent supporter of a strong centre, even though he had different reasons for the same. At the same time, he never failed to remain critical of Nehru’s overly centralistic ideas and proposals. One among them being Nehru’s stance on the requirement of only a simple majority of parliament in order to bring about amendments in the Constitution. He was also constantly aware of the invasion of provincial autonomy by the strong state.
The southern states were the strongest opposition to the notion of centralization. Professor N.G. Ranga issued a warning that the centralization would only lead to authoritarianism instead of fulfilling the democratic requirements of the people. Mahboob Ali Baig, on the other hand, emphasized on the importance of proportional representation in the electoral process, in order to ensure the minorities are also heard and are not marginalized in an increasingly Hindutva oreinted nation. Along those same lines, T.T. Krishnamachari was afraid of Hindi
totalitarianism as well as the subjugation of non-Hindi speaking people due to centralization. The language of the Centre and the legislature was Hindi, and the southern states feared that it would be imposed upon them and noncompliance would mean that they would be unable to actively participate in the politics of the Centre in order to ensure the welfare of their own states. Socialists were also apprehensive of pro-centralisation approaches to governance, such as that of the President’s Rule, considered to be a threat to democracy and symbolic of a
dictatorship like takeover by the INC.
Another minority community extremely displeased with the Assembly’s decision to centralise power, were the Sikhs. The Provincial units had been lessened to Municipal Boards and minorities; besides, the Sikhs had been neglected. Sikh representative Bhupinder Singh Mann said that his community were simply unable to give their full support to the Assembly and the decisions being taken by them. Another said that the newly formed Constitution had scope to give way to a form of fascism.
Gandhi was an anarchist, who believed that the reason humans were good was because they are spiritual beings and possess a certain element of the divine. He strongly believed in individualism, which is essentially an anarchist school of thought. Any form of control over the individual and its rights was viewed through a lens of suspicion. The more decentralization, the more content anarchists are. Gandhi had similar views on nationalism as he did on decentralization – he was against state-building. He tried not to focus on the central aspect of the nation, as it seemed to curb the interests of the minority groups. Decentralisation would allow the nation to develop with a cultural bias, rather than a political one.
Gandhi’s plan to achieve decentralization was through Panchayati Raj. He believed that independence should begin at the bottom and that each village should be a complete republic, even in charge of its own defence. He laid emphasis on the rural and rural values, not giving much thought to urban development since he was against the concept of migration of labourers from rural to urban areas. He also believed that panchayats would be the
least coercive in terms of state due to decentralization. He propagated the values of ahimsa and swaraj, which he believed could be achieved through village life. He opposed the formation of parties and factions in villages because according to him, those were gateways to further baseless materialistic desires and said that these parties do not work for the welfare of the people, but only for their own political gain. He preached the concept of selfgovernment, and further said that we must make constant effort to achieve it by dissociating from the government and its coercive tendencies to a point where we ourselves are sufficient enough to rule ourselves. That is the true meaning of independence, where each village reaches a level of self-sufficiency and utilize outside resources in order to fill any empty gaps, instead of the reverse, which is to have the State decide what matters the villages have control over. He envisioned the panchayati raj to be structured like an ocean or an equal circle, instead of in a hierarchical pyramid. This way, the government would not use their power against the people, but would only utilize their resources in order to impart strength, which would empower the entire society and system.
The constituent assembly did not share this belief, though the concept of village swaraj managed to attract millions to the freedom struggle. The members objected to this method of institution building because they believed that this Gandhian view of village rule was a little too idealistic and not practical to implement in the long run. Gandhi believed in cooperation and harmony and sometimes failed to factor in competition and conflict. Another strong
opposition was BR Ambedkar, who was skeptical of the panchayat being in control. He believed that the rural areas were oppressive and propagated a strict practice of the caste system and would continue to do so postindependence without interference from the Centre. Although it may be for contrasting reasons, Ambedkar shared Nehru’s vision of a united India which could only be possible with the existence of a strong Centre. Nehru said that Gandhi’s ideals and beliefs were outdated and unsuitable for a modern form of parliament. Dantwala from
the Constituent Assembly observed that decentralization requires an equal society and in a nation like India, where there exists large disparities and inequalities, decentralized planning will not be able to keep intact post-1947 India’s democratic laws and values. The Asoka Mehta Committee also reported that Panchayati Raj Institutions were controlled by those who came from socially and economically higher backgrounds and allowing these institutions to be in power would not be beneficial to the weaker sections of society. Ultimately, Gandhi’s idea of
village swaraj found no place in the constitution except for the Directive Principles of State Policy which are unactionable.
Ultimately, the strongest supporters of centralization were the Hindus nationalists, consistent with the Hindutva ideology most of them inculcated. Decentralisation, as well as minorities and their representation were simply viewed as a threat to the nationalist identity of these (upper caste) Hindus. This very Hindu nationalism was converted into a secularist nationalism post-independence, but still with sometimes unnoticeable Hindutva objectives in mind due to the central nature of the Constitution, which again, was formed by Hindu nationalists.
Although it may have been a more ulterior motive that encouraged most of the Assembly to draft a Constitution with a pro-Centre bias, it was, in my opinion, probably the best option for India at the time which consisted of a large number of diverse regions and cultures. Without a strong Centre, it may have proved difficult to create a united national identity and inculcate a spirit of oneness in every Indian, across all cultures.