Federalism and Regionalism in India: Institutional Strategies and Political Accommodation of Identity

  • Harihar Bhattacharyya (Author)

Identifiers (Article)


Regionalism has remained perhaps the most potent force in Indian politics ever since independence (1947), if not before. It has remained the main basis of many regional political parties which have been governing many states since the late 1960s. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which ruled at the federal level from 1999 to 2004, was but a medley of various region-based parties. Interestingly enough, regionalism has also remained the main basis of the communist movements in India which have grown in close identification with the regions, and are sustained therein. In the post-independence period, region is said to have often vied with the nation. The post-independence resurgence of regionalism in many parts of India baffled the observers of Indian politics, and offered as the basis of prediction of the country's "imminent balkanization" (Harrison 1960). The "crisis thesis" which was implicit in Harrison has been the theme of many subsequent accounts of Indian politics. The basic question that I seek to raise in this paper relates to the role played by Indian federalism in ensuring India's unity, stability and survival as a polity in the face of persistent regionalism, often verging on separation, rooted in manifold and complex social and cultural diversity, and mass poverty, illiteracy, extreme regional unevenness in development, and widespread inequality. The question has assumed special significance in the aftermath of the disintegration of the multi-ethnic and multi-national Soviet Union, and the split up of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. India's record of relative unity and integrity stands in sharp contrast to many post-colonial federations, which have failed, or broken down. In the age of what Eric Hobsbawm has called "nation-splitting", India's relative unity and integrity, and survival as a state is remarkable indeed. To be sure, regionalism is rooted in India's manifold diversity of languages, cultures, tribes, communities, religions and so on, and encouraged by the regional concentration of those identity markers, and fuelled by a sense of regional deprivation. For many centuries, India remained the land of many lands, regions, cultures and traditions. The country of more than a billion people inhabiting some 3, 287, 263sq km., India's broad regions, socio-culturally speaking, are distinct from one another. For instance, southern India (the home of Dravidian cultures), which is itself a region of many regions, is evidently different from the north, the west, the central and the north-east. Even the east of India is different from the North-East of India comprising today seven constituent units of Indian federation with the largest concentration of tribal peoples. The British colonial division of the Indian territory broadly between the directly-ruled provinces, and some 560 (indirectly-ruled) autocratic princely kingdoms of many sizes, religions, tribes, and languages added complexity to regionalism in India. Even after various phases of territorial reorganization since 1950, most regions of India contain many sub-regions marked by some social and cultural identity symbols. In India, regionalism, or the acute sense of loyalty to the particular region manifested itself variously. It has often expressed itself in antagonistic terms to that of the nation, fuelled as it is by the sense of enduring deprivation due to long-term neglect in development, and resource redistribution. Regionalism has often expressed itself in terms, which are opposed to national unity and integrity, and challenging to the legitimacy of the state. While the rulers have most often liked to see in regionalism "a very serious threat to the development, progress and unity of the country", some scholars have expressed similar views by seeing regionalism as "anti-system, anti-federal" and so on. But positively oriented scholar have seen values in regionalism in the context of building the nation, or national cohesion provided the political system is accommodative of timely meeting the demands of the regions. The literature on regionalism, its meaning, forms, causes and consequences in India etc are already vast, and there is perhaps little to add to clarifying the meaning of regionalism in India, or its forms and content. The basic point that I would highlight in this respect is that internal self-determination of community, whether linguistic, tribal, religious, regional, or their combinations, has remained the predominant form in which regionalism in India has sought to express itself, historically as well as contemporaneously. Most often, self-determination has been couched in terms of statehood or state autonomy.


India; Political Science; Federalism; Regionalism; Ethnic Identity