January 25, 2021

Nature of the Indian Constitution

Our Constitution was adapted on 26th November 1949 and came into effect on 26th January 1950. A countries Constitution is regarded as the fundamental law of the land. It defines the responsibilities and powers that lie with the people, State and the Government. It aims to create a sense of identity for the people, whether it be national, political or even Constitutional.[1] The structure of any Constitution is such that all laws, rules and regulations are derived from it. It is the supreme law of the land, and no authority can override its validity. An important aspect that any Constitution lays down would be the nature of its structure. We have derived many concepts from various countries such as France, USA, Britain, New Zealand etc.

Article 1(1) determines the true nature of our Constitution. It states that India is union of states and not a federation. The reason behind choosing the word “Union” over that of federation was that, it showed the formation of India not being an outcome of an agreement among existing states according to the Constitutional drafters.[2] This also meant that no State or group of Sates were allowed to secede from the boundaries of the country at their own free will.

According to Prof.K.C Wheare, federal principle is a method of dividing power so that the general and regional Government are each within a sphere, coordinate and independent”.[3] This form of Government is such that there is a distribution of power between the Center and State, thereby placing them on an equal footing. Five characteristics define a federal system-

1. Distribution of powers- a federal Constitution requires that there be a distribution of power between the Central Government and States that form the federation.[4]

2. The power of the Constitution – the Constitution holds supreme and is a binding authority on both Governments, neither of them can be in a position to override the provisions of the Constitution. This is only in relation to division of powers between State and Center. Any other provisions that do not relate to either need not be supreme.

3. Written Constitution – another essential requirement of a federal Government is that there must be a written form of Constitution; this is so that the supremacy of the Constitution can be maintained as its provisions have been written down.[5]

4. Rigidity – The power to amend the Constitution which regulate the status and powers of the Central and State Governments should not confined to them, this is what meant by rigidity of Constitution and not the fact that it should be legally unchallengeable.

5. Authority of Courts – Court of laws must be established to prevent the Center and State Governments from impinging each other’s powers and thereby making laws that are beyond their scope. Courts should not be empowered upon to decide the validity or invalidity of enactment by either Governments. It is important that a supreme court be established to decide matters regarding Constitutional interpretations.[6]

However, must one strictly confine to the meaning of “federal Constitution”? According to Prof.Wheare, the basic characteristics that make up a federal Government must be maintained and the changes can be permitted provided that they are retained in the Constitution[7]. If there are distinct changes, then it invalidates the term, thereby changing the nature of the system itself.

While the basic characteristics are present in the Indian Constitution, it also conforms to a dual polity. Dual polity is when the State and Centre are endowed with certain powers by the Constitution that they can exercise in certain fields. Their powers and duties are clearly marked. It must be made sure that they do not go beyond their power of exercising their responsibilities. They are to validate the Constitution as it hold supreme over any authority. In addition to this, there cannot be any amendment to the power status of the State and Centre unless there be a concurrence by the Union and a majority vote by the States. If any issue arises with regard to Constitutional interpretations, then the Supreme Court must be the relevant authority to decide upon such matters.[8]

Our Constitution is basically federal, however, the precise nature of our Constitution is Quasi-federal. Prof. Wheare[9] and D.D Basu also have similar thoughts on the same. They state that the Constitution establishes a form of Government that is quasi-federal in nature. It is devolutionary in character, a unitary State that has subsidiary features than that of a federal state with subsidiary unitary features. The judiciary has also taken a similar view hence cleared the debates regarding its nature. A few cases have been mentioned below to help understand how the courts have incorporated this system into the matters at hand.

In the case of Shamsher Singh Vs Union of India,[10] the court held that the system of quasi-federalism was accepted and thereby rejecting the substance of Presidential style of executive. The court reiterated Ambedkar’s statement of the Constitution being both unitary and federal when the time and circumstances required so.

In the case ofS.R Bommai Vs Union of India,[11] it was opined by Justice Ahmadi that the essence of a federation is the presence of distribution of power between the Center and State. Nonetheless, the absence of the terms federal or federation and the presence of unitary features can make us conclude that our Constitution is more quasi federal than federal or unitary. The same was also understood in the case of Sat Pal Vs State of Punjab.[12]

In State of W.B Vs Union of India,[13] the court held that decentralizing of power was essentially to allow smooth governance in a large country and hence contained centralizing features. Through its judgement, the court pointed out the nature of the Constitution as being quasi federal. It can clearly be seen that the courts are having similar views with regard to the nature of Our Constitution.

This not only applies to the Supreme Court but the High courts of various States as well. In the cases ofR.Kannan Vs the Government of India[14] and A.P Transco Vs Sri Gowri Sankar Cable Industries,[15] the court had reiterated the nature of Our Constitution, in a similar manner to that of the Supreme Court.

It can be said that there are many other such cases pertaining to the nature of the Indian Constitution. However, there are still many debates and controversies regarding the same. Many agree, many do not. As of now, these are what the authorities are satisfied with.

India has come a long way from independence, and its Constitution has many features that are similar and distinct from other federations. It is basically federal, but precisely put, a quasi-federal constituency. This structure that prevails, will remain the same for quite a long period, and is not subject to drastic changes. Modifications are bound to happen from time to time, but this would apply to any federation, as they make the change as per their ability and environment.

India is unique to be called quasi federal, as there are not many countries that are called the same. They are either federal or unitary. However, since this country incorporates both, it has been given this special constituency. Though there a still many debates on this matter, this view of quasi federalism, is not going to be subject to any change for quiet sometime at the least.


[1] V. N Shukla and Mahendra Pal Singh, V.N. Shukla’s Constitution of India (13th edn, Eastern Book Company 2017)

[2] Constituent Assembly Debates, vol.7

[3] K.C Wheare, Federal Government (4th Edn. 1963)

[4] Dicey, Laws of the Constitution (9th Edn.) 157

[5] Ibid.

[6] Dicey, Laws of the Constitution (9th Edn.) 157

[7] K.C Wheare, Federal Government (4th Edn. 1963)

[8] V. N Shukla and Mahendra Pal Singh, V.N. Shukla’s Constitution of India (13th edn, Eastern Book Company 2017)

[9] K.C Wheare, India’s New Constitution Analysed

[10] (1974) 2 SCC 831

[11] (1994) 3 SCC 1: AIR 1944 SC 1918

[12] (1982) 1 SCC 12: AIR 1981 SC 2230

[13] AIR 1963 SC 1241: (1964) 1 SCR 371

[14] A 2010 Judgement

[15] 2002 (3) ALT 134

Author Details: Janavi Venkatesh (OP Jindal Global University)

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