Indian federalism: an innovative response


back to issue

ONE of the ways to understand the hundred years of the Dravidian movement, its impact on the Indian polity and its contribution to the imagination of India, is to look beyond political science and embrace literature. It is quite similar to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. When I replaced the title ‘The Satanic Verses’ with the Dravidian movement in Rushdie’s defence of the novel in the light of the fatwa, many possibilities opened up.

Rushdie wrote: ‘The Satanic Verses celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that come of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world… The Satanic Verses is for change-by-fusion, change-by-conjoining. It is a love-song to our mongrel selves.’1 Suddenly, most of the apparent contradictions, inconsistencies, incongruities, paradoxes, and even absurdities of this ten decade-old movement started making sense.

The Dravidian movement is not a monolith representing a single caste, class and linguistic identity. It is an amalgam of ideas, and the federal power sharing mechanism is just one of its multifarious manifestations. American political scientist, Alfred Stepan, has argued about two types of federal arrangements: coming together and holding together. The way India has organized itself does not fall neatly into either of these two categories; rather it has absorbed elements of both trajectories.

This mongrel model has its roots in the Montague-Chelmsford reforms and the 1919 Government of India Act, the Instrument of Accession for the Princely States and traverses in forking legal and political paths: one, asymmetric devolution – Articles 370 to 375, to respect the plurality of the country and two, retaining central control through Articles 355 and 356 of the Indian Constitution. At a fundamental level, the Dravidian movement’s positions on various issues are a combination of prescient anticipation of changes in the policy and legal framework, response to dominant political narratives and resistance to homogenization. Hence, it mirrors the mélange of the larger Indian state.


In 1916, the Non-Brahmin Movement took its formal form because it felt that deliberations of the Montague-Chelmsford team failed to take into account the aspirations of the vast set of people; rather that the reform in reality made the de facto power enjoyed by the entrenched sections a de jure one. Though the central crux of politics at that point in time was not decentralization of power but a search for adequate representation, the method deployed by the Dravidian movement provided enough hints about its relationship not only with the central power but also with other provinces of British India.

When it came to power for the first time in 1920, the Justice Party extended the scope of the 1854 Standing Order of the Board of Revenue by issuing the Communal G.O. It required all the heads of departments to distribute appointments of all grades among various communities; this saw its full implementation by 1927. The impact of this singular move could have its national resonance only in 1990, when Prime Minister V.P. Singh implemented the recommendations of the Mandal Commission. The first directly elected Justice Party government was also responsible for implementing women’s suffrage in April 1921.

It would be easier to read the movement if we look at the dynamics of its functions in five groupings, of twenty years each. These classifications stand testimony to the idea of continuity and change that remained the fulcrum of the movement rather than a total revolution. Decentralization of power and a federal arrangement were never seen as the final goal of the movement, but more as a means to achieve social justice. Hence, the movement could easily oscillate from maximalist positions – independent Dravida Nadu and rejection of Indian independence – to widely acceptable fallback positions. The kernel of these developments was that the leadership remained sufficiently pragmatic to make a distinction between outright compromise and reasonable conciliation.


The 1916-1936 phase can be termed as an embryonic one for the movement, where the challenges were identified but the leadership remained with the upper caste non-Brahmins who were landlords, local chieftains and educated sections. This was a period when the movement identified the problems with the homogenizing tendencies of a pan-Indian imagination. The Non-Brahmin Manifesto should be seen in this light.

The next twenty years between 1936-1956 defined the movement’s twin trajectory: an agitational, maximalist position of Periyar – this included atheism and rejection of the Indian Union, on the one hand, and reconciliation and seeking a part in governance position of C.N. Annadurai, on the other. It was in this phase that the Dravidian movement marked a clear departure from the Justice Party with Periyar as its ideological fountainhead. It was also the phase in which two modes of politics – one rooted in a campaign mode (Dravidar Kazhagam) and another that opted for direct electoral politics (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) – became a reality. This rift, at its core, symbolized the struggle about the search for the most effective way to render the Indian nation state plural and truly diverse.

Murasoli Maran, the key ideologue of the earlier phase of struggle for state autonomy and a leading parliamentarian from the DMK, observed that the difference, in retrospect, did not weaken the movement but rather helped it to occupy a much larger political space of the state. Every internal difference showed the range of opinions that were prevalent among the self-respecters. The DMK’s acceptance of K. Santhanam’s observation that ‘there was hardly any shade of public opinion not represented in the Constituent Assembly’ and the DK’s rejection of the debate itself as a red herring should give an idea of the bandwidth of the movement. Murasoli Maran felt that Periyar’s maximalist position indeed provided a bargaining chip for more pragmatic positions in various negotiations.


Three issues governed the dynamics of the movement in both the above phases: linguistic autonomy as opposed to Hindi as the sole national language, the quest for social justice through the instrument of affirmative action, and the need to act as a centrifugal force against the growing clout and power of the pan-Indian centripetal force. The broad spectrum of this movement can be seen when the state of Madras Presidency rose as a single entity to challenge the Supreme Court’s verdict that ended reservation in the education sector in the State of Madras vs. Smt Champakam Dorairajan case.

It was a strange case where Champakam Dorairajan, a Brahmin, a student, did not even apply for a medical seat but chose to question the wisdom of affirmative action. The Supreme Court reduced the role of the state to an ‘appropriationist institution’ when it came to provide a level playing field for not only the socially backward classes but also for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The very first amendment to the Indian Constitution happened in 1951 because of this case and due to the ethical pressure the Dravidian movement exerted over the Indian Parliament.


The third phase, 1956-1976, was a pointer to the prevailing dominant idea shared by various political parties that lay claim to the legacy of the Dravidian movement. The year 1957 is significant in more than one sense as DMK entered electoral politics in the general elections, both for the Legislative Assembly (winning 15 seats), and the Lok Sabha (winning two seats). It was the period in which the state clearly emerged as one that would be ruled by the state parties.

Substantial progress was seen in institutional arrangements during this phase. From establishing the first ever backward classes commission – Sattanathan Commission, and the state police commission – Gopalswamy Iyengar Commission, to the creation of the State Planning Commission and the establishment of a Centre-State Relations Inquiry Committee headed by Justice P.V. Rajamannar, the focus was also on creating state-level systems to work out its own development model. The Rajamannar Committee report, its assessment by the political committee headed by Era Sezhiyan and Murasoli Maran, and the state legislative resolution reflected the maximalist positions of this era.

Some of the recommendations of the Rajamannar Committee were:

1. ‘The Inter-State Council should be constituted immediately’ and that ‘No decision of national importance or which may affect one or more States should be taken by the Union Government except after consultation with the Inter-State Council.’

2. ‘Every Bill of national importance or which is likely to affect the interests of one or more States should, before its introduction in Parliament, be referred to the Inter-State Council and its views thereon should be submitted to Parliament at the time of introduction of the Bill.’

3. Placing curbs on and limiting the use of Article 356 of the Constitution only to situations of complete breakdown of law and order in a state.

4. The vesting of residuary power of legislation and taxation in the state legislature.


It was a phase in which the DMK was seen not only as a leader in defining state rights as opposed to a centralizing Union government, but also as the provider of stability and moral supporter of progressive legislations. The creation of a Tamil anthem based on a song written by Manomaniam Sundaram Pillai, the establishment of the State Planning Commission, and success in securing the right to hoist the national flag on Independence day by the chief minister worked as powerful symbolism for strengthening the state against the aggrandizing power of the Union. When the Congress party split in 1969, and Indira Gandhi’s government was reduced to a minority, it was the DMK’s 25 MPs in the Lok Sabha who provided unstinted support and in return were participants in the move to abolish the privy purse and the nationalization of banks.

Despite the DMK being a powerful and stable ally, the Centre was not favourably inclined to the state’s political trajectory. The DMK’s clean sweep of 184 seats in the 1971 state assembly elections and victory in every Lok Sabha seat it contested, except Nagerkoil which Kamaraj won, was seen as a threat to Delhi. Not only was the party split, its stand against the Emergency was seen as a conscious act of overstepping, and in January 1976, Article 356 was invoked for the first time in Tamil Nadu to dismiss an elected government. This excess was to be repeated three more times: twice against AIADMK in 1980 and 1988, and once more against the DMK in 1991. The institutional arrangements came under severe strain from 1972 onwards. The courts clearly preferred to interpret the laws and amendments introduced by the state of Tamil Nadu only through the national prism. The DMK and the DK were, for instance, on the same side of the fence when the DMK government decided to amend the law to stipulate that temple trustees were no longer under any legal obligation to appoint hereditary heirs as an archaka. However, the Supreme Court in the Seshammal vs. State of Tamil Nadu case derailed this move.


A troubling trend first discerned during this phase continues to haunt the Dravidian parties – the role of its parliamentarians. It was the elected representatives to the Indian Parliament who either spearheaded the rebellion against the leadership or were at the forefront of challenging the state-level leadership. E.V.K. Sampath led the first split in the DMK in 1961 and he was a Lok Sabha member. In 1972, when M.G. Ramachandran raised the banner of revolt, it was another Member of Parliament, Nanjil Manoharan who handled the crucial backroom operations. In 1977, the articulate parliamentarian Era Sezhiyan left state politics to join the Janata Party. In 1982, G. Lakshmanan, who was the Deputy Speaker of the Lok Sabha, defected from the DMK to the Congress to retain his post when the alliance between the two parties collapsed.

When M.G. Ramachandran was ill and recuperating, it was J. Jayalalithaa, again a Member of Parliament, who wrote letters to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to sack him and appoint her as the chief minister of the state. In 1993, it was the turn of V. Gopalswami, a three term Rajya Sabha member, to split the DMK. The last in this long list of parliamentarians to turn against the leadership was an insignificant revolt by Sasikala Pushpa, a Rajya Sabha member, against J. Jayalalithaa. The fundamental adversarial equation between Chennai and Delhi, and the constant battles of attrition between the requirements of the state and the will of the Union can be deduced in these developments.


The third phase (1976 to 1996) thus witnessed a gradual erosion of the earlier vibrancy. During the Emergency, the ADMK was rechristened the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, as M.G. Ramachandran did not want to attract that dreaded term used by the Union of India – ‘fissiparous tendencies’. The only positive outcome during this period was securing 69 per cent reservations, despite the Supreme Court’s aversion, by bringing in the 76th Amendment to the Indian Constitution. The pendulum swung in the opposite direction, with principle political parties, the DMK and the AIADMK, vying with each other to get into the good books of the Indian National Congress. The primary reason was that during this phase alliance arithmetic rather than political positions determined electoral outcomes. The term ‘cooperation with the Centre’ was a euphemism for permitting the Union to ride roughshod over the states. A feeble but unsuccessful attempt was made to bring education back into the state list, which was shifted to the concurrent list during the Emergency, and one stray meeting of the non-Congress chief ministers. These were the only two significant developments in addressing centre-state relations during these years.


The just concluded fifth phase (1996-2016) marked yet another departure. The original idea of power sharing at the Centre became a reality during this phase. With the exception of five years, the Dravidian parties were a part of the ruling coalitions at the Centre. In the early part of this phase, the DMK achieved a three-tier grip on the governance mechanism – it had four Union ministers, an absolute majority in the state assembly, and total control of local bodies. It appeared as though the spirit of the 1970s had returned to the state. This, however, was a short-lived hope. The defeat of the DMK in 2001 proved that power at the Centre is not always a blessing; it can be a curse too.

Unlike the earlier phases where negotiations led to conciliation, in this phase they turned out to be a compromise. How does one negotiate power with the most centralizing political entity of the Hindu right? With the introduction of GST (Goods and Services Tax) and the abolition of the Planning Commission, is there a will to talk about fiscal federalism? What will happen to gains made in education with the introduction of NEET? Did the state gain in terms of fiscal federalism during the liberalization era or did it indeed lose out? Is there a common language between the inclusive politics of self-respect and the exclusive homogenizing core of Hindutva politics? Does the current crop of political leaders in Tamil Nadu have the vision and courage to plough a lonely furrow? Going by recent trends, the prospects appear bleak.



1. Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. Granta/Penguin Books, London, 1992.