Decoding ‘Union of States’ riddle: From Constituent Assembly to Rahul Gandhi

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In a compendious speech in Lok Sabha Rahul Gandhi argues, “India is described in the Constitution as a union of states and not as a Nation. One cannot rule over the people of a state in India. Different languages and cultures cannot be suppressed. It is a partnership, not a kingdom.”

Exact legal and political meaning of Nation is nowhere to be found. It is the ‘state’ which has a legal as well as political meaning. However, Nation is an anthropological term used to unite people for a common purpose. As aptly defined by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore (which is supposed to be the closest in the spirit of the word): “A Nation is that aspect which a whole population assumes when organized for a mechanical purpose”.

Once Rahul Gandhi finished his speech, some were reticent but others were openly critical. Workers of BJP are unable to see States the way Rahul Gandhi does. Problem is not theirs since neither were they part of the Constituent Assembly nor were they comprehending it at any point of time. Others  argue that Rahul Gandhi doesn’t have an iota of idea of the Constitution of India, while he refers to Article 1 of the Constitution of India which says, “India that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States”. They continue that he doesn’t even have a bit of nous of its Preamble where India is considered as a ‘Nation’.

According to the Oxford concise dictionary of politics, “Nation refers rather to the population within, sharing a common culture, language, and ethnicity with a strong historical continuity. This manifests itself in most members in a sentiment of collective, communal identity.” Since this definition identifies a Nation with communal identity, Rahul Gandhi believes in the concept of States rather. The preamble of the Constitution of India knowing this reads, “FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation;” hoping to build Nations in support of their states as part of their socio-economic development as state is “a distinctive set of political institutions whose specific concern is with the organisation of domiNation, in the name of the common interest, within a delimited territory.”

It is true, “Preamble is the key to open the mind of the makers”, but we should not forget that in the Kesavananda Bharati Case, a bench of 13 judges of the Apex Court observed that the Preamble is not the supreme power or source of any restriction or prohibition but it plays an important role in the interpretation of statutes and provisions of the Constitution. Once we read the Constitution of India in toto we find that it distributes the power; has a written form; has supremacy; and has finality of the courts when it comes to interpret the statute; and there is a rigid procedure to amend it which is nothing but a characteristic that India i.e. Bharat is a Union of States. Some may argue that Articles inter alia 3, 155, 249, 352, 356 and 360 of the Constitution of India gives the Union Government unitary power as India being a Nation but the fabric i.e. being the Union of States cannot be marred because fundamental rights envisaged in the Constitution of India protects the same. Even when India as a Nation deposes the state governments under Article 356 of the Constitution of India, the fundamental rights and freedom of the citizens cease to exist is known to everyone

Therefore, we have to understand the concept of states in India. We have to read the minds of the members of the Constituent Assembly. We have to understand why the word Nation is there in the Preamble of the Constitution of India and what does it signify.

Until the adoption of the Constitution of India on 26th day of January 1950 (readers are requested not to mistake it with 26.11.1949), there was no concept of States rather it was province; and all the heads of the provincial governments were called Prime Ministers, vide one of the letters by Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru dated 15th Day of October 1947 to other Prime Ministers of the provincial states of India.

In a letter dated 15th Day of August 1949, he addressed his Prime Ministers wherein he reiterates that India being the Union of States, “We encourage no class war and we do not wish to injure any group or class. But where interests conflict, it is inevitable that the interests of the common people must prevail. This is not only good morality but also good commonsense. It is the obvious consequence of democracy. Any other policy would lead to major conflicts and disruption.”

It goes without saying that the concept of Nation was so rampant during independence struggle that on July 22, 1947, just before India got independence, Pt. Jawarharlal Nehru made his famous speech, “Our National Flag”, in the Constituent Assembly and resolved for the tricolour flag to be adopted as the Indian National Flag. He boastfully used the word Nation and a bare perusal may lead us to the fact that there was an anthropological connect in his speech. We may find a religious, cultural and historical connect in his speech. These were the demands of the time. But what did compel Nehru to give such a Nationalist speech needs to be grasped! Let us explore the answer…

It was Bankim Chadra Chatterjee’s Anadamath which aroused Hindu Nationalism for the first time against the Nawab of Bengal by terming them real culprits behind the Bengal famine. Hindus’ minds promenaded with the concept of Vande Mataram. In his last speech at Madras, 1897, Swami Vivekananda delivers, “We have seen that our vigour, our strength, nay, our National life is in our religion.” This Nationalism was so fierce that neither Gandhi nor Nehru dare to come to the rescue the cultural diversity. Nehru’s mind was so peopled with the idea that he believed radical Muslims were supporting Palestine. Once upon a time, Mahatma Gandhi used to lean towards Nationalism and Jawaharlal Nehru considered India as the land of the Crescent Moon. Both of them, even the Congress party, acceded to Nationalism in religious coupled with cultural form. Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, Patit Pawan Sita Ram played an instrumental role. But this was not the end. This was meant to achieve independence and the same was secured.

Dr. Rajendra Prasad in his autobiography gives a clear picture that the concept of India as a Nation took place when Hindus and Muslims got divided and the Congress took a unanimous decision after Karachi Congress that Congress shall agree with Muslims and other minorities at par so far as it is not against the National interest. There was a time when due to divide and rule policy of England, the National movement of independence according to some was getting derailed when Rabindranath Tagore came to its rescue, but in vain.

With quintessentially laureate precision, he wrote his famous essay, “The Cult of the Charkha” wherein he says, “As is livelihood for the individual, so is politics for a particular people- a field for the exercise of their business instincts of patriotism. All this time, just as business has implied antagonism so has politics been concerned with the self-interest of a pugnacious Nationalism.” Jawaharlal Nehru turns down the idea that the concept of Nation is anthropomorphic and he thinks that it is cultural (Discovery of India), “The unity of India was no longer merely an intellectual conception for me; it was an emotional experience which overpowered me… It was absurd, of course, to think of India or any country as a kind of anthropomorphic entity. I did not do so … Yet I think with a long cultural background and a common outlook on life develops a spirit that is peculiar to it and that is impressed on all its children, however much they may differ among themselves.”

Sudhir Kakar in his famous book, ‘The Indians, Portrait of a People’, writes, “We do not mean to imply that Indian identity is a fixed constant, unchanging through the march of history.” Albeit it was there in the minds of the freedom fighters that the concept of Nation is good to unite people but so far as administration is concerned, there comes States.

Union of States in CA debates

There are at least four different occasions when the expression Union of States was debated in the Constituent Assembly before adoption of the Constitution of India. All these debates bring the concept of State as a legal entity. They were of unanimous view that the Constitution of India is a legal document. They considered that words in the Constitution of India have a fixed meaning. They were unable to incorporate new words with vague meanings in the Constitution of India and unable to take the risk of misinterpretation in the Courts of Law as well.

Pandit Lakshmi Kant Maitra interpreted the real and legal meaning of States when he said, “…the expression ‘State’ has got a peculiar connotation in the Constitutional literature of the world. ‘State’ always connotes an idea of sovereignity, absolute independence and things like that.” The long debate continued and at some point of time it was apprehended that once the word State shall be incorporated there will be a run to superiority between the states. To curb them it was argued that the word ‘Union’ shall be incorporated so that there must be equality between the states. Neither state shall be superior nor shall be inferior. There shall only be a superior mechanism or government than states, and it is the ‘Union’ Government, not the ‘National’.  

The makers of the Constitution of India were aware that there is boundless diversity in India and to maintain it they need to have a particular type of administration which is nothing but States, as it embodies more comprehensive and general aims. N. D. Arora and S. S. Awasthy in their seminal work ‘Political Theory’ write, “Sovereignity is the attribute of the state, and no other related concept such as society, country, nation, government, and other association has it.” Sushila Ramaswamy considers, “The state comes into being for the sake of life but continues for the sake of good life. It is established as a teleological end of other association.” Economist Thomas Piketty considers, “Nation tend to have short memories (people often forget their own country’s experience after a few decades or else remember only scattered bits, seldom chosen at random). Worse than that, memory is usually strictly Nationalistic.”

We should not forget that some states were rich in minerals and others in different resources at the time India got independence. Had India not been a Union of States, there would have been a conflict of interests between the societies. There would have been the superior metropole at the center and the subordinate states on the periphery and they would soon be undermined by centrifugal forces of independence. To address the same so that maximum control of resources and force within a territory could rest with the people of that territory, the concept of states was brought into the picture. The same was also supported by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose when he admires, in ‘The Indian Struggle’, “…the administration of the Mohammedan rulers left untouched the daily life of the people and did not interfere with local self-government based on old system of village communities.” 

In a letter dated January 18, 1950, Pt. Nehru addressed the Prime Ministers, “This is my last letter to you before the change-over to the Republic takes place”. He used the word Republic, not Nation or country. It is because he further says, “I hope, therefore, that on the day when the long-sought Republic of India comes into existence, we shall look to the future with a stout heart and with confidence in ourselves and in our motherland. I hope that we shall try to forget, as far as possible, the conflicts and divisions that have invaded our ranks and the bitterness that sometimes creeps into our work.”

It must be kept in mind that he used the word Republic because republic is utopia as Socrates believed. According to Socrates, “the States are as the men are; they grow out of human characters”.

On July 22, 1947 Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru moved the resolution for the National flag and the concept of preamble took shape. I would take the privilege to present his wise words on that day in verbatim:

So, in spite of everything that surrounds us, it is in no spirit of down heartedness that I stand up in praise of this Nation for what it has achieved. It is right and proper that at this moment we should adopt the symbols of this achievement, the symbol of freedom. Now what is this freedom in its entirety and for all humanity. What is freedom and what is the struggle for freedom and when does it end. As soon as you take one step forward and achieve something further steps come up before you. There will be no full freedom in this country or in the world as long as a single human being is unfree. There will be no complete freedom as long as there is starvation, hunger, lack of clothing, lack of necessaries of life and lack of opportunity of growth for every single human being, man, woman and child in the country. We aim at that. We may not accomplish that because it is a terrific task. But we shall do our utmost to accomplish that task and hope that our successors when they come, have an easier path to pursue. But there is no ending to that road to freedom. As we go ahead, just as we sometimes in our vanity aim at perfection, perfection never comes. But if we try hard enough we do approach the goal step by step. When we increase the happiness of the people, we increase their stature in many ways and we proceed to our goal. I do not know if there is an end to this or not, but we proceed towards some kind of consummation which in effect never ends.

Here the concept of Nation is clear. Pt. Nehru was of the opinion that we being the Indian should have a geographical unity, a common past, a common language, a common history, a common hope, a common aspiration and this is what the concept of modern Nation. We must not forget that the concept of Nation in modern days gives us emotional feelings and sentiments that citizens are one and exclusive from others which later became nation-states. When Nehru talks about the freedom in his speech, he postulates that fraternity is the key that would unite the India as a Nation.

But we should not get confused that Nehru believes in Nation so far as administrative work is concerned. Union of States in India was his brainchild but neither in line with the USA nor the USSR. Keeping in view that India is the land of diversity and there should have been states to bring equality, he brought Directive Principles of State Policy in the Constitution of India. Lands of States must not get desolate by the whims of the Center and therefore local participation was required as it was during Vedic period i.e. village communities also got legal status in India due to Pandit Nehru. 

When the preamble of the Constitution was discussed at length on October 17, 1949, Maulana Hasrat Mohani, while moving amendment no. 453, said that Pt Nehru “wants only a Union of States.” For Article 1 as Pt. Nehru moves, “What will be India that is Bharat? It will be a Union of States.” Maulana Hasrat Mohani was afraid in the discussion that the preamble would lose this fabric and that the states would be given no power; that India will become a unitary system and it “will be transformed and in the place of the British Empire…create an Indian Empire which will consist only of States which will have got no power…” This was ruled out of order by the Constituent Assembly and thus gave an impulse that India i.e. Bharat is a Union of States, that is it. On that very day Shri Brajeshwar Prasad says, “A State consists of individuals”.  Dr. B. R. Ambedkar says, “…this Constitution should emanate from the people and should recognise that the sovereignity to make this Constitution vests in the people.”

While congratulating Dr. Rajendra Prasad for being elected as the first President of India vide letter dated January 24,1950, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel says, “Mr. President and Friends, I crave, your permission, Sir, to join in the chorus of congratulations showered on you on this sacred occasion when you have been elected as … the first President and the, Head of the State of the Republic of India.” It must be noted that Sardar also used the word ‘Head of the State of the Republic of India’, not Nation. He was also of the view that to bring equality amongst the people, the concept of States should come first as it gives individual proprietary over the resources. To go further we must recount that when banks were nationalized in India, it was argued before the Apex Court that nationalization is expropriatory and hence it must be stopped.

Regressive Arguments

Some people argue that there is a hymn in Rigveda, “Vayam Rashtre Jagriyaam Purohitah” thatsupports the concept of Nation. This is erroneous in the context of democratic set up.

Rashtra, according to Rigveda, read with Taittiriya Samhita, is the private property of the King. In the said verse, we find that Rashtra is just used to save the King from any mishap. The Sanskrit word Rashtra is derived from two words Raj+shtran i.e. fortify the king. The concept of Rashtrahas a broader connotation in Sanskrit. It is a state as well as Nation. When we read “Vayam Rashtre Jagriyaam Purohitah”, we get a sense of class and caste and this becomes Nationalistic. Even Manu defines Rashtra as the propriety of the King, when in chapter 7 he says, “Among the four expedients, conciliation and the rest, the learned always recommend conciliation and (the employment of) force for the prosperity of kingdoms.” In that very chapter Manu defines Rashtra as District when he says, “Let him act with justice in his own domain, with rigour chastise his enemies, behave without duplicity towards his friends, and be lenient towards Brahmanas.” Manu again defines Rashtra as the holy earth in Chapter 10 when he says, “But that kingdom in which such bastards, sullying (the purity of) the castes, are born, perishes quickly together with its inhabitants.”

Acharya Chanakya defines Nation as, “Deshah Prithvi” (9.01.17) i.e. Earth thou art Nation. In most other verses he uses Janpada, the territory of the the King which is nothing but a small part of the land which breeds the Army. For Chanakya, the army should come only after the King. And the rule of the military is what everyone knows. The theory of Nationalists on how powerful the force is; defines the Nation which in itself is devastating.

Rudyard Kipling in his poem, ‘The Stranger’ sketches the portrait of Nationalism when he says:

The Stranger within my gate,
He may be true or kind,
But he does not talk my talk
I cannot feel his mind.

I see the face and the eyes and the mouth,
But not the soul behind.

The men of my own stock,
They may do ill or well,
But they tell the lies I am wanted to,
They are used to the lies I tell;
And we do not need interpreters
When we go to buy or sell.

The Stranger within my gates,
He may be evil or good,
But I cannot tell what powers control–
What reasons sway his mood;
Nor when the Gods of his far-off land
Shall repossess his blood.

The men of my own stock,
Bitter bad they may be,
But, at least, they hear the things I hear,
And see the things I see;
And whatever I think of them and their likes
They think of the likes of me.

This was my father’s belief
And this is also mine:
Let the corn be all one sheaf–
And the grapes be all one vine,

Ere our children’s teeth are set on edge
By bitter bread and wine.

Neo-Nazis and Nationalists interpret this poem as testament to their beliefs. They argue that even a farmer knows how much mixing is permissible in seeds for better crop.

State Vs Nation

As discussed above the concept of Nation as defined in the Constitution of India is the federal not of the communal identity. It is not that Nationalism is always bad. Nationalism, having narrowness, selfishness and exclusiveness is evil according to Gandhi in Young India. Sociologist, M. N. Srinivas says, “Nationalism was itself a product of interaction between alien rule and indigenous society.” Being Nationalist, you cannot say your leader “does not have anything on”. You only tend to defend him on his mistakes. You do think that “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion” and this gives birth to Procrustes. Nationalism makes one fool and giving information makes them bankrupt. You appear to blame the secular for not heeding orthodoxy you want him to practice; but in truth you are blaming them because neither you can be orthodox nor secular.

There must have been an arm’s length between State and Nation. State is a legal unity; Nation is the life. Swami Vivekananda has a balance approach when he says, “In the interests of your service, you put on official dress in official quarters. But on returning home you should be a regular Bengali Babu – with flowing cloth, a native shirt, and with Chudder on the shoulder. Do you understand? (The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. – VII)

For the aforementioned facts, it must be understood that the very idea of States in the Constitution cannot barter away. State is a legal entity for which it secures prominent position in the Constitution of India. Nation is a cultural, psychological and anthropological term. Nation is a stable historical community while states can change its stance from time to time which we observe in our daily life. Nation asks for a central government who shall take the decision and the State seeks the representation of the people.

Acharya J. B. Kripalani says in the Constituent Assembly debate, “On formal occasion, on great occasions, on important occasions, we have to remind ourselves that we are here as the representatives of the people. More than that. We have to remind ourselves that we are the servants of the people. We often forget that we are here as the representatives capacity. We often forget that we are the servants of the people. It always happens that our language, because of our thoughts and actions, gives little countenance to this basic idea. A Minister says “Our Government” not “The People’s Government”. The Prime Minister says “My Government” not “The People’s Government”. Therefore, on this solemn occasion, it is necessary to lay down clearly and distinctly, that sovereignity resides in and flows from the people.”

The word States in itself must be  sovereign and Nation must not. Now times have come that you should be patriotic, not Nationalist. The root of the word Nation is against the very essence of diversity. It is derived from the Latin word natio meaning thereby connoting breed or race. This is not secular. It is expropriatory. Article 39 of the Constitution strongly defines that India is a Union of States as it says that inhabitants of States are called citizens. This gives proprietary rights to the citizens of India. The student of political science must know that the word Nation is being used for interNational politics so that foreigners could understand that the denizens stand united. The concept of Nation in the preamble is just for justice, liberty, equality and fraternity so that there would be a common flag, a common official language, for a common emblem etc. but not for a common race, common culture, common religion and common rule.

Those who have laissez-faire principles could never understand this very concept of the States. More so with the BJP workers and devotees, whose supreme leader rose to power eight years back by proclaiming “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance”.


Writer is a Kolkata based professional specialising in finance and governance.


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