Geopolitics on the rocks

Prabhu Guptara

How tensions between Delhi and India’s numerous states might cripple the Union

South Asia

Strains between the central government and the States have long affected India’s foreign policy. But Delhi’s drive to impose a particular brand of Hindu culture on the whole country is now causing widespread resistance. And might undermine India’s federal structure.

India’s attractive rate of growth, now supposedly the highest in the world, is masked by massive internal challenges. The country’s 29 states and 7 union territories range in size from tiny Lakshadweep with a population of only 64 thousand, to behemoth Uttar Pradesh with a population of over 200 million. Though all the states are represented in India’s upper house of Parliament or Rajya Sabha, representation is on the basis of their population strength, so Uttar Pradesh (UP) with 31 seats far outweighs the smaller entities – even the next most populated state of India (Maharashtra) only has 112 million people, just over half of UP’s population, and has merely 19 seats. Five of the Union Territories are considered too tiny to be represented at all.

Many observers feel that this encapsulates one of the few mistakes made by the framers of India’s Constitution: States should have equal representation in the Rajya Sabha, especially as the population as a whole is well represented in the lower house of Parliament (Lok Sabha). However, there are some anomalies even with the Lok Sabha: some Members represent huge numbers of people (those from UP represent, on average, just short of 2 million people), whereas those from neighbouring Uttaranchal represent only a tenth of that number; the smallest constituency, Lakshadweep, has only 65,000 people.

Such anomalies in both houses represent compromises for historical, cultural, and political reasons.

Naturally, compromises mean that many people may not be entirely happy. The unhappiest in India, politically, are those who take up armed rebellion (“Maoists” or “Naxalites”). From 2005 to 12 February this year (the latest date up to which figures are available) 1863 members of the Security Forces were killed, 2534 Naxalites, and 2962 civilians[1].

Left-wing extremism runs north-south along what is called the Naxalite or Red Corridor. The Central Government recently announced plans to remove 20 districts[2] from the 106 that it currently considers Maoist-affected. According to South Asia Terrorism Portal, however, 118 districts are affected. It is difficult to ascertain the exact situation. The criteria for inclusion are neither transparent nor open to discussion. The government seems strangely unwilling to address the root causes, focusing on muzzling not only activists such as Soni Sori but also the press[3].

Other problems that span state-boundaries in India include illiteracy, low education, unemployment, poor health, woeful infrastructure, and the treatment of women and lower castes[4].

Problems are concentrated in the so-called Bimaru or “sick” states (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh)[5]. These “sick” states, with a population of 445 million (out of India’s 1.2 billion) have the lowest rates of literacy and school outcomes in the country. According to a study by India’s Economic & Political Weekly, over the next century, 60% of India’s population increase will come from these states, whereas only 22% will come from the economically developed states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.

Bimaru states represent one way of looking at the issue of economic underdevelopment. Another way of looking at it as an East-West phenomenon: it is possible to draw a line vertically down roughly the middle of the country: the poorer part to the east has at its heart the Maoist-insurgent districts, while westwards lie the advanced states from Punjab in the north to Kerala in the south.

Whether poor or rich, the relations between the states as a whole and the Central Government are defined by the Indian Constitution, which lays down their respective structures, organisation and power, listing them along administrative legislative, and financial lines, laying down in some detail where the Centre has authority, where the state has authority, and what belongs jointly to both. Whatever is not listed (or “residual”) goes to the Centre. While conflicts between the lists can be adjudicated in court, the bias is clearly in favour of the Centre: India is primarily a union, with strong federal characteristics to accommodate the diversity of the country. That can be seen from any angle. In terms of religion alone, India has the second-largest Muslim population in the world (176 million adherents; Indonesia has the largest with 209 million; Pakistan with 167 million comes third); by 2050 India is projected to have more Muslims than any other country in the world. By contrast, Christians, who form only 3% of the population are dominant in certain states: 90% in Nagaland, nearly 90% in Mizoram, and 83% in Meghalaya. More important is the nationwide cultural influence of Christianity, due to its historically pioneering and extensive work in human rights, health and education.

It should also be clear that a country as large and diverse as India is subject to a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous interplay of historical, cultural, linguistic, religious and political considerations which drive both the Centre and each of the states. All of those feed into India’s policy-making and treaty-making, whether in relation to countries bordering India, or in relation to countries which may be distant physically but with whom India has enjoyed close economic and cultural ties, such as Russia, or indeed in relation to physically distant countries, such as the USA, with which India has become close recently.

The result of India’s complex interplay of forces can also be seen in the relations between the Indian state of Bengal and the nation of Bangladesh (similar language and culture, but dominant religion Hindu in the case of Bengal, and Muslim in the case of Bangladesh), between Tamilnadu and Sri Lanka (the latter has found it a challenge to have civil relations between its long-resident Tamil and native Sinhala communities), between Kerala and the Maldives[6], and between the Indian North-East’s hill states and China[7].

In view of this diversity, the alignment between the states and the Central Government was ideal between independence in 1947 and 1967, when the Congress Party controlled both the Centre and the States – though, even then, the Centre could not and did not always succeed in enforcing its policies against the opposition of state governments[8]. The halcyon days of any party being able to control both the Centre and the states look unlikely to return.

Since then, the balance has swung back and forth. At present, the major problem is the Central Government’s agenda to foist a particular form of Hindu culture on the nation. The agenda ranges from appointing its evangelists to positions regardless of their qualifications in order to police the institutions concerned - even universities[9]. A parallel effort to ban beef, in a country where the livelihoods of many depend on trade of the meat, resulted in such an outcry that the Prime Minister had to swallow humble pie – though that merely means that the ruling party has softened its tactics. A row over the imposition of the north Indian language, Hindi, resulted in riots in India in earlier history and, as the Central Government has renewed pressure to push the language, one can see the websphere react (see “We want ‘India’ not ‘Hindia’” and other slogans at #makemylanguageofficial). The ruling party’s efforts to bring in a uniform civil code for the country are meeting with stiff resistance[10]. No wonder the Central Government has been cast as an oversized elephant squashing a poor Indian on the cover of Vivek Kaul’s book, India’s Big Government – The Intrusive State and How it is Hurting Us (January 2017).

The single most revolutionary move of the Central Government to undermine the financial backbone of federalism in order to further centralise economic and administrative power is its attempt to introduce a centrally-organised and administered Goods and Services Tax (GST). This would make the states even more dependent on the Centre - at present, more than half of the expenditure of the states is financed by funds made available through the Central Government. Along with the intimidation that is sometimes unleashed by the ruling party’s “foot soldiers”, the introduction of GST “threaten(s)… the very coherence” of India’s federal structure, as veteran commentator Kuldip Nayar puts it[11].



[2] India’s districts vary in the number of people they have, from the largest, Thane (population of 1.1 million) to the smallest, Kinnaur (less than 7000 people).

[3] In 2016, India ranked 133 out of 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index issued by Reporters Without Borders.


[5] India came 130th in the Human Development Index of December 2015 (the latest one available).


[7]; see also

[8] Report of the Study Team on Centre-State Relations, of the Government of India’s Adminstrative Reforms Commission of India, vol. 1, 1968, pages 1-2.



[11] Kuldip Nayar, “Going Sour by the Day”, Deccan Herald, India, 13 January 2017,