Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeThematic Issues30VariaBook reviewsHarihar Bhattacharyya. Federalism...

Book reviews

Harihar Bhattacharyya. Federalism in Asia: India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Nepal and Myanmar

Vishnu Kumari Tandon
Bibliographical reference

Harihar Bhattacharyya. 2021. Federalism in Asia: India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Nepal and Myanmar. 2nd ed. Abingdon; Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge. 246 pages.

Full text

1As over half of the world’s population lives in some kind of federation, federalism has become an important research topic among political scientists and constitutional scholars. Harihar Bhattacharyya’s book conveys the notion that the federal government system is the most appropriate to accommodate sociocultural diversity: ethnic diversity and reduces ethnic tensions in a multicultural society. Even unitary countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines are now adopting some federal principles by offering regional autonomy. According to the author, “Asia today is more hospitable to federalism than ever before” (p. xi).

2This meticulous piece of work, which is the second edition of a book published in 2010, critically analyses five federations. Four of them—India, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Myanmar—have a colonial legacy. Federalism in these countries is linked to anticolonial liberation movements. The fifth country, Nepal, is a case in itself, since it developed the notion of federalism in the aftermath of the Maoist revolution (p. 2, p. 55). The book is aimed at graduate and undergraduate students, but it can easily serve as a starting point for those who are unfamiliar with federalism in East Asia and South Asia.

3Bhattacharyya reminds us that comparative studies on federalism in Asia are rare. This topic was first explored by Ronald Lampman Watts, who conducted institutional analyses of post-colonial countries including India, Pakistan, and Malaysia (Watts 1966). It was only several decades later that scholars produced new work on comparative federalism in Asia. Katharine Adeney, for instance, studied the relationship between federalism and ethnic conflict regulation in India and Pakistan (Adeney 2007). Federalism in Asia is thus an important contribution to the scarce literature on the comparative study of federalism in Asia.

4The first edition of the book, which was well received by scholars, covered three countries: India, Pakistan, and Malaysia. The author notes that in recent years, considerable evolution has taken place in federalism in those countries, while additional countries in Asia have adopted the federal system (p. xi). To address such developments, the second edition provides the reader with new demographic and linguistic, as well as religious data, and investigates major political changes in India, Pakistan, and Malaysia. It incorporates Pakistan’s federal changes brought about by the 18th amendment of the Constitution of the country (2010), which led to the devolution of power to the provinces. It highlights India’s major fiscal federal reform introduced in 2016 by an indirect tax called the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which led to the creation of the GST Council. The latter has contributed to enhancing fiscal federalism in India as it involves all states’ chief ministers in making recommendations about goods and services tax. Furthermore, this edition examines two other countries: Myanmar and Nepal. While it highlights the role of the second Panglong Conference held in Myanmar in 2018 (the first one was in 1947), which promised better recognition of the minorities’ rights and equality, it also covers developments in Nepal which formally received its federal status in 2015. The author demonstrates that Nepal’s federalism came as a surprise to many political scientists: it was advocated by the Maoists, whom he described as the “unfamiliar actors” that brought about federal changes in the country (p. 1). The federal system in Nepal led the Maoist rebels, together with other political parties embodying very different ideologies, to form Nepal’s federal government.

5The book follows a neo-institutional approach, focusing on the institutions, political ideas, actors, and contexts that contribute to making federalism a success or a failure. It emphasizes the importance of ethnonational diversity. The author argues that social and cultural diversity provided the foundation for federalism in all five countries discussed in this study. The historical and socio-political contexts play an important role in the acceptance or refusal of ethnic diversity in federal institutions, and acceptance of diversity strengthens the democratic character of the federation.

6Thematically, the study focuses on the ethnic tensions which exist in a diverse society, the type of institutions accommodating such diversity, and the process of federal building. The author establishes a direct relationship between federalism and democracy. He strongly argues that, as federalism requires power-sharing at different levels, it can only flourish in democratic setups. Autocratic regimes do not share power and therefore cannot be federal in a real sense; in such regimes, diversity can rather lead to the secession of territories. The author contends that democratic federalism binds the territories together and produces more equality.

7The analysis of federalism in all five case studies revolves around two concepts: “diversity claim” and “equality claim.” By diversity claim, the author means the ability of the state to recognize and accommodate the identities of the people. As for the equality claim, it refers to the capacity of the state to ensure equal distribution of resources and basic services to the underprivileged population. The diversity claim allows the government to gain political legitimacy by acknowledging diverse identities within the polity. The equality claim is more difficult to meet because it requires equal distribution of resources, including land, income, housing rights, health, and so on for the people. Bhattacharyya argues that failing to meet the equality claim can cause a crisis in the political legitimacy brought about by the diversity claim. Throughout the book, he maintains that, in a successful federation, diversity claims and equality claims are combined at national and sub-national levels. When the institutional arrangements of federalism inequitably benefit the dominant ethnic community, such as Punjabis in Pakistan, and Bamar in Myanmar, the diversity claim is not accompanied by the equality claim and democratic values are then compromised.

  • 1 For instance, colonial and post-colonial movements contributed to the development of federalism in (...)

8In addition to the very detailed introductive section, and a comprehensive conclusion, the book is divided into eight chapters. The first chapter throws light on the historical development of the concept and definitions of federalism, and its recent evolution in the context of globalization. The second chapter examines the social-cultural diversity in the five case studies already mentioned that highlight the opportunities and limitations of federalism. Chapter three elaborates on the origin of federalism in these countries, and shows that various political powers emerged during colonial, and post-colonial periods, and that political revolutions have played a major role in shaping the institutional development of federalism.1 Chapter four expands upon the idea that the primary factor determining any federal nation’s success and failure is the design of appropriate institutions. The institutions become appropriate through the accommodation of ethnonational identities. The author elaborates on the trajectory followed by the five countries towards institutional innovations while focusing on various historical movements for identity claims and state and nation-building efforts.

9Chapter five highlights the role that national and regional political parties and movements have played in shaping the federation in these five countries. Chapter six examines the intergovernmental relationship between the center and the subnational government. Chapter seven emphasizes the correlation between federalism and decentralization. It assesses the significance of identity-based and population-based decentralization in federalism. It observes that Nepal is the most decentralized country, and Malaysia is the least decentralized federation among the five. Chapter eight argues that democracy is essential for any federation to be functional. The conclusion provides food for thought on the success and failure of federal practices in the five countries, in terms of democratic values compounded by diversity and equality claims. Although the chapters are comprehensive, chapters six, seven, and eight do not have sections for Myanmar and Nepal.

10Prof. Bhattacharyya has written extensively on federalism. Most of his work on federalism focuses on ethnic and cultural diversity. For instance, his book on India’s multicultural federalism, which came out in 2001, analyses India’s federalism while comparing it with the Swiss Federation (Bhattacharyya 2001). Another article, that he wrote with Adeney, analyzes the challenges of multinational federalism (Adeney and Bhattacharyya 2018). Similarly, one of his articles (Bhattacharyya 2015) introduces the concept of diversity and equality claims, which he uses in the second edition of Federalism in Asia. This book displays the scope of Bhattacharyya’s research on the subject. Yet, certain points could be further discussed or qualified. The author identifies India as a successful decentralized federation with a flexible institutional mechanism that accommodates ethnonational identity. Such flexibility in the Indian federal institution allows the creation of new states from existing ones. As a result, the number of states increased from 15 states in 1956 to the current 28 states and seven Union Territories. Moreover, the country has asymmetrical federal arrangements to accommodate its diversity. Asymmetry in Indian federalism means that it allows one or more Indian states to be more autonomous than others. Such asymmetrical provisions give special rights to the aboriginal population, hence empowering them and allowing them to sustain their cultural values and practices.

11The author praises asymmetrical federalism in India, but he fails to analyze the undemocratic and very centralized components within such asymmetry. While Art. 371 of the Constitution allows North-Eastern states to enjoy autonomy and privileges, the central government has restricted democracy by militarizing the region through the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). The AFSPA was introduced in Nagaland in 1958 and later extended to many other states including Jammu & Kashmir. AFSPA permits the armed forces to use force against anyone. In other words, it allows security personnel to kill anyone solely on the ground of suspicion. Thus it restricts citizens’ political freedom in these states (Rabbani 2011; Wouters 2021). The book is also silent on recent attacks on asymmetric federalism. In 2019, the unilateral action of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government caused the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that had given special status to the state of Jammu & Kashmir. As a state of the Union was downgraded unilaterally by the central government, it can be argued that such action has put Indian federalism at stake. Moreover, the author’s claim that in India no particular ethnic group is in power does not hold, since the BJP government is in power. The power dominance of Hindu nationalists over non-Hindus, especially Muslims, is highly visible in the country (Aiyar and Tillin 2020; Arora and Kailash 2018). In addition, the Dalits remain marginalized and powerless. They are tolerated by the Hindu nationalists, but are expected to behave as inferior Hindus (Natrajan 2022). The author does not recognize such ethnic dynamics.

12Additionally, Bhattacharyya indicates that the Constitution of Nepal (2015) provides an inclusive parliamentary federal democratic structure, with seven provincial governments and 753 local governments, with three levels of functional federal structure. However, he fails to convey the complexity of power-sharing between the center and the provinces. The provinces are still weak entities in Nepal. The central government has interfered in many matters of provincial jurisdiction, such as education, forest, police, and sports (Adhikari 2020; Karna 2020). The author points out that among the five countries discussed in this book Nepal is the most decentralized country. Yet he does not give space to Nepal in Chapter seven, “Federalism and forms of decentralization.” This leaves the reader to wonder what might be the reason for such a claim. Also, it should be noted that some people living in Tarai in Nepal have been deprived of Nepali citizenship because the Nepali government, for various illegitimate reasons, has not granted them citizenship. They identify themselves as Nepali (Rana 2017), but the author incorrectly refers to the people in the Tarai region of Nepal as Indians (p. 76).

13One may expect, if another edition were to be published, that the author would be able to include the changes in Myanmar following the military coup that took place on February 01, 2021. The movement that developed after this coup, called the Burmese Spring Revolution, has been supported by most of the people in the country. The 2008 constitution, which was believed to be much appreciated, has been rejected by the movement for its inability to accommodate equality in diversity (Fortify Rights 2022; Hein 2021).

14Notwithstanding these remarks, the book is an excellent piece of work, very easy to read and yet containing invaluable knowledge.

Top of page


Adeney, Katharine. 2007. Federalism and Ethnic Conflict Regulation in India and Pakistan. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US.

Adeney, Katharine, and Harihar Bhattacharyya. 2018. “Current Challenges to Multinational Federalism in India.” Regional & Federal Studies 28(4):409–25. doi: 10.1080/13597566.2018.1473855.

Adhikari, Radheshyam. 2020. The State of Constitution and Federalism in Nepal. National Forum of Parliamentarians on Population and Development, Nepal.

Aiyar, Yamini, and Louise Tillin. 2020. “‘One Nation,’ BJP, and the Future of Indian Federalism.” India Review 19(2):117–35. doi: 10.1080/14736489.2020.1744994.

Arora, Balveer, and K. K. Kailash. 2018. “Beyond Quasi Federalism: Change and Continuity in Indian Federalism.” Studies in Indian Politics 6(2):297–302. doi: 10.1177/2321023018797560.

Bhattacharyya, Harihar. 2001. India as a Multicultural Federation: Asian Values, Democracy and Decentralisation (in Comparison with Swiss Federalism). Basil; Geneva; Munich: Helbing & Lichtenhahn.

Bhattacharyya, Harihar. 2015. “Indian Federalism and Democracy: The Growing Salience of Diversity-Claims over Equality-Claims in Comparative and Indian Perspective.” Regional & Federal Studies 25(3):211–27. doi: 10.1080/13597566.2015.1052965.

Fortify Rights. 2022. Nowhere Is Safe: Myanmar Junta’s Crime Against Humanity Following the Coup d’Etat. The Orville H. Schell. Jr. Centre for International Human Rights at Yale Law School, Myanmar Human Rights Project.

Hein, Ye Myo. 2021. “Visions of a Federal Future for Myanmar Are Fading Fast—Part II.” The Irrawaddy, September 2. Retrieved May 23, 2023 (

Karna, Laxman Lal. 2020. Reevaluate the Constitution for Longevity. National Forum of Parliamentarians on Population and Development (NFPPD), Nepal.

Natrajan, Balmurli. 2022. “Racialization and Ethnicization: Hindutva Hegemony and Caste.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 45(2):298–318. doi: 10.1080/01419870.2021.1951318.

Rabbani, Attar. 2011. “Jammu & Kashmir and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.” South Asian Survey 18(2):259–77. doi: 10.1177/0971523113513377.

Wouters, Jelle J. P. 2021. “The Debris of Democracy in Nagaland.” Pp. 438–56 in Handbook of Tribal Politics in India, edited by J. Ambagudia and V. Xaxa. New Delhi, India; Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Top of page


1 For instance, colonial and post-colonial movements contributed to the development of federalism in India, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Myanmar, and the Maoist revolution contributed to it in Nepal.

Top of page


Electronic reference

Vishnu Kumari Tandon, Harihar Bhattacharyya. Federalism in Asia: India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Nepal and MyanmarSouth Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 30 | 2023, Online since 14 June 2023, connection on 05 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

Top of page

About the author

Vishnu Kumari Tandon

PhD candidate, École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS); teaching fellow, Institut des études politiques (Sciences Po)

Top of page



The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

Top of page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search