Federal Futures: Imagining Federation, Constitution, and World in Late Colonial India

Sarath Pillai, History

The constitution of independent India does not use the word “federation” in it. This omission is striking because there was no political ideal as influential and as unifying as federalism in the last three decades of colonial rule in South Asia. How did federation—a system of shared sovereignties as opposed to a unitary nation-state—that captured the political and legal imaginations of South Asians of all hues in the 1920s through 1940s become so disagreeable at the time of India’s founding? This question and the possible histories/answers it opens are central to his research. His dissertation studies the rise of federalist ideas in interwar India and their growing influence among various groups—princes, liberals, and minorities—in the late 1920s through the 1940s. It presents an alternate genealogy of political thought, constitutionalism, and worldmaking in late colonial India by showing the deep fissures between those who wanted a unitary state (singular sovereignty) based on the British colonial state and those who wanted a federation (shared sovereignty) based on Euro-American constitutionalism. He draws on multi-lingual archives—marshalled through 18 months of archival research in three continents—to recover the underappreciated federalist imaginaries in late colonial South Asia. 

Sarath Pillai is a PhD candidate in the History Department at the University of Chicago. He holds a master of studies in law from Yale Law School, a master of arts in history from both the University of Chicago and the University of Delhi, and a postgraduate diploma in archives and records management from the National Archives of India, Delhi. He is a 2021Hurst Fellow at the University of Wisconsin Law School. His writings have appeared in both peer-reviewed and public forums such as Law and History Review, Archives and Records, Economic and Political Weekly, Scroll.in, The Diplomat, The Indian Express, among others.