How has the ‘Principle of Federal Supremacy and Harmonious Construction’ Emerged ?

Updated August 12, 2022

Federal Supremacy and Harmonious Construction together make Indian democracy an evolving one. However, there is long story behind evolution of the collective. The experts hold that Principle of Federal Supremacy and Harmonious Construction emerged from the resolution of Contentious Issues through distribution of Legislative Powers by the Courts.

Essentially, the subject principle has two aspects: holding the centre supreme AND construing the statutes in a manner that it doesn’t leave the states at disadvantage. Thus, the principle is all about extending autonomy to states without loosing the controlling effect of Union.

Original Provisions in The Constitution

The framer of the Indian constitution adopted the provisions of Federation with a strong centre, Residuary powers of the Centre, the appointment of State governors by the Centre and the advisory jurisdiction of the Supreme Court from the “Canadian Model of the Constitution” and in turns accommodating the diversity and uniqueness of India by devolving power concerning locals to the states.

The constitution of India is divided into 12 schedule and 7th schedule of our constitution deals with the division of powers between Union government and State governments. Indian constitution under 7th schedule provides for Union List, State List and Concurrent List which is part of the federal structure. However, with the rise of ‘competitive federalism,’ we have witnessed the issue related to the power tussle. These issues were managed to solve only through the Doctrine of Federal supremacy and Harmonious construction.

The subjects of the concurrent list often becomes the contentious issue between the centre and state. Article 131 (original Jurisdiction) provides supreme court power to resolve it. To resolve any issue which comes in the hands of the court, it is very important to interpret the statute. So, the court interprets the statutes to find out the true sense of enactment by giving the words their natural and ordinary meaning.

This has happened when the courts ascertain the true meaning of the words used in a statute. ‘Supreme Court’ through its various judgements has upheld the principle of “Federal Supremacy”. In the case of “Keshvananda Bharti Case (1973),” the supreme court has kept the federal character as the basic character of our constitution.

All the statute issues between the state and centre are not interpreted arbitrarily by the courts, there are certain principles which have evolved out of the continuous exercise by the courts. Various interpretations by the courts have led to emergence of “Principle of Federal Supremacy” and “Harmonious Construction” . The principle is about striking balance between supremacy and harmony.

Principle of Federal Supremacy

The union have exclusive over the legislative and executive power. Article 246 of the Indian constitution provides a system of hierarchy with Union list at the apex followed by a concurrent list and then state list i.e. when a dispute arises between the state and centre regarding the legislative competency, the union will prevail over the state. Similarly, in case of a conflict between concurrent list and state list, the former will prevail.

Time and again Supreme Court upheld the superiority of union even in contentious cases, for example, the Delhi LG and state govt case where the supremacy of union appointed LG was upheld to some extent.

Under the normal circumstances, the parliament is empowered to legislate on any subjects allotted to the state if the Rajya Sabha passes a resolution to that effect in the national interest. This shows that the states do not have exclusive control.

The Indian Constitution has established an integrated judicial system with the Supreme Court at the top and the state high courts below it. This single system of courts imposes both the Central laws as well as the state laws. Whereas in the US, there is a double system of courts whereby the federal laws are implemented by the federal judiciary and the state laws are enforced by the state judiciary.

In the West Bengal case of 1963, it was the first time where issue between the state and centre was discussed at length by the Apex Court.

The main issue was related to the exercise of sovereign powers by the Indian states.

The Supreme Court held that both the legislative and executive power of the States are subject to the respective supreme powers of the Union.

The court concluded that according to the Indian constitution provided the union as paramount powers with states at second position vis-à-vis the centre, the Union possessed the requisite powers to acquire properties belonging to states.

The crux of the majority judgment, in this case, is that although both union and states get legislative powers from the same constitution, the States would have no legal rights as against the overriding powers of the Union, because of a general theory of paramountcy or superiority of the Union.

The Emergence of Harmonious Construction

When there is a conflict between two statutes or conflict between two parts of the of statutes, the rule of harmonious construction is adopted.

The rule follows a very simple assertion i.e. each statute has its own meaning, purpose and should be read and understand as a whole. Eg. Supreme Court applied this doctrine in Tika Ramji Vs State of Uttar Pradesh case

There should be consistent of all provisions of the statute during the interpretation is the aim of the courts and construction which avoids irregularity or inconsistency between the various sections or parts of the statute should be adopted.

When it is impossible to completely reconcile the differences in contradictory provisions, the courts must interpret them in such a way so that effect is given to both the provisions as much as possible.

For example, the dispute over the validity of Gujarat University Act between the centre and state in the case of Shri Krishna Rangnath Mudholkar vs Gujarat University, 1963 The courts used the principle of Harmonious construction to allow the State government to make law on excluded items (reserved for the centre) as an extension to its power to legislate on education, to the extent it does not contradict the union law.

Courts interpret the statute with keeping in mind that that interpretation that reduces one provision to a useless number or dead is not harmonious construction.

To harmonize the issue is not to destroy any statutory provision or to render it fruitless.

The quest for the separate flag by Tamil Nadu to assert its identity was again discouraged by the courts citing incoherence with the nature of polity.

The Way Forward for Harmonious Construction

In the dynamic world, with rising state power, political diversities and for various interests, the contention between the state and centre would continue to rise further. Many acts like in labour reforms, motor vehicle act become the contentious issue between centre and state.

These conflicts can be minimized with the required guidelines or order by the courts and parliament. With the recent steps like one nation, one ration card, more federal cooperation would be necessary. Principle of Harmonious Construction and Principle of Federal supremacy plays a very important role in these contentious issues.

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