Federalism and conflict

Secession and Federalism: A Chiaroscuro

Secession and Federalism: A Chiaroscuro


The relationship between federalism and secession might be regarded as antithetical but is an unavoidable fact in multinational political communities. Integration and disintegration are both possible trends in a federation. Recent political events in Catalonia show the salience of independence claims, a political phenomenon already experienced by other countries such as Scotland or Quebec. Liberal democracies evolve and debates on self-government and self-determination cannot be discussed as they were decades ago. Constitutional right to secede is extremely rare, however we can find good reasons both in constitutional and normative analysis supporting democratic self-determination. Minority nations, as permanent minorities, claim for liberal guarantees to protect them from majorities, but also democratic rights to express their views on their constitutional future. Pacts are the basis of any political agreement and any federal arrangement requires individual and collective compromises to be respected.



Wo viel Licht ist, ist starker Schatten

[Where the light is brightest, the shadows are deepest]

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

If federalism has fifty shades, secession is certainly one of them. The long shadow of disintegration hangs over (almost) every current or past federation in the world. The emergence of independent States out of former federal units has been a common outcome of collapsed federations. Perhaps due to these historical precedents, federalism and secessionism are generally seen as antithetical trends since they are considered to be pushing in different directions.

Federal political systems are “shared rule plus self-rule” (Elazar 1987) institutional designs aiming at either “holding together” (India or Belgium) or at “coming together” (Switzerland, US, EU) (Stepan 2005). Some of them are plurinational, although a majority claim to be mononational[2] (Requejo 2005). Conversely, secession implies a breaking up of the status quo. That is, creating a new State on a piece of territory formerly belonging to another State (or federation of States). Therefore, it entails a transfer of sovereignty from a parent State to a new political unit (Pavkovic and Radan 2007), which is the reverse of any “coming together” federation and the undesired outcome of a system that is “holding together”.

In spite of these contradictions, pro-independence movements (and secessions) are an inescapable part of plurinational federal political systems. First, federalism has often been used to accommodate diversity, with minority nations typically living in federal regimes or at least in States with a certain degree of political decentralisation. Second, centripetal and centrifugal forces are part of any plurinational federation’s political life. Third, debates on secession and national pluralism are always mediated by local understandings of what federalism really means. Burgess (2006) makes a distinction between Anglo-American traditions and Continental traditions of federal thought. Some European countries seem closer to the Catholic notion of “subsidiarity” and Bodinian unique sovereignty; while the Anglo-American tradition would certainly seem to be influenced by the Protestant “covenant” tradition, which would give certain flexibility to sovereignty negotiations. The language of federalism is not only varied but is also constantly evolving and being renewed from a historical perspective (Norman and Karmis 2005).

The Right to Secede in a Federation

Regulations on the right to secede are extremely rare[3], but if they do exist, it is normally in a federal context. Ethiopia and St. Kitts and Nevis have regulations on the right to secede, and the EU Treaty of Lisbon includes Article 50 that contemplates withdrawal from the Union. Apart from these cases, recent regulations on self-determination and secession demands include the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1998 Opinion on the secession of Quebec[4] and the 2000 Clarity Act in Canada. [5]  Another is the 2012 Edinburgh agreement on the 2014 Scottish independence referendum in the context of Scotland’s devolution scheme. [6] Former federations, such as the USSR, also included the right of constituent units to secede.[7]

Instances such as the dissolution of the USSR or the passing of the Canadian and UK legislation raise one crucial question (although there are others): does the right to secede foster secessionism in a federation? Broadly speaking, there are two answers to this question.

Bauböck (2000) argues that the virtue of federalism is precisely to replace self-determination by self-government for minority nations; therefore federalism must exclude secession rights and strengthen self-government. From a more legal perspective, Sunstein (1991, 2001) has famously argued against “secession clauses” in federal constitutions since, in his view, such clauses would lead to strategic behaviours (blackmail) and would undermine the constituent units’ commitment to the constitutional pact from the very beginning.

However, these arguments have been refuted by other authors, who claim the contrary. Kymlicka (2001: 224) stresses the virtues of self-government and federal agreements and affirms that:

the goal shouldn’t be to provide iron-clad guarantees of existing state borders (which cannot be done in a free and democratic society), but rather on providing firm guarantees that the rights of internal minorities will be protected in the event that state borders change, and that the majority group will survive as a nation even if it loses some minority territory.

Moreover, a “secession clause” can actually help to keep talk of secession out of the political debate and to provide actual commitment to the Constitution by defining a clear “way out”, thus preventing potential blackmail (Weinstock 2001; Norman 2006). These views in favour of “constitutionalising” secession seem to be more consistent with some moral approaches formulated by political philosophers. Approaches based on Kantian moral individualism tend to be more reluctant to accommodate these policies than Hegelian approaches that include a commitment to the politics of recognition (Requejo 2013).


Normative Accounts on the Right to Secede in Federations

The moral ground for the right to secede is generally presented as a conditioning factor. Buchanan (2004) justifies a right to unilateral secession when an existing intrastate agreement has been breached by the Central/Federal government, thus endangering the rights of the self-governing minority. Similarly, Seymour (2007) equates the right to secede with external self-determination. While internal self-determination should be a primary right of minority nations, external self-determination would only be justified in the context of an absence of internal self-determination. Equal recognition, proposed by Patten (2014) is another moral foundation of minority rights. When equal recognition is not fulfilled, there will potentially be more ground for claiming a right to secede.

In my opinion, these theories use a common positive intuition by placing fairness at the centre of any justification of secession rights in a federation (Sanjaume-Calvet 2016). However, defining the right as a “remedy” to injustice, clearly a Lockean approach, has some important problems.

Aside from domestic legislation, justice can be defined by international standards; however, the parent State, or the majoritarian nation within the federation, will always be the one that defines the terms of a “just” accommodation in times of conflict with a minority. That is, the parent State has the last word on “what is just”. Moreover, the only legitimate actor in the international arena is the State, not the minority. Therefore, given the fact that secession demands, especially peaceful ones, are often regarded as domestic affairs, minorities tend to be at the mercy of their own parent state. This has important implications since in the eyes of the parent State or the majority group, these kinds of demands are easily labelled as an unfair claim or even a “vanity secession”.[8]

Furthermore, in the absence of a clear “just” ground to claim external self-determination (i.e. human right violations, forceful annexation, breach of self-government agreements, absence of internal self-determination…) this kind of approach might be undemocratic when taken at face value. In a hypothetical case in which a territorial minority in a given federal unit has 90% support for secession but the parent State refuses to grant any legal path or agreement regarding this demand, there would be no legitimacy to unilaterally secede, since there is an absence of a “just cause”. Democratic support in itself cannot be claimed as a ground for unilateral secession in this approach. How can consent be a criterion that is absent from a theory of self-determination?

Real world cases, however, are more complicated. Normally the “just cause” is contested at parent State level and at the minority internal level; while in the international arena, such conflicts can remain a domestic issue for a long time (Coggins 2014). Moreover, there is (obviously) a correlation between injustice or perceived injustice and support for secessionism. In liberal democracies, support for secession rarely achieves overwhelming majorities (Griffiths 2016), but if it exists for a sustained period of time it can be a proxy for malfunctions (and at least perceived/real injustices) in a political system[9].


Catalan Self-determination

Recent events in Catalonia are an example of these political tensions (Cuadras-Morató, 2016). The 2010 Constitutional Court decision on the Catalan Statute of Autonomy and the recentralisation policies led by the conservative (PP) Government resulted in Catalan political forces developing plans for external self-determination (referendum) and secession (an independent Catalan Republic). Between 2012 and 2015, the central Government, Parliament and courts repeatedly rejected laws and legislative initiatives calling for a referendum on independence or self-government (Gagnon and Sanjaume-Calvet 2016).

In the Catalan regional elections on September 27, 2015, the pro-secession parties achieved 47.74% of the vote. On 1 October 2017, the Catalan authorities organised a unilateral secession referendum. The turnout was around 43% and the Yes vote obtained 90% support. The Catalan Government claimed a secessionist victory and declared independence in two sessions in the Catalan Parliament on 10 and 27 October. The parties that were against independence had called on their supporters to boycott the referendum and did not take part in it. In addition, the Spanish police forces forcefully cracked down on it, causing more than a thousand injuries. Criminal courts and prosecutors charged the entire Catalan Government, several independence leaders, 700 mayors and members of civil society with accusations of sedition and rebellion (these are criminal charges). Two civil society leaders, the Catalan Vice-president and the Catalan Home Affairs Minister remain in pre-trial detention, while the Catalan President and four regional ministers are currently exiled in Brussels. The Spanish Government imposed direct rule over the Catalan region and called for new regional elections. These repressive strategies, far from demobilising secessionism, seem to have had a “double” boomerang effect against the Spanish Government. First, the elections showed solid support for the secessionist forces in Catalonia. In spite of repressive measures and having its leaders imprisoned (or in Brussels), pro-independence parties obtained 47.5% of the vote share and 70 out of 135 seats in the parliament. Second, the most voted party was Ciudadanos (Citizens Party), an anti-secessionist party that obtained 36 seats and a 25.4% vote share, while the ruling party in Central Government and currently the majoritarian force in the rest of Spain, the PP, only won 4 seats and 4.2% of the vote share.

The events in Catalonia show the difficulties faced both by federal governments and by legal or moral theories on secessionism and federalism. The Spanish executive led by Mariano Rajoy, and the main state-wide parties (PP, PSOE, Cs) reject both the right to hold a referendum in Catalonia and/or the existence of a “just cause”. On the one hand, their discourse is based on the Constitutional Court’s interpretation of the 1978 Constitution, stating the existence of a unique sovereignty and framing a self-determination referendum as unconstitutional. On the other hand, the fact is that state-wide parties appoint the central State institutions (including judges) and hold a qualified majority both in Congress and the Senate, effectively blocking any constitutional reform[10].

The Spanish authorities’ reaction to Catalan demands can be defined as a “prohibitionist regime” that can easily turn into a trap in a liberal democracy. Pro-independence candidates are allowed to stand in elections, but cannot promise the execution of their political objectives.



All in all, plurinational federalism and secession seem to exist together in marriage, albeit an unhappy one. Federal relationships are based on pacts. In plurinational contexts, these pacts call for individual but also collective compromises in which a Bodinian conception of sovereignty (as unique and indivisible) has little room. These kinds of conflicts cannot be dealt with in the way that they were 20 or 50 years ago. Minority nations now demand liberal guarantees to safeguard their self-government and insist on the democratic right to express their constitutional views.

It seems urgent that we find both legal and moral paths in order to frame and understand otherness within a given demos (or demoi)[11]. Complex institutional settings must accept their contingency and avoid domination by national groups. However, this does not mean falling into eternal instability. On the contrary, fair mechanisms of power sharing and autonomy can be constructed to prevent break-ups; however, their absence cannot be replaced by the censorship of democratic and liberal rights.


[1] I am grateful to Andrea Romano (Universitat de Barcelona) and Prof. Ferran Requejo (Universitat Pompeu Fabra) for their comments on a first draft of this post.

[2] In this post the words “plurinational” and “multinational” are used as synonymous meaning the existence of multiple nations.

[3] The US Supreme Court famously rejected the right to secede of a State in its ruling Texas vs. White (1869). See: 74 U.S. 700 https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/74/700 [accessed on 6th December 2017]

[4] See: Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 S.C.R. 217.  https://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/1643/index.do [accessed on 6th December 2017]

[5] See: An Act to give effect to the requirement for clarity as set out in the opinion of the Supreme Court of Canada in the Quebec Secession Reference S.C. 2000, c. 26. http://laws.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/C-31.8/FullText.html [accessed on 6th December 2017]

[6] See: http://www.gov.scot/About/Government/concordats/Referendum-on-independence [accessed on 6th December 2017]

[7] Article 72 of the USSR constitution affirmed the right of Union republics to feely leave the federation, but in practice there was no law establishing a secession procedure.

[8] This critique has been defined as the “absence of an impartial referee” in these cases. The ICJ has been proposed as a possible candidate to internationally solve this problem since its 2010 opinion on the secession of Kosovo.

[9] The Canadian Supreme Court Opinion on the secession of Quebec in 1998 provided a Solomonic survival guide. A combination of principles was proposed: “democracy, rule of law, federalism and minorities protection” that later on led to the Clarity Act in 2000. Nonetheless, Quebec responded by reaffirming its right to self-determination through the Bill 99, and the French-speaking province has not formally signed the 1982 Constitutional repatriation. In the UK, the 2014 referendum (inspired by the Canadian Clarity Act) returned a clear unionist majority (55%), but instead of defeating the movement for Scottish independence, it fueled the movement (which is strongly pro-EU), which is now reinforced by the UK withdrawal negotiations after the 2016 vote to leave the EU.

[10] See professor Ferran Requejo’s contribution to this project , regarding the Spanish case: http://50shadesoffederalism.com/case-studies/spain-federal-country/

[11] Gagnon (2011) has proposed federalism based on hospitality and habilitation.



Bauböck, Rainer. 2000. «”Why Stay Together? A Pluralist Approach to Secession and Federation”. In Citizenship in Diverse Societies, edited by Will Kymlicka & Rainer Bauböck, 366-94.

Buchanan, Allen E. 2004. Justice, legitimacy, and self-determination: moral foundations for international law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Burgess, Michael. 2006. Comparative Federalism: Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge.

Coggins, Bridget. 2014. Power Politics and State Formation in the Twentieth Century: The Dynamics of Recognition. Cambridge University Press.

Cuadras-Morató, Xavier, ed. 2016. Catalonia: A New Independent State in Europe? A Debate on Secession Within the European Union. Routledge.

Elazar, Daniel J. 1987. Exploring federalism. Tuscaloosa (Ala.): University of Alabama Press.

Gagnon, Alain-G. 2011. L’âge des incertitudes: essais sur le fédéralisme et la diversité nationale. Auteurs UQAM. Collection Prisme. S.l.]: Les Presses de l’Université Laval.

Gagnon, Alain-G., and Marc Sanjaume-Calvet. 2016. «Trois grands scénarios pour la Catalogne au XXIe siècle: autonomie, fédéralisme et sécession». En Repenser l’autodétermination interne, Edited by Michel Seymour, 135-74. Editions Themis.

Griffiths, Ryan D. 2016. Age of Secession. Cambridge University Press.

Kymlicka, Will. 2001. «Federalism and Secession: At Home and Abroad». SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 258439. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network.

Norman, Wayne 2006. Negotiating nationalism: nation-building, federalism, and secession in the multinational state. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Norman, Wayne, & Dimitrios Karmis. 2005. Theories of Federalism: A Reader. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Patten, Alan. 2014. Equal Recognition: The Moral Foundations of Minority Rights. Princeton University Press.

Pavkovic, Aleksandar, & Peter Radan. 2007. Creating new states: theory and practice of secession. Aldershot, Hampshire, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Requejo, Ferran. 2005. Multinational Federalism and Value Pluralism: The Spanish Case. Routledge.

———. 2013. «Plurinational Federalism and Political Theory». in Routledge Handbook of Regionalism & Federalism, Edited by John Loughlin, John Kincaid, and Wilfred Swenden, 1 edition, 34-44. London: Routledge.

Sanjaume-Calvet, Marc. 2016. «The morality of secession: Secessionist and antisecessionist arguments in the Catalan case», In Cuadras-Morató, Xavier, ed. Catalonia: A New Independent State in Europe? A Debate on Secession Within the European Union. Routledge. 82-106.

Seymour, Michel. 2007. «Secession as a Remedial Right». Inquiry 50 (4):395-423.

Stepan, Alfred. 2005. «Federalism and Democracy: Beyond the U.S. Model». En Theories of Federalism: A Reader, Edited by Wayne J. Norman and Dimitrios Karmis, 255-68. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Sunstein, Cass. 1991. «Constitutionalism and Secession». University of Chicago Law Review 58 (2).

Sunstein, Cass R. 2001. «Should Constitutions Protect the Right to Secede? A Reply to Weinstock». Journal of Political Philosophy 9 (3):350-55.

Weinstock, Daniel. 2001. «Constitutionalizing the Right to Secede». Journal of Political Philosophy 9 (2):182-203.


Further Reading

Cuadras-Morató, Xavier, ed. 2016. Catalonia: A New Independent State in Europe? A Debate on Secession Within the European Union. Routledge.

Kraus, Peter and Joan Verges Gifra (ed.) The Catalan Process: Sovereignty, Self-Determination and Democracy in the 21st Century. Barcelona: Institut d’Estudis de l’Autogovern.

Norman, Wayne 2006. Negotiating nationalism: nation-building, federalism, and secession in the multinational state. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pavkovic, Aleksandar, & Peter Radan. 2007. Creating new states: theory and practice of secession. Aldershot, Hampshire, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Posted by Marc Sanjaume-Calvet in Diversity management, Federalism and conflict, 0 comments
Divide to rule? Federal Innovation (and its lack) in South Asia

Divide to rule? Federal Innovation (and its lack) in South Asia


Ethnofederalism is too readily dismissed as a solution for accommodating territorially concentrated minorities within a state. This contribution demonstrates that although there are real concerns when these groups are not included within central decision making institutions or have their autonomy threatened by the centre, territorial autonomy for these groups increases rather than decreases their affinity with the central state. It is therefore a solution that should not be dismissed out of hand, although care needs to be taken when groups are intermixed and non-territorial autonomy may be necessary in addition.


Most of what we now know as South Asia has always been governed through the concession of territorial autonomy. This was as true under the British Raj as it was under the Mughals. The area was too religiously, linguistically and territorially diverse for any other solution to have been adopted. In the formal constitutional negotiations in the early twentieth century, federalism was formally adopted as part of the Government of India Acts of 1919 and 1935. Federalism was adopted after independence in the successor states of India and Pakistan, although not without contestation, particularly concerning the boundaries of the federal units, the language(s) that the federation would operate in, the provinces’ representation in governing institutions as well as the powers that they would receive.

This short contribution focuses on the boundaries of the federal units, of the creation of what is known in the federal literature as ‘ethnofederalism’ when the boundaries of at least one of the units of the federation corresponds to those of the group within it (Hale 2004, 167). The boundaries of the units of both India and Pakistan at independence bore little correspondence to the various groups that lived within those units.  Before independence, demands had been made for the redrawing of provincial boundaries around group identities. This had been achieved in some cases, such as Sindh and Orissa, but many decisions were deferred until after independence.

Federal Solutions after Independence

After independence however, both India and Pakistan’s new leaders were reticent to undermine national unity through recognising ‘subnational’ identities. This was partially the result of the violence of partition, but both Nehru and Jinnah had favoured a centralised state before independence. Nehru favoured the model of centralised planning, while in Pakistan, the recognition of regionally concentrated language groups potentially undermined the unity of the Muslim homeland. Both leaders were worried that ethnofederalism would lead to the weakening of the centre, and potentially, the Balkanisation of their states. They shared this in common with other critics of ‘ethnofederal’ solutions (see Anderson 2014 for a discussion of these).

Despite their leaders’ common concerns, India and Pakistan diverged in their constitutional solutions for their diversity. India, after initially recognising the rights of its multilingual provinces to choose their own languages, allowed for the territorial reorganisation of the country into more homogeneous units. The central Congress leadership did so under protest, after elements within the Congress Party vociferously protested against their leaders’ failure to countenance the redrawing of the political map. The internal borders of India were redrawn in 1956 along de facto linguistic lines, although the States Reorganisation Commission recommended a balanced approach between language, economic viability and administrative convenience. This process of ‘right sizing’ (Callaghy, O’Leary et al. 2001), has continued, in India with other tranches of reorganisations in the 1960s, 1970s and 2000s. Most of the later reorganisations were undertaken along non-linguistic lines, for example the tribal recognition of the 1970s or the caste or development narrative of the states created in the 2000s (Tillin 2013). The process continues, with the creation of the 29th state of the Union – Telangana – in 2014. It is unlikely to be the last.

In Pakistan, a state with a much weaker political leadership after partition, the protracted constitutional negotiations finally (in 1956) came up with a federal formula that reorganised the territorial boundaries of the country. The internal reorganisation was in a different manner to that of India however, and merged all the units and princely states of the western wing of Pakistan into one province: West Pakistan. The so-called One Unit Plan was a device to counterbalance the demographic dominance of its Eastern wing: renamed East Pakistan. Both provinces received equal weighting in the National Assembly, despite the majority of the population (55 percent) of Pakistan residing in the eastern wing.  This constitutional arrangement only lasted two years, with martial law declared by Ayub Khan in 1958. In 1970, his successor, Yahya Khan nullified the One Unit Plan resulting in the restoration of the three western provinces (albeit with their boundaries altered to include the princely states), and the creation of a new one, Baluchistan). The restoration of democracy in Pakistan precipitated its breakup, after the leaders of the western wing refused to recognise the democratic mandate of the politicians of the eastern wing. After the secession of Bangladesh in 1971, although the constitution of Pakistan was rewritten, the opportunity was not taken to reorganise the political map and Pakistan’s federation continued with only four provinces. In 2009 the area of Gilgit Baltistan was given semi-provincial status but has yet to be fully integrated as a fifth province of Pakistan, with representation in the National Assembly.


The legacies of the original decisions were profound.  In the case of India its willingness to continually reorganise its internal boundaries accommodated many groups and enhanced the representativeness of the Indian state. It has also accommodated other demands for linguistic recognition. Thus, not only were provinces (then states) allowed to choose the language(s) that they operated in, the Indian state retained English as an official language in addition to that of Hindi.  This was essential, as many of the states in the south and the northeast of the country did not speak Hindi (spoken by only 30 to 40 percent of the population) and resented the assumption that it was the ‘national’ language of the country. This accommodative framework, far from leading to the Balkanisation of India, ensured that multiple identities were encouraged to develop.  Evidence for this can be found by reading Moreno surveys on the allegiance of Indians living in different areas of India to their national or regional identity, or a combination of both. Although there are differences between regions, with the South and the East more likely to report feeling ‘regional’ than those in the North or West, there is a clear majority in all regions for feeling either more national than regional or equally national and regional. The inclusion of Indians from all over India in core central institutions, including that of the cabinet has also promoted this unity (Jayal 2006).

National versus Regional Identity in India







national and regional


regional and less national





North 41 7 20 5 10 17
East 26 19 15 13 17 10
North-East 20 7 32 9 15 17
West 42 7 27 5 10 10
South 23 22 15 20 13 7
India 32 12 21 10 12 13

Data taken from the State of Democracy in South Asia Survey (2008).


Of course, there are areas of India, particularly in its non-Hindu peripheries, where it has only managed to maintain its territorial integrity through the use of extreme force. There are several reasons for this. First, although India reorganised its units along ostensibly linguistic lines, almost half of the states of India retained significant heterogeneity. In those cases the locally dominant group felt threatened – as witnessed in Assam, Nagaland and Punjab – often leading to the violent targeting of minorities within the units. Second, where democracy or effective autonomy has been undermined, as in the case of Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir and most of the North-eastern states where state governments have been regularly dismissed, tensions with the centre have increased (Adeney 2007). It is notable that in Kashmir, where electoral manipulation was commonplace, insurgency did not develop until the late 1980s, after the rigging of the 1987 election. The securitisation of the response from the centre through the use of mechanisms such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act also increased conflict. Although ten people lost their lives at the hands of police bullets in the Patidar protests in 2015 in Gujarat, the situation is incomparable to the use of pellet guns in Kashmir in 2016 (Adeney 2017). Within six months 100 people were estimated to have been killed and 6000 injured. Therefore, violent conflict cannot be divorced from the fact that these states have seen their effective autonomy being reduced.


In contrast, the unwillingness to make compromises over language alienated many groups from the Pakistani state.  This included Bengalis whose language was not recognised as State Language on par with Urdu until 1954. It was only belatedly accorded this recognition as a quid pro quo for giving up its demand for a majority of seats (to which they were entitled on the basis of their demographic majority) in the National Assembly. Language policy also alienated other groups within Pakistan, notably Sindhis. It was only after the constitutional redrafting in 1973 that provinces in Pakistan were able to choose to operate in a language other than Urdu. This alienation was compounded by exclusion from the core institutions of the state. Bengalis, Sindhis and Balochis all suffered from underrepresentation in institutions such as the army and the bureaucracy (Adeney 2009). In addition, their provinces suffered from a lack of investment, or, in the case of East Pakistan, under-development, as the resources of the East were extracted to finance the development of the West, particularly that of Punjab province.

National versus Regional Identity in Pakistan







national & regional


regional & less national





Urdu 60 8 9 4 16 3
Hindko 51 19 7 9 11 3
Punjabi 47 17 12 4 15 5
Pushto 33 16 17 5 22 7
Seraiki 32 10 13 10 29 6
Sindhi 23 11 8 9 36 14
Balochi 18 18 16 3 17 28
Pakistan 40 14 12 6 20 8

Data taken from the State of Democracy in South Asia Survey (2008).


The refusal to redraw provincial boundaries ensured that Pakistan’s federation exited with a very low number of provinces. This has not only exacerbated conflict between provinces (e.g. the tension between East and West Pakistan) but also meant that the larger provinces in terms of population – East Pakistan before its secession in 1971 and Punjab after 1971 – threatened the other provinces by their demographic majority. In the case of the Punjab, its domination was compounded by the over representation of Punjabis (or sections of Punjabis) in the core institutions of state such as the army and the bureaucracy. As Henry Hale has argued, ‘ethnofederal states are more likely to collapse when they contain a core ethnic region – a single federal region that enjoys dramatic superiority in population’ (2004, 166).  Given that many of the units of the western wing were linguistically heterogeneous, the basis for a reorganisation of provinces along linguistic lines exists – although it must be conceded that parties supporting particular reorganisations (such as those agitating for a Seraiki province (out of Punjab) or a Hindko speaking province (out of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa)) do not receive much electoral support.  In addition, any reorganisation of provinces would have to face up to the thorny issue of the city of Karachi, and demands for it to be separated from the province of Sindh, which would be explosive.

Lessons for Other Federations

Federal (re)design continues apace in the region and elsewhere. In the South Asia region, federal discussions continue in Myanmar and Nepal.  The case of India demonstrates that demands for “ethnic” provinces, such as in the Seraiki region of Pakistan and in the Madhesi regions of Nepal are likely to increase rather than decrease affinity with the central state.  It also prescribes that these territories should be made as homogeneous as possible.  The states of India that have continued to experience violent conflict after territorial reorganisation along ‘ethnic’ lines have been those in which sizeable pockets of diversity remain e.g. Nagaland and Assam. Where such diversity remains, non-territorial power sharing is necessary in addition to territorial models (Bhattacharyya, Suan Hausing et al. 2017).

However, this comes with a caveat: such autonomy should be part of a wider accommodation of groups within central power structures. Access to central power is important and Pakistan’s failure to include all of its provinces within central power structures has undermined the affinity of many of its groups to the states. In states such as neighbouring Myanmar and Nepal it is important not to pursue a majoritarian-led democratisation. A truly representative democratisation is vital for federations to accommodate territorially concentrated groups successfully.



Adeney, K. (2007). Federalism and ethnic conflict regulation in India and Pakistan. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan,: xviii, 238 p.

Adeney, K. (2009). “The limitations of non-consociational federalism – the example of Pakistan.” Ethnopolitics 8(1): 87-106.

Adeney, K. (2017). “Does ethnofederalism explain the success of Indian federalism?” India Review 16(1): 125-148.

Anderson, L. (2014). “Ethnofederalism: The Worst Form of Institutional Arrangement…?” International Security 39(1): 165-204.

Bhattacharyya, H., et al. (2017). “Indian federalism at the crossroads: Limits of the territorial management of ethnic conflict.” India Review 16(1): 149-178.

Callaghy, T. M., et al. (2001). Rightsizing the state: the politics of moving borders. New York, Oxford University Press.

Hale, H. (2004). “Divided We Stand: Institutional Sources of Ethnofederal State Survival and Collapse.” World Politics 56(2): 165-193.

Jayal, N. (2006). Representing India: Ethnic Diversity and the Governance of Public Institutions, Palgrave Macmillan.

SDSA (2008). State of Democracy in South Asia. New Delhi, Oxford University Press.

Tillin, L. (2013). Remapping India: new states and their political origins. London, Hurst.


Further Reading

Adeney, K. (2007). Federalism and ethnic conflict regulation in India and Pakistan. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan,:xviii, 238 p.

Adeney, K. (2017). “Does ethnofederalism explain the success of Indian federalism?” India Review 16(1): 125-148.

Anderson, L. (2014). “Ethnofederalism: The Worst Form of Institutional Arrangement…?” International Security 39(1): 165-204.

Jayal, N. (2006). Representing India: Ethnic Diversity and the Governance of Public Institutions, Palgrave Macmillan.

Tillin, L. (2013). Remapping India: new states and their political origins. London, Hurst.


Posted by Katharine Adeney in Case studies, Diversity management, Federalism and conflict, 0 comments
Federalism: A Tool for Conflict Resolution?

Federalism: A Tool for Conflict Resolution?


Federalism has become increasingly used as a tool of conflict resolution in the post-Cold War era. This contribution discusses the rationale in using federalism as a tool of peace-building, conflict resolution and democratisation in deeply divided, ethnically heterogeneous and post-conflict societies. In doing so, it is highlighted how federalism can serve as an acceptable and viable solution for different ethnic groups because of its emphasis on autonomy and territorial integrity. The contribution also demonstrates that federalism is not able to solve all problems in ethnically heterogeneous societies and that further research is needed in order to understand the conditions in which federalism can be used to end conflict and bring peace and democracy to divided countries.

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Posted by Paul Anderson and Soeren Keil in Federalism and conflict, 0 comments