Getting off the Shoulders of Giants: Cultural Federalism as a Decolonised Federal Concept from the Global South

Vikas K. Choudhary


Vikas K. Choudhary is currently working with the Forum of Federations, India office as Program Manager. Previously Vikas completed his M.Phil. degree in Political science and holds a Post Graduate Diploma in conflict transformation and peacebuilding from University of Delhi. Recently he was involved as an expert on India in Local Public Sector Alliance’s preparation of Inter-Governmental Profile on Decentralization supported by NYU and Oxford Policy Management. His primary research interest includes Federalism, Decentralization, Ethnic Conflict Management and issues of Governance and Politics in India.


The discussion on the normative meaning of federalism for long have focused on power- sharing. On the one hand it has made federal discourse effective to bring outcomes which can provide better institutional mechanisms but on the other hand have not mapped the possibility of analysing and evaluating indigenous political systems which were available for discussion from post-colonial countries in the mid-twentieth century. The paper highlights the possibility of decolonising the discussion on federalism. It seeks to question the Eurocentrism and Western epistemological foundations of federalism as an idea and suggests with an example from India that there are many possible forms of federal arrangements which remain unacknowledged. The paper attempts to propose the idea of ‘cultural federalism’ as a conceptual category to comprehend the experience of federalism in post-colonial societies. The discussion highlights the uniqueness of tribal communities’ federal character. It concludes by arguing that cultural federalism can be the starting point to relocate the epistemological basis of federalism to the Global South and include post-colonial societies not merely as an object of study but as the basis of subjective considerations for developing theories in federal discourse.



Federalism and decolonisation without the context of imperialism have been rarely brought together. Both have been studied by scholars and researchers as an independent area of inquiry. The already existing literature on federalism from the Global North has insights from post-colonial countries of the Global South, but these studies focus on the inherited colonial system of power-sharing and ignore the indigenous systems of power sharing which existed in pre-colonial rule and have survived the project of post-colonial nation-building (for a detailed account on post-colonial nation building and models of social cohesion in Indian context see Choudhary 2021). Not only are indigenous political systems conceptually ignored (Rajeev Bhargava in the Indian context has pointed out the limitation of Indian nationalism as ‘a political as much as a conceptual failure’ 2010), but the focus also remains only on post-colonial systems adopted by ruling elites after independence ( in the context of federalism there are a few exceptions like Hausing 2014; Kharshiing & Ranee 2019  but scholars like Weiner 1978; Kohli 1997; Chandhoke 2006;  Stepan, Linz and Yadav 2011; Menon and Nigam 2013; Chenoy and Chenoy 2010  have focused on the dominant post-colonial discourses).

Indigenous political systems are part of the federal discourse only in the context of ‘autonomy’, ‘consociationalism’ ‘accommodation’ and ‘integration’ without any reference to indigenous specificities. Interestingly, the epistemological bias not only occurs because of Eurocentrism of concepts in federal discourse but most scholars from post-colonial societies of the Global South themselves have excluded the indigenous system. Harihar Bhattacharya has raised concerns while discussing multinational identity “a theoretical understanding between Indian federalism and national identity, which is essential to establish the ‘national’ character of the Indian federation, whether it is multinational, or mononational, is simply lacking in the ongoing literature on Indian federalism” (Bhattacharyya, 2007).  As a result, the indigenous mechanism of ‘shared rule’ and ‘self-rule’ consisting of characteristics of indigenous federal concepts are submerged under dominant post-colonial narratives.

Now with ever increasing focus on decolonisation and the assessment of grafted institutions in the post-colonial societies there is a need to reconsider the scope of federal theory building. As a scholar from the Global South my proposition here is that instead of trying to fine-tune the working and functioning of grafted institutions during colonial rule, the focus of federal theory building should be on revisiting the epistemological assumptions and relocating the norms and values of federal discourse based on lived experience of indigenous communities of  the Global South. Researching the indigenous political systems not within the framework of ‘giants’ but looking at the experience of indigenous communities can expand the scope of federal theory. It can be the starting point for decolonising federal theory.

To start with, this article suggest that cultural federalism can be proposed as an indigenous concept based on the Indian experience. The term ‘Cultural Federalism’ was used by Rudolph and Rudolph for the Indian experience. They referred to ‘Cultural Federalism’, ‘to suggest that India has dealt with diversity in ways that recognize legal identities on the basis of cultural as well as territorial boundaries’ (Rudolph and Rudolph, 2001). I wish to suggest that cultural federalism as a concept can be extended to the countries of the Global South where indigenous system were/are operational and communities managed their social relationships in the absence of modern state institutions. In doing so, the article deviates from Rudolph’s understanding and proposes that cultural federalism can be understood as the pre-existing informal relationship among indigenous communities in pre-colonial societies which could have facilitated suitable conditions for building a political system of power-sharing but were systematically limited by the long colonial rule and its institutional arrangements and later by post-colonial elites. To substantiate the aforesaid claim, I will be sharing one example from the Khasi tribe of Northeast India among various others.


Cultural Federalism

The idea behind discussing cultural federalism in the context of decolonisation is that the existing methodology in assessing federalism is not value neutral and sensitive to the context and remains predominantly Eurocentric. In other words, discussion on federalism as a concept has insights from post-colonial society but the formation of concepts, categories, and mechanisms available are epistemologically based on European and colonial ontology. Moreover, there is a general agreement that there cannot be ‘a one size fits all’ solution to the approach of federalism in unequal and divided societies.

The underlying assumption behind the idea of cultural federalism is that inter-relationships among communities over the years in indigenous societies have nurtured mechanisms which are not based on Western traditions but organic to progression of now categorised as post-colonial societies. Cultural federalism as a conceptual scheme can serve three purposes. First, it curtails the overreliance on Eurocentric federalism burdened with the responsibility to uphold the social and cultural dimensions of heterogeneous societies in the Global South. Second, it expands the scope for advancing a decentralised understanding in the epistemology of federalism allowing us to unlearn the dominant vocabulary of global north. Third, it can cater the social and culture specificities of post-colonial societies of the Global South in which federalism was tried but was unsuccessful. The term cultural federalism relocates culture before federalism as an adjective which strengthens the semantic configuration of federalism as a toolkit to deal with diversity and conflict in heterogenous societies of the Global South.


Example of Cultural Federalism

Cultural federalism within India existed because the different communities for long followed their indigenous  system at social and political levels. It can be said that a basic form of multicultural federalism was prevalent, and its substance was subtle. It was the shared collective meanings of mountains, rivers and landscape which were part of a shared heritage that ensured co-living among various groups. Recently, scholars from Northeast India have highlighted with examples of indigenous arrangements for power-sharing which were functional in tribal political systems. One such example is from the Khasi tribe while highlighting its uniqueness scholars have noted “(t)he Khasis unlike other tribes (in colonial period) had developed a political system that went beyond the village. That is, a number of villages formed a larger configuration or confederation which was referred to by distinct names; Syiem, Lyngdoh, Wahadadar and Sirdar. The territorial structure so developed was headed by a person chosen by the assembly of the elders who comprised of the village ‘s headman of the larger territorial unit. In this design of the political, the Khasi political system very much resembled the manki system of the Mundas, manki-pir of the Hos, paraganait of the Santhals, and parha of the Oraons… The fact is that the intervention by the British did change its route” (Kharshiing & Ranee, 2019).

Above is one example of how the khasi tribe’s political system had federal elements. Assessing and citing examples from all those political systems and highlighting federal elements is beyond the scope of this article. There are many more arrangements that require attention from scholars on federalism to advance a decolonised understanding of federal concepts.


Getting off the Shoulders of Giants

Cultural federalism as an idea suggests that it is an exercise of reviving the indigenous concepts which were submerged in a post-colonial nation building exercise in countries of the Global South. Simultaneously, it challenges the understanding that federalism is an exclusive invention of Western societies and the Global South need to use it to solve their issues. It eschews the scholarly work of proponents who have for long measured conditions for success and failure of federalism in new federations (see Burgess, 2012). The intent is not to claim that practices of indigenous people or the Global South are far superior, but the emphasis is to recognise that there have had been indigenous systems which functioned and can be a source of theory building. For now, the working logic of cultural federalism demonstrates two things. First, it can help in relocating the development of federal ideas initially at an informal level within the society before looking at formal structures and second it can help in better understanding the federal institutional set up as per local federal culture without ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ (Burgess, 2012).



Decolonisation is not about only evaluating but intervening and reorienting the dominant understanding to make it more inclusive of experiences which have remained undiscussed. To challenge the existing federal discourse, it is important to follow the post-colonial approach where theories and ideas are given secondary positions and lived experience of ordinary humans are discussed first to see if there is a possibility to propose a theory based on their experience. Federalism as a normative concept must factor in indigenous experiences which are missing in the current discourse. This will add to the larger project of decolonising theories and getting off the shoulders of giants in federal theory building.

As a practitioner of federalism, I understand that approach to decolonising federal discourse is not completely scientific as per the European standard. Cultural federalism is an option for the Global South. It is a blueprint of what can be called indigenous research on federalism outlining the ‘’invisible’’ structures to many outside observers. With the above example from India, it can be said that Latin American, African and many countries within Asia have had native mechanisms for a long period which could easily be categorised as per modern terminology of federal arrangements and can be relooked with the motive to learn from best practices.



Bhargava, R., 2010. The Crisis of Border States in India. In: Bertrand, J. and Laliberté, A. ed. Multination States in Asia: Accommodation or Resistance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 51-80.

Bhattacharyya, H., 2007. Federalism and Competing Nations in India. In: Michael Burgess and John Pinder, ed. Multinational Federations. London and New York: Routledge.

Burgess, M., 2012. Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: the Conditions for Success and Failure in Federalism. In: M. Burgess, ed. In Search of the Federal Spirit: New Comparative Empirical and Theoretical Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 221-223.

Choudhary, Vikas K. 2021. “The Idea of Religious Minorities and Social Cohesion in India’s Constitution: Reflections on the Indian Experience” Religions 12, no. 11: 910.

Neera, C., 2006. A State of One’s Own’: Secessionism and Federalism in India. Crisis States Research Centre Working Papers Series1, p.80.

Chenoy, A.M. and Chenoy, K.A.M., 2010. Maoist and other armed conflicts. Penguin Random House India Private Limited.

Hausing, K. K. S., 2014 . Asymmetric Federalism and the Question of Democratic Justice in Northeast India. India Review, 13(2): 87-111.

Kharshiing, F. J. & Ranee, s. B., 2019. The Federation of Khasi States : History, Epistemology and Politics. 1st ed. Maharashtra: Insight Multi Purpose Society and Tribal Intellectual Collective India.

Kohli, A., 1997. Can democracies accommodate ethnic nationalism? Rise and decline of self-determination movements in India. The Journal of Asian Studies56(2): 325-344.

Menon, N. and Nigam, A., 2007. Power and contestation: India since 1989. Zed Books.

Rudolph, Lloyd I., and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph. Federalism as State Formation in India: A Theory of Shared and Negotiated Sovereignty. International Political Science Review / Revue Internationale De Science Politique 31, no. 5 (2010): 553-72.

Stepan, A., Linz, J.J. and Yadav, Y., 2011. Crafting state-nations: India and other multinational democracies. JHU Press.

Weiner, M., 2015. Sons of the Soil. In Sons of the Soil. Princeton University Press.



Further Reading

Bhargava, R., 2010. The crisis of border states in India. Multination states in Asia: Accommodation or resistance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Osaghae, E.E., 2015. A state of our own: second independence, federalism, and the decolonisation of the State in Africa.

Fejzula, M., 2021. The Cosmopolitan Historiography of Twentieth-Century Federalism. The Historical Journal, 64(2), pp.477-500

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