This paper examines the shift in Indian political and legal thought from unitary state system (singular sovereignty) to federal state system (shared sovereignty) in the late 1920s. It argues that this shift coincides with the inauguration of a new constitutional politics pivoting on the century-old treaties that the princely states had entered with the British. Treaties acquired renewed interest in the interwar period as treaty violations were a major cause for the First World War. Interwar debates on the sanctity of treaties and the rise of a new form of political internationalism that sought to delegitimize wars as instruments of national policy give a global context to the move toward federalism in India. In the second part, the paper demonstrates the unitary nature of nationalist constitutional thinking, and its fidelity to Westminster-style unitary government, as evidenced by the views of nationalists, especially the authors of the Nehru Report (1928). It then shows the challenges posed to it by the federalists—princes and their advisors, conservatives, Muslim leaders, and certain British officials—who discarded the unitary state propounded by the nationalists and sought to fashion future India along the lines of federal states like Imperial Germany and the US. This break with the unitary model of state-making, which held sway in colonial India ever since the establishment of British rule, constitute, what I call as, the “federal turn” in interwar India.
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