top of page
  • Writer's pictureBrain Booster Articles


Author: Mrityunjay Gupta, IV year of B.A.,LL.B. from School of Law, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies


In the literature on comparative federalism, there has long been a debate over whether federalism dampens or fuels secessionist sentiment. This debate has focused on the narrow context of federalism as a tool to accommodate minority nationalism in plurinational states. In a plurinational state, constitutional politics is a terrain of struggle between competing nation-building projects – a state-wide nationalism centered on the institutions, language and history of a majority, and a defensive nationalism by territorially concentrated minorities that Stephen Tierney memorably terms the “politics of sameness”, since it rests on a set of claims that parallel those of the majority. This body of research has turned on duelling sets of examples. The proponents of federalism point to the relative success of Canada, India, Spain and the United Kingdom in housing competing nationalisms within a single constitutional order and averting – at least thus far – secession. Opponents of federalism deploy the counter examples Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia – the former Communist federations – to argue that federalism provided the institutional resources for secessionist mobilization.

In this chapter, I try to broaden and deepen this debate. I attempt to broaden the comparative canvas to examine the constitutional, political and economic dynamics that led to secession in three cases: Pakistan/Bangladesh, Malaysia/Singapore, and the West Indies Federation. These examples are well known but are peripheral to central scholarly debates over federalism and secession.By drawing on a broader set of examples, I seek to deepen our understanding of why the secession of subunits may occur. As scholars, we should put these cases in dialogue with those that traditionally have commanded our central attention.

There is potentially a practical payoff as well. Federalism remains on the constitutional agenda across the world in many constitutional and peace processes. For example, federalism would be integral in resolving the civil wars in Libya and Yemen, in accommodating ethnic minorities and enable a return to civilian rule in Myanmar, and inresponding to deep regional concerns regarding neglect by Khartoum in Sudan. In Ethiopia, there is a debate occurring within the governing party between competing factions over whether to retain or remove ethnicity as the central organizing principle of federal design. The fear of secession looms large in each of the cases. As part of contemporary debates over how to frame federalism – the number of subunits, their boundaries, their powers, and the design of central institutions – it is also important to be transparent how federalism did not prevent secession. Federalism is not a panacea, and indeed, may be ill-fated from the outset.

The Cases: Preliminary Reflections

East Pakistan was a federal sub-unit of Pakistan from 1948 to 1971, before seceding and becoming Bangladesh. Singapore was a state of Malaysia from 1963 to 1965. The West Indies Federation existed from 1958 to 1963. So, we can comfortably say that all three federations were relatively short-lived and have been gone for nearly half a century. But they have more in common. All three were part of the Commonwealth and were former British colonies, linked together by ideas, institutions, and individuals. The idea of federation had a long lineage in the British Empire. It wasused as an Imperial strategy to institutionalize internal self-government, and later, independence for the settler states of Australia, Canada and South Africa, through the intermediary stage of Dominion status in the “twilight” of the British Empire (Malagodi, McDonagh, and Poole). This idea lent itself to the transitions to independence in Caribbean and Asia. Along with the idea of federalism came a set of legal texts and institutionalized practices that could be adapted to new contexts. Caribbean constitutional debates, for example, frequently referred to Australian federalism, especially that states held the residue of legislative power. The three-list approach of central, state, and concurrent powers pioneered in the Government of India Act 1935 served as the legal frameworkfor in post-Independence Pakistan and was akey reference point for Malaysia. Each of these constitutional systems combined federalism – at least initially – with parliamentary democracy, within a scheme of constitutional supremacy enforced by judicial review, in a common law legal culture. And many of the same individuals played a leading role – notably Sir Ivor Jennings – in many of the same institutional settings, such as Lancaster House.

However, the political logic of federation differed across each in case. For Pakistan, federalism was an institutional legacy of British rule, which had occurred through provinces and Princely States, and was a necessity created by the 1600 km. distance between the West and East Wings. For the Federation of the West Indies, there was a cluster of motivations associated with the coming together logic of the classical federations: achieving economies of scale in public service division, reaping the economic gains from the creation of an economic union, and speaking with a single voice on a global stage of much larger states on matters of foreign policy and international trade. In Malaysia/Singapore, national security considerations were at play – both deterrence of Indonesian intervention in relation to Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo through having them join Malaysia alongside Singapore, and the fear that Singapore could come under Communist control, serving as a base for a Communist rebellion in Malaysia at a time when Laos and North Vietnam were under Communist rule, and Communist insurgencies were active in Cambodia (then Kampuchea).

In addition, the politics of federalism in each case was thoroughly indigenous. Although present at the outset, the British Empire formally withdrew legally, or at least substantively. The politics of Bangladesh/Pakistan was a post-Independence affair, in which the British had no legal role. While Singapore was a British colony when it entered into federation with Malaysia, Britain’s formal role ended at that point. While the entire life of the West Indies Federation occurred under Imperial rule, and British policy – especially on immigration – affected constitutional politics, Britain stood aside when the federation collapsed after Jamaican secession, which it then legally ratified by through a statute granting Jamaica independence.

There is a crucial point of contrast between these cases and the Communist federations. The breakdown of the Communist federations can be attributed to the absence of constitutional democracy, which had two consequences. First, autocracies are less likely to credibly commit to subnational autonomy, which meant that self-rule did not rest on a secure legal foundation. Second, the Communist federations lacked any real mechanisms for authentic sub-national voices in central institutions, such that shared rule was absent. But unlike the Communist federations, Pakistan/Bangladesh, Malaysia/Singapore, and the West Indies Federation were constitutional democracies in form, albeit imperfectly in substance. But as we will see, electoral contestation occurred at pivotal moments for each country, and was a “test of strength”, as George Anderson and I have put it. So these cases enable us to understand if political contestation under a democratic constitution played a role in secession.

Why Secession Occurred

I (tentatively) argue there are three reasons why secession occurred in these cases: shackling majorities in Bangladesh/Pakistan, political cartels in Malaysia/Singapore, and diverging economic interests in the West Indies Federation. My descriptions of these cases consist of analytic narratives that compress and simplify complex histories, but they abstract away to the extent possible from the particularities of national experiences to draw lessons of broader interest.

1. Shackling majorities: Bangladesh/Pakistan

At Independence, the population of East Pakistan was larger than that of West Pakistan. Each wing of Pakistan had a ruling elite, which had received some degree of popular ratification in provincial assembly elections under British rule. However, Pakistan’s ruling elite resided in the West – many of them migrants from Northern India, but also Punjabis. From Pakistan’s inception, this set up a competition for over questions of cultural, economic and political power which took place in a number of important arenas. For example, as I have argued previously, an important area of conflict was official language policy. Urdu was chosen as the sole official language of Pakistan, although at Independence it was spoken by less than 5% of Pakistanis, all migrants from India. This had the effect of distributing economic and political power toward Urdu speakers, and away from speakers of other languages, such as Bengali, by granting Urdu speakers preferred access to public sector employment. As a consequence, Bengali speakers were severely underrepresented at the most senior levels of the military and civil service from the very beginning, a basic fact that did not change over the course of the next quarter century.

Official language policy as a cleavage in multilingual societies is far from a unique story. What makes the Bangladesh/Pakistan case different is that East Pakistanis were a majority.So a central question of Pakistani constitutional politics was how to combine commitments to democracy and federalism to reflect this basic fact, in a manner that allowed for rule by electoral majorities without entrenching perpetual Bengali rule. The first draft Constitution (1950) proposed a parliamentary democracy with a bicameral central legislature. The lower house was to be elected on the basis of representation by population, and the upper house would be composed of equal sized delegations from the provincial legislature (on the German model). At that time, Pakistan had five provinces, of which East Pakistan was but one. In addition, the two houses were equal in power – including (exceptionally) requiring the cabinet to hold the confidence of both houses. East Pakistan members of the Constituent Assembly opposed these proposals on the basis that they would make it difficult for an East Pakistan-led government.

Constitutional debates then shiftedto the merger of the four provinces of West Pakistan into a single federal subunit, with its own governing institutions – so the called One Unit. The One Unit proposal was bundled with parity in central institutions in the representation of East and West Pakistan. It had two goals. First, it ensured that East Pakistan legislators would not control the process of government formation. Second, it accentuated a West-East cleavage in inter-provincial relations, and institutionally blocked the development of political alliances based on cross-cutting cleavages among East Pakistan and one or more subunits. The merger of the West Pakistan proposals into One Unit occurred in 1955 and functioned as a constitutional baseline until 1968. For example, under the 1956 Constitution, the federal Parliament would be unicameral with parity of representation from the East and West. The One Unit proposal was opposed by the Awami Party, which had emerged as the leading party of the East, who demanded representation by population.

Nevertheless, under the 1956 Constitution, Huseyn Shurawardy, a politician from East Pakistan who was a founder of the Awami League – the party that would lead Bangladesh to independence in 1971 – served as Prime Minister for approximately a year, from 1956 to 1957 – in coalition with the Republican Party from West Pakistan. He was forced from office over his support for parity of representation, in response to demands by hardliners in the Awami Party.In October 1958, the Army took control until December 1971. As one contemporary observer remarked, the end of civilian rule marked the death knell of Pakistan/Bangladesh:

Up to this point, the political leadership of the two Wings could meet and bargain on a level of equality in the national forum of the Parliament. Compromises could be reached through political attrition and lure of office, if not occasionally also by a sense of realism … Over time, through the electoral process and political interaction, one could have expected it [i.e., the 1956 Constitution] to continue to reflect compromises on the still unsettled issues of provincial autonomy and One Unit, in light of the changing political strengths and alignments of the various parties. The point is that no chance was given to the Constitution which it had taken nine years to frame … (Zaheer, pp. 58 to 59)

The breaking point came in 1971, on the eve of return to civilian rule. In response to opposition mobilization and demands from the East, the then military leader, General Ayub amended the constitution (the 1962 Constitution) to provide for representation by population. Elections were held in December 1970, in which the Awami Party captured a majority of seats and demanded to form the government, to implement a broad agenda of radical decentralization. The military, now led by General Yaha, in alliance with the leading West Pakistan party, the PPP, led by Zulfikar Bhutto, at first delayed and then postponed the summoning of Parliament. Conflict turned violent, and Bangladesh seceded in 1971.

2. Political cartels: Malaysia/Singapore

At the time of Singapore’s accession to Malaysia, it was led by the People’s Action Party (PAP). Malaysia was led by the United Malays Nationalist Organisation (UMNO). UMNO was a Malay party that contested elections, and governed in coalition with, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress. There was an unwritten agreement between the leaders of the PAP and the UMNO that they would not contest elections in each other’s territories – that is, Singapore and the rest of Malaysia would consist of two electoral zones. This was a risk, since Singapore had a large Malay population (to whom the UMNO appealed), and Malaysia had a large Chinese population that the PAP could appeal to, because of its large Chinese electoral base in Singapore. Indeed, in the merged entity, Chinese outnumbered Malay, although neither constituted a majority. The practical consequence of this arrangement was to create a political cartel, consisting of a regional duopoly between two dominant political parties. This was a form of political insurance (Ginsburg), which underwrote the accession of Singapore since both negotiating parties would retain political power under new constitutional arrangements.

This para-constitutional pact began to unravel very quickly. The defection came not from the UNMO, but the MCA, which sought to complete with the PAP in Singapore for the Chinese vote. The MCA failed to win a single seat in Singapore’s 1963 election. Emboldened by its success in Singapore, the PAP decided to campaign in Malaysian constituencies in the 1964 general election. Its goal was not to compete with UNMO, but rather, to replace the MCA as UNMO’s Chinese coalition partner. UNMO campaigned in support of the MCA and turned back the PAP challenge. The breakdown of the pact leadsthe UNMO to reopen another pillar of Singapore’s accession to Malaysia – that the provisions of the 1957 Federal Constitution that gave preferences to Malays (for example, in respect of public sector employment) would not apply to Singapore. This should be seen as a corollary of the political duopoly, since it framed electoral competition differently in Singapore than in Malaysia, whereby the PAP could compete across ethnic lines for the Malay vote.

Disagreement over this fundamental issue was the spark for the 1964 racial riots in Singapore. The parties attempted initially attempted to restore the status quo ante on Malay preferences in Singapore butreverted to threatening to compete in each other’s territory in upcoming elections in both Singapore and the rest of Malaysia. In the end, UNMO decided that Singapore should leave the federation – a rare case of a subunit being expelled.

3. Diverging economic interests: West Indies Federation

To be developed. Jamaica – against tariff removal to protect development of local industry. Trinidad – against labour mobility, for both reasons of ethnic balance between the Indian and Black populations, and to stem in-migration from economically depressed islands to take up employment in the emerging oil sector. An integrated roadmap developed that linked progress on the two issues, which ensured it never happened. Jamaica held a referendum on independence, which passed, and Jamaica seceded. Trinidad followed soon thereafter, leading to the collapse of the Federation.


bottom of page