Thursday, Oct 06, 2022

Explained: ‘Union’ or ‘central’ government? In Tamil Nadu, a political tussle over words and their meaning

In Tamil Nadu, a controversy erupted earlier this month over the new DMK government referring to the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the 'union government' instead of 'central government'.

Tamil Nadu, Tamil Nadu government, union government, central government, Chennai news, indian express explained, explained politics, indian expressTamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin told the Assembly that the DMK has used ‘union’ government for ‘central’ government since 1957. (PTI/Archive)

Article 1(1) of the Constitution of India says “India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States.” Scholars of India’s constitutional system have described it as being “basically federal, with striking unitary features” (D D Basu).

‘Central’ v ‘union’ government

In common parlance, the terms “union government” and “central government” are used interchangeably in India. In Tamil Nadu, however, a controversy erupted earlier this month over the new DMK government referring to the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the ‘union government’ (ondriya arasu) instead of ‘central government’ (madhiya arasu).

The controversy, which was initially only on Tamil social media, reached the state Assembly when Nainar Nagendran, the BJP MLA from Tirunelveli, demanded to know whether the ruling party had a motive for using the word ‘union’.

In his reply to Nagendran on June 23, Chief Minister M K Stalin said there was no need for anyone to fear the word ondriyam (union), and that his government would continue to use it because it stood for the principles of federalism.

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“The word signifies federal principles… We will continue to use it,” Stalin said. The DMK, the Chief Minister said, had been using it since 1957, and underlined that the Constitution describes India as a “union of states”.

Ironically, while BJP leaders wanted an explanation for the DMK’s insistence on using ondriya arasu (union government) rather than madhiya arasu (central government), Tamilisai Soundararajan, the Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry who was earlier the chief of the BJP in Tamil Nadu, used the word ondriyam while administering the oath of office to cabinet members in the Union Territory.

The Puducherry Raj Bhawan subsequently issued a clarification saying the LG had only read from a template that had been in use for decades.


In fact, if the word ondriyam has traditionally been used in Tamil-speaking Puducherry, it has also been in use in the Tamil Nadu Assembly, which came into existence much before Puducherry.

Language and Constitution

Justice (retd) K Chandru, a former judge of the Madras High Court, pointed out that more than 70 years after Independence, there is no authorised Tamil translation of the Constitution of India.

The question in the ‘union or centre’ debate is about the nature of the Indian state, Justice Chandru said. “In the Government of India Act, 1935, provinces had more power and the Viceroy had only the minimum… But the Indian constitution changed this equation, and the federal government was made more powerful… The actual power is vested with the Union of India in all respects. In the 70 years of working of the Constitution, every power was taken away, even those conferred by the original Constitution. All this makes the controversy over a word mere shadow boxing,” he said.


While submitting the draft Constitution in 1948, Dr B R Ambedkar, chairman of the drafting committee, had said that the committee had used the world ‘Union’ because (a) the Indian federation was not the result of an agreement by the units, and (b) the component units had no freedom to secede from the federation.

Tamil Nadu has seen consistent efforts to present words in a better form of Tamil, especially after the DMK came to power in the mid-1960s. The word ‘sabha’, from Sanskrit, is an example: while satta sabha was common earlier, it is now called satta peravai. Sattamandra melavai is used to refer to the Legislative Council, Maanilangalavai to denote Rajya Sabha, and Makkalavai for Lok Sabha.

Among other examples, the word Janadhipathi is no longer used; it is mostly Kudiayarasu thalaivar now. There was no Tamil word for Governor for long; the Governor is now Aalunar in Tamil, a precise translation from the English.

While state units of the Congress party are mostly known as Pradesh Congress Committees (PCCs), in Tamil Nadu it is TNCC (Tamil Nadu Congress Committee), possibly because of the Sanskrit word pradesh in PCC.

First published on: 01-07-2021 at 04:10:22 am
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