Colonial hangover: India's elite clubs

Posted in India | 11-Jan-07 | Author: Sudha Ramachandran| Source: Asia Times

India's Railways Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav
BANGALORE - India's rustic Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav might have captured the attention of the world's top management schools with his remarkable transformation of Indian Railways from an ailing enterprise into a profit-making organization, but the country's social elite are not impressed.

A couple of months ago, Yadav's application for membership in Delhi's prestigious India International Center was turned down. Intellectuals, artists, diplomats and eminent public personalities constitute the IIC's select membership.

By no stretch of imagination would Yadav fit the profile of the average IIC member. Although he is today among India's most powerful politicians - and very wealthy, too - he is an outsider to Delhi's upper crust.

Yadav is low-caste and of very humble origin. He is not sophisticated; nor does he dress or speak "right". His broken English and accent are the butt of many jokes in India. During his seven-year stint as chief minister of Bihar state, lawlessness, corruption and poverty reached abysmal levels. His mismanagement of the state is well known, but just as noteworthy is his emergence as an internationally recognized management guru.

Sources in the IIC insist that it wasn't Yadav's background that determined their decision to blackball him. They maintain that his application was turned down because he had several criminal cases pending against him. However, IIC rules make no mention of criminal cases being a disqualification for membership.

Yadav's rejection as reported in the media raised few eyebrows, as nobody was really surprised with the decision. The IIC is an elite club and is proud of its exclusive membership. It is, of course, not alone in its snobbery. Elite clubs across India - the older they are, the more conservative they are in their membership rules - are reluctant to open their doors to those representing the new social order, all in the name of upholding traditions and standards.

Access to these clubs is restricted to the few who became members decades ago and their sons and daughters, to people who belong to the "right families" and have the "right surnames". And it is not just the less privileged who cannot hope for access to these clubs. Even the newly affluent are not welcome as members.

And the clubs are not embarrassed by their snobbery. An official at the Bangalore Club, one of India's oldest, told Asia Times Online he is "proud that the club's members are sophisticated and conservative in their style".

"Sophisticated" is often interpreted to mean "Western".

Founded in 1878, the Bangalore Club was, during colonial rule, exclusively for use by British soldiers stationed in the Bangalore cantonment. Among its members then was Winston Churchill - he owed the club Rs13 (about 30 US cents), which the club has written off as an "unrecoverable debt".

Today, the club is of course open to Indians but remains exclusive. It is proud of its colonial heritage, but it has sometimes carried this pride to absurd lengths. In 2002, it turned away one of its members, Mohan Gopal - a respected academic and director of Bangalore's law school - from the club's main room for wearing the dhoti-kurta (traditional Indian attire) to a dinner to mark the country's Republic Day. Club officials insisted that the dress code required members to wear formal clothes for dinner and that the dhoti-kurta was not a formal outfit.

Others at the dinner were in blazers, half-sleeved shirts and even T-shirts, and club officials had not objected, but dressing Indian was not acceptable to them. The dhoti worn with the khadi (hand-spun cotton) kurta, incidentally, was the standard attire of India's freedom fighters and continues to be worn widely in the country.

Clubs in communist Kolkata appear to be among the stuffiest when it comes to dress codes. In the late 1990s, eminent artist Maqbool Fida Hussain was denied entry to the Calcutta Club for coming there barefoot. In 1997, a retired civil servant was denied entry to a wedding reception at the Calcutta Swimming Club for "wearing a kurta-pajama that [was] too khadi".

More recently, filmmaker Rituparna Ghosh was turned away from the Calcutta Rowing Club for being similarly attired. "These are incidents involving well-known personalities. There are hundreds of others who have been subjected to such humiliation," said a member of the Tollygunge Club.

Tollygunge Club, which forbids dhoti-kurta in its dining room and bar, finds itself in a bit of pickle today. Member A P Dutta has filed a case against the club for denying entry in December 2004 to one of his guests who was wearing jodhpur breeches and kurta. He was apparently asked by club officials to move to a table in less clean surroundings where snacks were being served.

What these clubs seem to forget is that India's tropical climate is hardly suitable for coats and ties and shoes.

During British colonial rule, it was not uncommon to see boards put up outside clubs and restaurants forbidding entry to dogs and Indians. Today, Indians are allowed into these clubs, but only those of a certain class and background. Notices at entrances to clubs say that drivers and maids of members cannot eat there. And if you wear Indian attire, you can expect to be thrown out.

Almost 60 years after India freed itself from colonial rule, its elite clubs are yet to rid themselves of the colonial hangover.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.