Society

Second -Last Orders

Karnataka lays claim to the grounds on which stand Bangalore Club

Second -Last Orders
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Dressing Down

  • When dewan of  Mysore Sir M. Vivesvaraya came to Bangalore Club, he was apparently asked to take off his Mysore ‘peta’ and wear a coat. The statesman responded by starting Century Club in Bangalore in 1917.
  • In 2002, Mohan Gopal, then director of the National Law School, attired in white dhoti, was not allowed to enter Bangalore Club for the Republic Day banquet. He resigned his membership.
  • Last year, the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association turned away Justice D. Hariparanthaman, a high court judge, because he arrived at a book release function wearing a dhoti. The TN assembly subsequently passed a law to remove the ban on ‘veshti’ at recreational clubs.
  • In 1988, Bombay’s Willingdon Club famously barred a barefoot M F Husain from entering
  • In 1991, Lok Sabha member Dau Dayal Joshi was not admitted to the Delhi Gymkhana as he was wearing a dhoti. The matter was discussed in Parliament.

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First the watering hole, then the club itself. The manicured acres and polished mahogany, along with the charm of old world preferment, of the venerable Bangalore Club, arguably the city’s most elite, are under threat. For an institution whose beginnings date from the British Raj and which still holds dear some of its hoary traditions, this is probably its first serious brush with the law. It seems like a battle is about to be joined—one which generations hence will talk about nursing their drink, settled in those plush chairs. A pleasing scenario, if the club survives at all.

This is the story so far. The Karnataka government last month asked Ban­galore Club to prove that the 13-acre plot on which it has stood for the past 148 years indeed belonged to it. Much of what followed was dramatic. The district administration issued an order asking the club to hand over the property within a week and stern-faced officials landed up on the premises to enforce it. Bangalore Club moved the Karnataka High Court, which gave it a breather until the petition was heard. All this happened amidst another tussle over the club’s liquor licence, which the government refused to renew, citing a rule that required a club to be registered as a society, which Bangalore Club was not. That issue too is in court now.

Most people following the issue weren’t really surprised—members say some of this was anticipated—considering that Bangalore Club has remained largely independent of the establishment all these years, unlike other clubs that had leased government land. It has also been accused of being snooty, has a waiting period for membership of nearly 22 years—where no amount of love or money can help, as one person put it—and is strict on its members being attired in western formals, things which appear to have not gone down well with the present generation of politicians. However, it is also true that a good number of them, including ministers and former chief ministers, are members.

“For a long time, people have been waiting for a chance to hit out at the club,” says a member. That chance came in the form of an altercation between a no-nonsense security guard and a high-ranking police officer who was stopped at the gate for his club ID last year. Just weeks after, authorities raided the club’s bar that had apparently violated rules by sub-leasing its licence to a restaurant within the premises. It had to cough up a fine of Rs 50,000 and just about managed to rescue its Christmas and New Year festivities. Then came visits and notices from various utilities.

The crises faced by Bangalore Club have also visited some of India’s other exclusive clubs over the years. Its history has the same Raj-era sepia too. It was started as the Bangalore United Services Club for British army officers in 1868—a young Winston Churchill was a member and, famously, had an unpaid bill of thirteen rupees—on a prime piece of property at the edge of what used to be the city’s cantonment. It claims the land was bought from a private person in 1873.

“There is no denying that the political class is kind of envious of the social prestige some clubs of Bangalore command and want a share of that power,” says theatre personality and filmmaker Prakash Belawadi, adding that much of its woes are also a result of public perception. “A club is no doubt an elitist organisation. The thing is it works on the principle of exclusion, not inclusion. You have to be made a member.” However, Belawadi also feels that Ban­galore Club should have ensured that eve­rything is in order if it wanted to be an exemplary organisation and that he didn’t quite understand what stopped it from registering itself as a society. “I do feel bad for them because all this has come upon them because of disgruntled, envious politicians.” Registering the club as a society will give the government a better hold on it, reckon others.

“The government of Karnataka must respect Bangalore Club as a heritage n management n members of club as custodians n not disturb present status,” tweeted prominent Bangalorean and Biocon Ltd’s chairman Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw last week. Inevi­tably, her tweet drew cynical resp­onses about the club’s ‘elite attitude’. “If you do an analysis of BC membership you will see 99 per cent are middle class,” she hit back.

“We are not against the club and we have no intention to grab the property. For what?” asks Karnataka legislator A. Manju, who heads a house committee of mlas looking into the working style of clubs in Karnataka. The committee, which has sent out questionnaires to  all clubs, wants to ensure that laws are being followed and that instances such as sub-leasing of land do not take place. It is also looking at streamlining rules across clubs, particularly on the issue of formal dress codes. “We have to respect our Indian dress,” says Manju, whose wife, incidentally, is a member of Ban­g­alore Club. The debate over clubs, particularly their strict dress codes, was brought up in the Karnataka assembly some years ago by several mlas including chief minister Sid­d­a­r­amaiah, who was then the leader of opposition. Following this, a house com­mittee had been formed and it submitted an interim report two years ago.

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For the Siddaramaiah government—currently grappling with a farm crisis, with several suicides of farmers being reported in recent months amid a sugarcane glut—clubs have been a thorny affair earlier as well. A proposal to raze Balabrooie, a colonial-era building located in the heart of the city and replace it with a club for legislators had met with protests from citizens last year and had to be dropped eventually. “The Bangalore Club is an old icon of the city. I think the powers-that-be should just let it be. It’s not worth their while when so many other critical civic issues are boiling on the ground,” says Priya Chetty-Rajagopal, an HR professional and club member.

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For its part, Bangalore Club’s management prefers to keep a low profile these days, but wants to take things to a logical end. They could perhaps take strategic inspiration from a certain wartime leader—fight them in court, fight them at the gates—never mind the thirteen rupees.

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