The fifth metro: In another club

Days after ADGP Sharma was suspended by Bangalore Club, it was raided by officials of the state excise department, who cancelled its liquor licence.

Written by Saritha Rai | Updated: December 8, 2014 12:00:27 am
The incident would have been yet another skirmish that routinely make the day’s headlines before dying down. The incident would have been yet another skirmish that routinely make the day’s headlines before dying down.

An altercation at Bangalore Club shines a light on the chummy relationship between the bureaucracy and India’s urban elite

A nasty incident recently involving a top-ranking police officer in one of the city’s prestigious members-only clubs has led to a confrontation between the so-powerful bureaucracy and Bangalore’s influentia. At a broader level, the episode shines a spotlight on the chummy relationship between the bureaucracy and the urban elite in India. The wager now is that the case will come to a quick and scripted close, reinforcing the widely held view that India’s powerful put self-interest before all else.

The story played out like this: Early last month, the car of a senior IPS officer, R.P. Sharma, who is the additional general of police (railways), entered the gates of the premier Bangalore Club, of which he is a member. The security guards stopped the car and, as can be routine, asked to see the member’s credentials. An altercation ensued and the guard was allegedly roughed up by the police officer’s staff. In a strange turn of events, the officer’s driver registered a police complaint at a nearby police station against the security guard he is alleged to have bashed up. Among the spectators to the fracas was Raghu Karnad, son of actor-playwright Girish Karnad, who posted on his social networks that he was witness to the high-handed behaviour of the police officer and saw his staff manhandling the club’s security guard.

The incident would have been yet another skirmish that routinely make the day’s headlines before dying down. But Karnad’s post went viral and galvanised public opinion. Very soon, a campaign was launched by the city’s powerful, and signatories such as writer Ramachandra Guha and fashion designer Prasad Bidapa petitioned Bangalore’s police commissioner, M.N. Reddi, to withdraw the “malafide” FIR against the club’s security guard.

As the incident began to snowball, Bangalore Club officials announced an internal inquiry and asked ADGP Sharma to present his version of the story. The club’s committee examined several witnesses, including Karnad’s son, but Sharma himself was a “no show” at the inquiry. The club then announced that Sharma’s membership was suspended for a month, a loss of face for any high-ranking official. The officer immediately hit back at the club’s excise violations — it was serving alcohol in its gardens and restaurants while its licence allowed liquor to be served only at its bar.

Bangalore Club is no ordinary club. Housed in a stately set of colonial buildings in the heart of the city, it sprawls over nine acres of prime downtown land. It was founded in 1868 by the British for exclusive use of their officers.

Later, it passed into Indian hands and its members included the maharaja of Mysore. The club prides itself that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill figures in its list of defaulters — long before he became prime minister, the young army officer reneged on a payment of Rs 13. The club has over 6,000 members, including the city’s cream-of-the-cream. Memberships are so sought after that new applicants have a waiting period of over 30 years.

Days after Sharma was suspended by the club, it was raided by officials of the state excise department, who cancelled its liquor licence, citing many violations. The move devastated its members, for whom a club without a bar licence is as good as a racehorse missing one leg. Members alleged that it was  vendetta. Officials vehemently denied any connection between the excise raid and Sharma’s suspension, but the sequence of events was no coincidence. The excise raid was followed by further raids by city corporation officials and the state pollution control board (PCB). The city corporation fined the club for running several establishments in the premises without valid trade licences and the PCB warned against playing loud music past 10 pm. The raids on Bangalore Club also led to several leading clubs in the city suspending their bar services. Minus the alcohol, the laughter is muted at Bangalore Club and other such premium institutions.

The issue would have dragged on for a length of time had it not been for one pressing reason: Christmas and the New Year are around the corner and the club’s members do not want to miss out on the chance to partake of the lavish annual festivities hosted by their club, where alcohol flows freely. Frantic efforts are on to cobble together a deal involving the club, the state bureaucracy and, of course, Sharma.

Club insiders say its members have had enough and want the management to quietly bury the Sharma episode. The police officer’s suspension order lapses after a month anyway. The conciliation will allow members to partake of the Christmas and New Year celebrations. Taken in the spirit of the season, it could be viewed as “forgive and forget”. In this case, however, it will be a self-serving compromise that will put the drinks back on the table.

saritha.rai@expressindia.com

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