If there is one thing that separates the have-nots from the have-a-lots in Bangalore, it is membership to a few elite clubs in the heart of the city. Clubs like the Karnataka Golf Association, Bangalore Club and the Bowring Institute are gated oases on sprawling acreage of prime land where the city’s privileged gather to play squash in their many sports facilities, quaff beers or get a spa treatment. The clubs’ gates are manned by security guards who allow entry only to members (and their guests), whose lounges, restaurants and even outdoor areas disdain those clad in anything other than pucca Western attire — veshtis (dhotis) are not allowed, for instance, shorts are a big no, and feet clad in open-toed footwear cannot tread in.
Now a bill drafted by the Siddaramaiah government — The Karnataka Entry into Public Places (Removal of Restriction on Dress and Regulation of Membership and Fee) Bill, 2015 — seeks to regulate the working of the clubs by dictating changes to their rules. It wants state control on the membership fees they collect. All clubs will need to allow entry to those wearing Indian attire — veshti or any other clothing reflecting “Kannada culture”. The clubs will be mandated to give membership to elected representatives, bypassing ordinary mortals for whom the waiting time could stretch up to 25 years.
Where does a government that has no time to fix any of Bangalore’s countless problems have the bandwidth to regulate the city’s social clubs? In the well-known Whitefield area of the city, a polluted lake has been frothing and foaming for over a year and gets into the media almost daily, appearing like a gigantic toxic bubble bath. Power cuts have gone up to five hours a day in the city while at petrol bunks, the lines of people standing to fill their diesel cans for their generators grow longer than the rows of vehicles. The government has been unable to find a long-term resolution to the city’s years-old garbage disposal problem, and is instead hobbling from one stop-gap fix to another.
But its alacrity in sorting out the affairs of the city’s social clubs has a sneaky motive. For decades, the clubs have pushed back politicians’ demands for priority and instantaneous memberships. The politicians’ chance to wedge a foot in the door came over a decade ago in 2002, when the Bangalore Club, the most uppity of them all, barred entry to distinguished academic Mohan Gopal, who at the time also happened to be the director of India’s topmost law college, for showing up in a dhoti-kurta. Since then, there have been frequent murmurs to change the clubs’ archaic rules disallowing women from entering certain areas, forbidding women from contesting elections (recently changed), and so on.
Then, last year, a staff member of senior Karnataka police officer R.P. Sharma got into a fracas with a Bangalore Club security guard, leading to his membership getting temporarily suspended. In retaliation, Sharma started highlighting the deficiencies at the club, which ensued in the cancellation of its liquor license. It was an opportune moment for government officials, ministers, MPs, MLAs and MLCs to root for their own entry into the clubs through preferential memberships. The draft bill came from that thinking.
Naturally, Bangalore’s influential citizens privately fumed that Siddaramaiah, whose draft bill criticises clubs for imposing Western dress on members, wears Western suits on official tours abroad. One local newspaper obligingly dug up photos of a business suit-clad Siddaramaiah, whose all-white daily attire is veshti-kurta with a customary shalya (shawl) draped across one shoulder. The chief minister has taken inspiration from his Tamil Nadu counterpart J. Jayalalithaa, but has gone a step further in asking that clubs let in elected representatives.
The clubs are due to file objections to the bill this month. Absurdly, their long waiting lists could be their counter to the government’s move. “If thousands of people are waiting 15-20 years to get memberships, how can 300 MPs, MLAs and MLCs bypass and get in through the backdoor?” vented one club office-bearer who did not want to be named.