Meddling in elite private club's affair

The state government’s proposal to regulate rules governing the management of clubs in Karnataka including their dress code, membership and the associated fees has, predictably stirred a hornet’s nest.

The high profile social hubs, particularly in the IT capital, have often been in the news for the wrong reasons including their decision to bar entry to people wearing traditional dresses or dhotis instead of formals. Predictably, this has not gone down well with the aggrieved parties as also the general public, not to speak of the state’s law makers.

A recent case in point is the embarrassment caused to a leading academician who was denied entry merely because he was in dhoti-kurta. Similarly, Mr. Ashok Chatterjee, former executive director of Ahmedabad’s National Institute of Design, it is learnt, was asked to leave a lunch he was attending at a leading club in the IT city. Merely because he was dressed in Kurta pyjamas!

It is not that such dress codes are peculiar to the city clubs. In Lucknow, recently, a prominent Shia cleric was denied entry into the Mahomed Bagh Club, as his traditional attire went against its dress code. Similar incidents have often been reported from many high profile clubs from across the country. Till recently, clubs in Chennai too had come in for sharp criticism on this count.

Surprisingly, even after over six decades of independence, these institutions have been implementing their rigid dress codes imposed, in many cases, by their British founders. Nobody thought it fit to challenge or change them.

That is until Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Ms. Jayalalithaa decided to do something about what she contemptuously termed as the “sartorial despotism of the clubs.” Angered by the humiliation meted out by the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association to a senior judge as he was not in formals, the Amma moved fast last year to end such practice.

Accordingly, the TN government enacted a law making it an offence for the clubs to bar entry to people in traditional Tamil dress, namely, the ubiquitous dhoti.

Taking a cue from his neighbour, the Siddaramaiah government has now sought to include this clause in its draft bill titled “The Karnataka Entry into Public Places (Removal of Restriction on Dress and Regulation of Membership and Fees) Act, 2015.

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It picked up the clause concerned verbatim from the Tamil Nadu Act to say that “no person wearing a veshti, reflecting Kannada culture or any other Indian traditional dress shall be denied entry into any public place, provided that the dress is decent. No club shall make any rule, regulation or bylaws or issue any circular imposing such dress restriction.” The only change was to replace “Tamil” with “Kannada.”

Not surprisingly, the Siddaramaiah government’s move has led to a howl of protests from the clubs concerned, which feel that the State is trampling on their freedom and the right to manage their affairs. Their constant refrain is that the same politicians, who are seeking to put curbs on appropriate dresses for entry into clubs in the name of traditional wear, think nothing of changing into a suit when they go abroad.

Admittedly, opinion on the issue is indeed divided, though the public in general sees nothing wrong with the government’s move. Of course, this is not to say that the clubs do not have a point as after all, these are private institutions and are free to have their own rules and regulations. It is not surprising, therefore, to hear the club managements contesting the government move, albeit in private, while preparing to approach the courts for justice.

At the same time while some clubs are not averse to making appropriate changes in their dress codes, what is getting their goat is the government’s move to force them into enrolling city MPs, MLAs, corporators and legislative councillors, as members. This, notwithstanding the fact, that many of these institutions have a long waiting list.

This, apart the government’s draft bill, also seeks to regulate the fees charged by these clubs from their members. Cumulatively, therefore, its action is being seen as an attempt to control the functioning of clubs which, as per their members and managements, is unconstitutional.

Controversies apart, few perhaps would quarrel with the move to end the dress code discrimination. The government, however, is finding it difficult to answer a fusillade of queries over the need for forcing clubs to take lawmakers as members.  Even though it has sugar-coated the provision by adding that along with law makers “persons with meritorious contribution in sports, ex-servicemen or renowned persons” too would have to be compulsorily enrolled as members. It is another matter that critics view this attempt by the lawmakers to give themselves some dignity.

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This, however, has not cut much ice with the clubs who feel that it is nothing but arm-twisting. That apart, as one member mentioned in private, the law makers want to have the maximum benefits. As it is, they get huge pay and perks for the positions they occupy, in addition to enjoying several facilities for which poorer sections of society can never aspire.

Besides, the MPs in particular get subsidised food at ridiculously low rates at the Parliament canteen. And now they want guaranteed membership in clubs! Where will all this stop? Is there no end to it?

To say that the disgust over the government’s move spreads to all sections would be an understatement. No wonder then, that most people this magazine spoke to were unanimous in suggesting that the law makers would do well to have their own club in Bangalore. Something on the lines of the Constitution Club in Delhi.

That will, hopefully, keep them off “our backs,” is the fervent hope of the aggrieved club members who mince no words in questioning the move to regulate the institutions’ fees as well. What does the government want? Is the common query, even bordering on disbelief?

Is it in its domain? Just a few months ago, the government sought to pressurise “us by seeking to cancel our liquor licences?  Why the move to bulldoze us? ” is what the clubs are asking.  Justifiably so too.

While the move to question the clubs’ dress regulations may have some merit, the state’s motive in interfering with their right to choose members, is baffling. As also what they collect as fee.

The government perhaps may argue that the draft bill is aimed at seeking the views of the public and cannot be treated by the clubs as a fait accompli.  That would be music to the ears of the clubs. But knowing how the Siddaramaiah administration has been functioning, the clubs’ may have little to rejoice in the coming days, especially as the government appears determined to pamper its law makers.

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