By Anand Sinha
Edited by Nandita Singh, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist
Dogs and Indians Not Allowed: this is what the signboards of many clubs and gymkhanas in India used to read during the British Raj era. The reason was, of course, to restrict the dog-like savage natives from entering the premises where the white sahibs used to play and entertain themselves. It was one of the many attempts by the British to vindicate a sense of superiority of the white over the brown.
While the British left and India became independent in 1947, these clubs and gymkhanas still maintain the same kind of rules and regulations. Though Indians are now allowed to enter, the exclusivity of the sahib culture still pervades. People wearing Indian outfits, slippers and sandals are straightaway debarred from entering the clubs. Formal suits with leather shoes are the only kind of clothes one can wear while going to these clubs and gymkhanas. Otherwise, you are certainly going to get humiliated by being turned back from the gates.
Recently, a High Court judge along with two advocates were not allowed to enter a club in Chennai because they were wearing lungis. In similarly notorious instances, figures such as M. F. Hussain and Khushwant Singh have also been debarred from entering gymkhanas in the past, because the former was barefoot as always, and the latter was wearing sandals, not leather shoes. Though the attempts to treat everyone equally despite their reputation are praiseworthy, but are not such figures above these restrictions? While there have been instances of political intervention to contain such incidents, it does not veil the colonial mentality working behind the mechanism of these clubs and gymkhanas.
The contention of the clubs and gymkhanas has been that these rules and regulations have been formulated to maintain the dignity of their premises and provide the members a sophisticated ambience. Dress codes exist in order to maintain a sense of discipline and dignified ambience of the place. (Notice the words: dignity, sophistication.) Also, would a woman wearing a bikini be allowed to enter a religious precinct? Isn’t there a kind of dress code for every place? Well, these are the arguments.
Also, membership into these clubs and gymkhanas is very exclusive and getting one can take as long as 25-30 years, and despite what one might believe, it is not just money that can get you entry into these elite clubs. The family background of the applicant is thoroughly checked, and only members of traditionally affluent families are finally permitted. In short, the man or woman has to be a ‘khandani’ person to get into these exclusive institutions. It also means that a self-made man, however rich he might be, has no chance of getting into these places. Clearly, family name, and not virtues or achievements, open the gates to these clubs and gymkhanas. Most of these clubs and gymkhanas did not even admit women as their members until recently.
It is crystal clear that besides being the carriers of colonial legacy, these clubs and gymkhanas are also upholding a feudal aristocratic tradition, while rejecting that of individual capitalist enterprise. New money is vulgar, we suppose. A Marxist would perhaps argue that these clubs and gymkhanas are entities created to vindicate a feeling of superiority of old money over new money, and ensure the social as well as psychological hegemony of the former over the latter. Even a person with common sense can see that the neo-rich are deliberately kept out of this elite league so that a feeling of failing always persists in their hearts. Entry into these clubs is always something one can aspire for, but can never quite achieve. It is something to be earned over the generations of a family.
Well, that is how things work. There are many new clubs that have opened up to admit people who faced rejection by these exclusive establishments, but because they admit anyone with enough money, they lose that sense of elitism and aura that those clubs and gymkhanas boast of. Isn’t it to experience a sense of social superiority and elitism that people want to get into these gymkhanas in the first place? If that is lost, what use do they serve?
This article is not passing a moral judgment on these gymkhana rules and regulations, but it only tries to show the kind of legacy these entities carry. Perhaps, a feeling of colonial inferiority and the subsequent act of colonial mimicry is propagated when such an adamant stress is placed on rules and regulations that deliberately, or otherwise, demean the local culture.
Currently based in Delhi, Anand is an English literature student at the Delhi College of Arts and Commerce, University of Delhi. After working as a content writer and editor for an online firm for a few months, he interned at Youth Ki Awaaz. Sinha defines his political stand as centre-left. His interests include literature, cinema, music, philosophy and world politics.