For a social commentator, nothing offers a better opportunity to analyse the social, political and economic transformation of urban Bangalore than the ongoing ‘Battle for the Clubs’ between politicians and Bengaluru’s elite.
For those who are late to the party, this is about Karnataka legislature’s latest assault on individual liberties (except in the case where government owns the land the clubs stand on), where the government is set to forcefully regulate membership fee, allotments and rules of entry of private recreational clubs across the state. You can read all about the draft bill here. One of the main points being argued is the dress code that clubs impose on their members, disallowing anyone with, say, dhoti or chappals from entering the clubs.
Let’s not get the wrong idea of what this is all about – this is not about Kannada culture, it is not about respect to the dhoti/veshti and it is not about high membership fees. It is about politicians, who are angry that some of the most elite clubs in Bengaluru have kept them out, wanting to take control of the clubs. And thus, it is to do with less than 1% of the citizenry. After all, how many of us have access to these elite clubs? And how many among us are politicians who can abuse our legislative powers for personal gains? Surely, the media coverage over the ‘issue’ is inversely proportional to how much it actually matters to us as a society or country But nevertheless, it is a mirror to the underlying socio-political tensions.
In a way, this is Bengaluru’s own Clash of the Titans. This is old-money versus new-found political power. On the one hand are Bengaluru’s resident elites, businessmen, socialites and ‘eminent figures’ who have homes in the best locales and have seen the city grow from a lazy, happy, pleasant retirement hub to a bustling IT capital with narrow roads, terrible traffic and a lot of disposable income. And on the other hand, it is the sons of Kannada soil who have wrested power through elections, and have come to rule through the government. This is elite society versus the establishment, Bangalore versus Bengaluru.
A look at who is batting for which side will put to rest any doubts over this theory.
The administrators of the elite clubs are businessmen with old money, owning prime property in the city dating back several decades. On the Times of India, it is people like ‘industry captain’ Kiran Majumdar Shaw and eminent figures like Shreepadarenu T (grandson of Kengal Hanumanthaiah, Karnataka’s second Chief Minister) who are fighting for the ‘independence’ of the clubs.
On the other side are legislators like A Manju, the Congress MLA from Hassan who is heading the house committee on the draft bill to regulate Karnataka’s clubs, who are perhaps angry that in spite of winning elections and becoming peoples’ representative, they are being denied entry into elite clubs. The reasons they offer for the new legislation – preservation of Kannada culture and other such virtues – are mere smokescreens.
But before we go all out against the politicians, let us also understand that the underlying emotion behind the legislative sham by politicians is not entirely unjustified.
At the risk of generalization, it has to be said that the elite clubs of Bengaluru are cesspools of class bias, which stink of a type of colonial hangover which can only be understood by those who have been subjected to it. Most of the men and women who run and frequent these clubs are convinced that those who are not a part of their coterie are beneath them, sub-human even. They look down upon those who are not part of the rich 'Bangalore heritage'. If you are not old Bangalore money, you do not belong there, you are cheap and low-class. Beneath the veneer of liberalism is shocking insensitivity. Of course, not all the members of all the clubs are like that. I personally happen to know some fine human beings who are a part of the club circuit, but let us not fool ourselves into thinking that these are not the larger sentiments which characterize some of these elite clubs.
And what better proof of this can there be than the dress code? The rule - that if you are not wearing pant, shirt and shoes, you are not allowed entry into the club - is a classic colonial one which was meant to keep us lowly desis away from the clubs. And the rule is still followed, in the name of ‘private rights’. It is disgraceful, to say the least.
But, and it must be firmly held, that social change cannot be brought by legislation infringing individual rights, and it cannot be used as a mask for furthering personal gains –which is what is happening right now. It is appalling that the legislators in Karnataka are not even trying to hide that the new law is about their entry, so much so that draft bill openly states that membership requests of MLAs, MPs and MLCs cannot be rejected outright.
We don’t know how this is going to end. Bangalore will fight Bengaluru all the way to the end, even if it means knocking on the doors of the apex court to stop the legislation. But there are lessons for both sides – one cannot remain in an elite cocoon forever, a neither can one abuse the legislative powers given to you by the people.