This Article is From Jul 16, 2014

What Do Clubs Have Against Dhotis?

(Dr. Shashi Tharoor, a two-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram and the former Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development, is the author of 14 books, including, most recently, Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.)

A controversy has erupted in Chennai after a Madras High Court Judge, Justice D. Hariparanthaman, was denied entry into the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association Club recently for wearing a dhoti. Arriving at the club premises to participate in a book release function organised by a former Chief Justice of the High Court, the judge was barred from entering since his choice of attire violated the club's dress code. Apparently the club only allows members or guests dressed in "full trousers, shirts or T-shirts with collars and leather shoes" to enter the club premises. Ironically, the incident occurred at a time when the State government-owned Co-optex had organised a "dhoti day" to promote the traditional garb across the state.

Justice Hariparanthaman, with due judicial restraint, termed the incident as "unfortunate". Politicians were a little less reticent. "Dhoti is an integral part of Tamil culture. Denying entry to a person in dhoti is condemnable," declared former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi of the DMK, calling on the State government to intervene. Congress leader Gnanadesikan said it was "regrettable" that a High Court Judge was denied entry for wearing dhoti.

"It is not important who went there wearing dhoti," he clarified, "but a rule barring the entry into a club for a dhoti-clad person in Tamil Nadu is unacceptable".

PMK founder Dr. S. Ramadoss, an ally of the BJP, urged the government to amend the Act for Registration of Cooperative Societies to end "the culture of clubs denying entry to those turning up in dhoti." The PMK leader demanded an end to "such British-era practices" and expressed regret that even former Supreme Court Judge Justice V R Krishna Iyer was denied entry in 1980s in the Gymkhana Club in Chennai. He demanded that the state government move necessary amendments to the laws to ban clubs that do not honour Tamil culture.

Whether the government will go quite so far remains to be seen, though it may be on thin legal ground if it attempts to do that. Strictly speaking, there's nothing in the lawbooks, or the Constitution for that matter, that makes snobbishly objecting to a dhoti and chappals a punishable offence. After all, restaurants and hotels are within their rights to refuse to serve someone in a swimsuit or shorts, and temples often refuse to allow female worshippers to wear pants - and how do you legislate against that?

For the record, the same thing has happened to me, and in the same city. I was denied entry to my own sister's wedding reception at the Madras Gymkhana in 1982 because I was wearing an expensive silk kurta which, of course, didn't have a collar: a sloppier T-shirt, which did, would have been acceptable to the custodians of the club's peculiar standards. On another occasion, I had to tuck my kurta into my pants since the club in question only permitted "tucked-in shirts".

All these stipulations are, of course, colonial relics. They go back to the time when the clubs were set up by propah Englishmen and Indians who aspired to be like them - the brown sahibs who fulfilled Macaulay's dream of constituting an intermediate class between the rulers and the ruled, "a class of persons," as he put it in his famous Minute on Education, "Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect." And, he might have added, in attire as well.

The Englishmen and the brown sahibs banded together in clubs that kept out those who weren't, or couldn't be, like them. Membership was selective and perpetuated the culture. As the English gradually left, what remained of the colonial ethos could be found in the club menus (which often featured items rarely served in any self-respecting Indian home), their libraries - and their dress codes.

It was hardly surprising that in this particular incident, Tamil Nadu Cricket Association club officials, under fire for defenestrating the judge, took umbrage not at their overzealous staff, but at the member who had invited Justice Hariparanthaman to the club - because he had failed to brief the guest properly on the dress code. "The member has apologised to us," a club official was reported as saying. There was no word of any apology to the judge.

In all fairness, though, any private club is entitled to make and impose its own rules on its members, and several politically-incorrect denizens of clubdom have argued that clubs are well within their rights to frame their own codes to "maintain decorum". One particularly indiscreet soul confided to a journalist that the ban on the dhoti was only "to prevent wardrobe malfunction under the influence of alcohol". A member of the Madras Boat Club was quoted as pointing out, "If someone wants to come to the club, it is better that they adhere to the rules. No one is forced to come here".

This is unexceptionable: in a democracy, we all enjoy freedom of association, and that includes the freedom to associate obnoxiously only with people who dress like us.

But the argument can't be allowed to rest there. If clubs seek the right to be discriminatory in their practices, they must be obliged to confine their discrimination to their own members. They should simply not be permitted to hold public functions which include attendance by members of the general public. They cannot be allowed to have it both ways - to claim the privilege of exclusivity as a club, and enjoy the income from leasing out their premises and facilities to the great unshod. If they want to host book releases, they should have no choice but to accept that books are read by people of all sizes, ages, and attires.

The Tamil Nadu Cricket Association club has promised to review its rules at its next annual general meeting, but don't bet on any change. Once the current flap (which even featured an agitated debate at the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly) dies down, the club will undoubtedly go back to its hidebound ways. The entire logic of club culture is that it wants to keep the rest of the world out - to enjoy being an oasis of Anglicized privilege that looks askance at the sartorially-challenged. But if someone files a PIL contesting their right to do this, one can only hope the case is heard by Justice Hariparanthaman.

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