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Dhoti’s dressing down

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Are we within our legal rights to form elite clubs with sartorial diktats, howsoever absurd or archaic?

By Jagdish Sagar

 Recently three luminaries of the Madras High Court—that splendid Indo-Saracenic monument of the Raj, with its rigid dress code (above the belt, anyway) and learned judges who are addressed as “milord” as they administer English common law—were denied admission to the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association for being dressed in veshtis, or dhotis, rather than the customary trousers and collared shirt.

The great chip-on-the-shoulder brigade has declared war. One blog entitled “End the Sartorial Apartheid” defends the dhoti in these terms: “…dhoti was the only approved apparel for men to enter the sanctum sanctorum of most temples in Kerala and select temples in Tamil Nadu from time immemorial.” (So sartorial apartheid is okay in temples, but not in clubs.) The chief minister has promised legislation to force clubs to let in people wearing native costume. Meanwhile, the High Court itself didn’t intervene: no one’s constitutional rights had been infringed, it held, though one of the three who had been denied entry to the club was one of its own judges.

The veshti is, no doubt, more elegant and better suited to the climate of Chennai than the ill-made trousers that are now the male norm on the streets of our towns. Indians actually do look better in native costume (if only because it lends some dignity to that ubiquitous pot-belly) but it’s on the way out—which, again, gives it a new cachet: it’s actually becoming elitist. Native costume was also, until recently, de rigeur for politicians but that’s going out too: now, to represent the “aam aadmi” you may need to dress more like Arvind Kejriwal (and some people will do anything for political office.) Women’s right to dress non-traditionally, for comfort and charm rather than “modesty”, without being leered at, or being blamed for being leered at, is a live and perfectly valid feminist issue. We’ll never take to top hats and tailcoats like the Japanese, but surely in another generation or two international clothing (“western” is now a misnomer) will be the default form of dress in most of India. It’s already the aspirational uniform of millions looking for a toehold into the middle class.

TN CRICKET 1So the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association’s dress code wasn’t an onerous requirement for the three gentlemen who wanted in, nor indeed any great departure from what people like them normally wear. But leave that aside. The real question is whether Indian citizens have a right to form clubs with strict dress codes, howsoever absurd or archaic, and to exclude from their premises those, whether guests or members, who refuse to conform. Should someone in a dhoti be entitled, in the name of Indian culture, to wander about inside a nudist club? (There actually is one in India.) Is it okay for a club to deny entry to someone as distinctly Indian as a naga sadhu? Would someone in shirt and trousers have the right to walk into a fancy dress party at a club (though I can’t say how the management would regard a veshti in that particular situation)?

In the limited vocabulary of Indian journalism (“reels under” for power shortages; “lashes out at” for any criticism, “nabbed” for arrested) “relic of the Raj” is the phrase of choice for anything over seventy years old that the writer disapproves of, or that doesn’t grant privileged admission to journalists. But are our old clubs really so very British nowadays? The Delhi Gymkhana Club—I’m not a member—actually seems quite Punjabi: and why not? It’s still a pleasant watering hole for its members (and occasional guests like me who obey its dress code). It’s most unlikely that these places resemble authentic Brit clubs any more than the Lok Sabha resembles the House of Commons.

Article 19(1)(c) of the Constitution gives Indian citizens the right to form associations, and a law can abridge that right only if the restrictions it imposes on that right are “reasonable” and “in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India or public order or morality”. Obviously the right to form an association includes the right to keep people out of that association: the Supreme Court held as much in the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan case where the Government tried to stuff a private association with its nominees; now if the Government can’t force members on a club, how can it force guests on it? It beats me how Jayalalitha’s team of babus are going to draft a reasonable law requiring clubs to let in people wearing veshtis in order to uphold the sovereignty and integrity of India or public order
or morality.

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