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Incident at Delhi Golf Club Is Proof Ugly Classism Continues to Thrive in India

The reason why Tailin Lyngdoh was barred entry is simple: dignity of labour can take a hike because the sahibs are clear here – ‘servants’ are not to be served food with their masters.

Delhi Golf Club. Credit: delhigolfclub.org

Delhi Golf Club. Credit: delhigolfclub.org

Since June 26, news about Tailin Lyngdoh, a middle-aged woman from Meghalaya dressed in the traditional Khasi attire, Jainsem, being shown the door at the Delhi Golf Club because she looked like a ‘maid’ – even though she was a guest of a member – has been doing the rounds of social and print media.

The incident has stirred widespread public outrage, and rightly so. While some have expressed anger against the club staff for insulting the Khasi dress, which is considered a formal outfit for women in Meghalaya (the state chief minister’s wife receives a dignitary at a formal event in that attire), some others were appalled at ‘mainstream’ India once again flashing its ignorance about the northeast, and more importantly, showing its racist streak towards the people of the region.

But why was I not surprised by the particular incident? Why was there a sense of déjà vu? Incidents of discrimination against people from the northeast are legion in Delhi and elsewhere but this is not entirely about it.

To begin with, this is not for the first time such an incident has occurred in an elite club of Delhi. It occurs regularly. It’s just that most victims don’t go public.

Tailin Lyngdoh. Credit: Nivedita Barthakur/Facebook

In January last year, women’s rights activist Mohini Giri went public with a similar complaint against the Delhi Gymkhana Club. The club barred her guests from entering, because, according to Gymkhana functionaries, they looked like a ‘maid’ and a ‘driver’. At that time too, the woman involved was from the northeast. The point here is, it has happened before and will continue to do so.

There are two reasons for this. Clearly, the first reason exists because the second feeds on it – socially.

The first reason is simple: people will continue to be barred from entering these Raj era clubs for how they may look till the ‘rule’ that says ‘maids and drivers not allowed’ is dropped.

However, the second reason is why the first one thrives. And herein, it ceases to be only about the northeast. The July 26 incident held up for us what most educated, moneyed, well-placed Indians are – unapologetically classist.

The very staff that stopped Lyngdoh from dining there that evening may have been empowered to do so by the club’s management. They may have been given sweeping powers to decide who looks like a ‘maid’ or a ‘driver’ in the dining hall, but mind you, they themselves can’t imagine sharing a dinner table with a member in the very place that they otherwise ‘rule’ over. The reason is simple: dignity of labour can go take a hike because the sahibs are clear here – ‘servants’  are not to be served food with their ‘masters’. The founders of these clubs came up with ‘sahib and memsahib only’ rules to keep natives out. The sad part is that it is exactly this classist nature of these clubs that make them so fetching to the neo elite today. The contention is simple: who would like to be a member of a club where even someone’s ‘maid’ and ‘driver’ can find easy entry, eat the same food that they do, use the same cutlery, the same rest room, be a part of the same conversation?

On June 27, Giri hit out at the Delhi Golf Club: “Maids are in the minds of these high sounding slaves of a forgotten era who (otherwise) can’t lift a finger to do their own work and (yet) think they are superior.”

She registered her protest then by surrendering her Gymkhana membership, something that many would like to give an arm and a leg for. I remember her telling me then, “This is not for what Gandhiji fought the British. This is not what independence is about, not why so many people sacrificed their lives. I have lived in British India. My conscience will never allow me to visit a place where people are not treated equally.”

Will the Delhi Golf Club member who invited Lynghoh and her employer, Nivedita Borthakur, do the same in protest? Will any other member express outrage at the attitude of their club? I think I know the answer.

According to newspaper reports, club secretary Rajiv Hora put the blame on the “etiquette problem of a particular staff” and “has sought an explanation” from them. The incident having attracted wide media attention by now, those staff members may well face some amount of “disciplinary action” in the coming days.

Congratulations must be given to the club for being so prompt in finding the ‘culprits’ behind the incident. More importantly, for finding a quick and easy route to keep that well-guarded rule going, a rule that may well be discriminatory, may not be in the spirit of the constitution, but it makes these clubs what they are meant to be – very very exclusive.