Monday, May 21, 2001

Right to admission reserved

India continues to segregate and compartmentalise people in the name of caste, creed, or even class as a recent incident at the India Habitat Centre at Delhi proved
, says Sudha G Tilak

Seventy years ago, it was a defining moment in Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's life as he was thrown out of a train compartment in South Africa, his shoes, long coat and tie notwithstanding, because he a brown man, an Indian, a dirty native sullying the white man's compartment in a train running across South Africa. Gandhi had mentioned it as a defining moment in understanding the import of racism, and later, its corollaries, namely caste and religious discrimination.

Since not many are M K Gandhis, we continue to suffer the insult such segregation implies. Take the case of the Niharika Raje family that went to have lunch at Delhi's elitist All American Diner at the India Habitat Centre last week. The family was asked to leave the lunch room as they had brought along their house help (er, maidservant) Lalitha with them. The authorities said well-heeled people are allowed, but not sad-looking servants. It didn't matter that the family would have the girl sit with them at their table and eat along with them, and it didn't matter that she was not in rags or tatters, that could have caused embarrassment to the other posh crowd. The Centre would have none of it. Please leave, they said, or better still, we could have her seated at the lobby while the family lunched. But the family, according to news reports, would have none of it. Complaining loudly about the "Indians and Dogs keep out mentality", they went to a nearby five star hotel where the family, children and house help ate heartily, and were served with propriety.

The moral of the story? Indians (we mean the dirty ones- you know, maids, mechanics, car cleaners, gardeners etc) are disallowed in swank places because they sully the poshness of the place, embarrass the rich and the wealthy with their lack of privilege. While public outlets have rights to admission reserved, this time it clearly was not the case. What was left unspoken was an age-old mindset. Surely a begger in rags pushing fistful of rice from a plate would hardly be ideal company for the eye candy rosiness of lunching out in an elite cultural establishment. But call it caste, or class, or race, this mental state still exists in many places across the world and more so in India. By using the right to admit people, institutions and public places often display horrific tendencies of class and caste.

Refusing to rent out houses to Muslims is a related story of this kind of discrimination and social insulation.

It is not unknown that many have been refused admission into former white man's clubs in Kolkata or Chennai because they arrived in a local attire or did not wear shoes. Dress codes are again meant to segregate people according to class and education. Even in England, that famous store Selfridges refused to admit a clutch of German tourists saying they were "inappropriately dressed" in tights and tees. Never mind that the store sold tights and tees, barked indignant broadsheets the next day.

It is all very well if writer-activist P Sainath continues to write on the two-tumbler system at tea shops at various villages in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The same India Habitat Centre crowd would mull over the piece over coffee and a cigar and say how the caste system was eating into the vitals of our social fabric. This is a comforting piece really, for the elite would find it easy to wrinkle their noses at economically downtrodden caste groups in remote villages and across petty shops in the country segregating even poorer people, to sit and drink elsewhere from leaf cups. That their backyard rules are no different is brushed aside as incognisable.

Source: Tehelka, May 21, 2001