Will India help save historic London club?
London is full of some of the world’s oldest and most prized gentlemen’s clubs—some are plain stuffy and snooty, some still ban women, some offer ancient leather sofas to sink and snooze in, some are hurriedly modernizing to stem falling membership and some will expect you to be a writer of modest means.
Many are located in and around a thoroughfare called the Strand—inhabiting roughly an area of a couple of square miles in central London if you keep Trafalgar Square at its centre. Many of them are soaked in the history of the British empire, remnants of a colonial era when members would plot how the world was run over drinks.
British colonialism and British gentlemen’s clubs are closely linked. Britons returning from colonies where they demanded attention when they didn’t get it hankered after similar luxuries at home. India meant death from tropical diseases for many, malaria among them. Back in Britain, the incidence of malaria dropped at least 20% between 1840 and 1910 due to increasing cattle population (mosquitoes like to bite cattle and were, thus, spoilt for choice) as well as decreasing acreage under marshy wetland, their breeding grounds, according to research by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
So yes, there were fewer mosquitoes to bite and kill returning colonials, but neither were there obedient servants to run and fetch them whisky at a hollered koi hai! (Hindi for “anyone there”). Back in the colonies, too, Brits set up clubs just like the ones at home. Among the first in India were the Calcutta Cricket and Football Club (1792), and the Bengal Club in Calcutta, now Kolkata, set up by a bunch of East India Company officials in 1827.
In foreign lands, Brits from the lower rung of the social ladder were able to mix in a limited manner with the upper classes. Now back home, having helped out with the colonial project, the lower rungs wanted a piece of the action. Clubs sprang up in London with names like the Calcutta Club, Bombay Club, Madras Club, Shikar Club and China Club, reminding returning Brits of their colonial adventures.
But not all clubs aimed to perpetuate the colonial project—some, born in the midst of progressive, rights-based movements, resisted such oppression. In England, the socialist working class plotted the overthrow of the Tories in workingmen’s clubs, which were really pubs. Beer, not wine, was the favoured drink here—until surprisingly recently, actually.
One such is India Club on 146 Strand. India Club was home to the India League, set up in 1928 to campaign for Indian independence in the UK.
Led by the man who would become independent India’s first high commissioner to the UK, V.K. Krishna Menon, it attracted and enlisted the support of prominent British progressives to its cause (Bertrand Russell was an early president of the League).
The India League lobbied members of the British parliament, held meetings up and down the country, engaged with the press, published its own pamphlets and information bulletins and hosted visiting Indian nationalists among wide-ranging activities to raise awareness among the British public and elite about India’s aspiration for freedom and to counter colonial propaganda. It was instrumental in India’s freedom struggle—despite having its roots in Annie Besant’s Home Rule League, it called for full independence for India, rather than dominion status, alienating Besant and others in the process.
In 1932, a year after organizing an international march through central London to call for Indian independence, the India League sent a delegation to India to study the situation on the ground. Its findings, published as Condition of India, included shocking details of political repression, torture and starvation, and the book was banned in India.
It was during this trip that Menon first met Jawaharlal Nehru, a meeting that culminated in not only a deep and abiding friendship between the two nationalists but also the forging of strong links between the India League and the Congress party, which was at the helm of India’s independence struggle.
Much of the meetings of the India League were held in two rooms on the first floor of a small establishment on the Strand in west-central London. This place came to be known as the India Club, where visiting Indian students, scholars, politicians as well as British intellectuals—anyone from any nationality with links to India—could grab a ‘curry meal’. They still can, but not for long if the freeholders of the building succeed in their plans to redevelop it as a boutique hotel.
The plans have outraged many people in the UK. Kusoom Vadgama, possibly Britain’s best-known supporter of Indian causes—a feisty veteran of Indian campaigns, now in her 80s—shot off an angry letter to The Times of London.
India Club, she said, is “the spiritual home of countless Indian students in search of a homely place to visit in London. It has been the venue for meetings and discussions between Indian and British politicians and intellectuals, including on the subject of Indian independence before 1947… The India Club symbolizes the Indo-British relationship. To destroy it is to vandalise history—an inexcusable crime.”
Another high-profile supporter is former minister Shashi Tharoor, whose father was closely associated with Menon. Both Vadgama and Tharoor want the local authority, Westminster council, to give the building heritage status for its links with Indian history and the Indian League. This could prevent it from being turned into a boutique hotel.
There is also a bit of living history with India Club. Till this day, people who have been closely associated with the India League in one way or the other—some because they knew Menon and other India League leaders such as Julius Silverman intimately, others because they know of its work—help celebrate India’s independence day every year at the foot of a central London statue of Mahatma Gandhi.
Britain is home to many fabulously wealthy non-resident Indians who have ‘stood up and been counted’ on numerous occasions on behalf of India—there’s no reason why they cannot do so this time around to save this precious piece of heritage that bridges India and Britain, perhaps with some help from both governments.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1