Nestled in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi, the sprawling Delhi Gymkhana Club sits tightly next to the residence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Lok Kalyan Marg.
Spread over 27 acres off Safdarjung Road, it was built by British architect Robert T Russell, who also designed Connaught Place and Teen Murti Bhavan. The Gymkhana is steeped in history—it is 107 years old. The club is also an exemplar of elitism because it is essentially an exclusive social club frequented by the who’s who of the national capital.
Both facets of the iconic club have been cast in unusually negative light in recent years. In the first instance, a Tribunal court described it a “relic of the imperial past”. More on that later.
In the second, more serious, instance, the Gymkhana has been accused of mismanagement, nepotism and financial irregularities. Those charges reached a crescendo when the management committee was disbanded and the government appointed an administrator to oversee the affairs of the club, as directed by the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal (NCLAT) on February 15.
In April 2020, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs (MCA) had filed a petition with the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) seeking to take over the management of the club, stating that it was being run in a manner “prejudicial to public interest”. The NCLT refused to suspend the management committee but the government challenged the NCLT order at the appellate tribunal NCLAT.
“Under the garb of the distinctive character of the club, which is a relic of the imperial past, the doors for membership are virtually limited to people having blue blood in their veins thereby perpetuating apartheid and shattering the most cherished constitutional goal of securing social justice and equality of status and opportunity,” the NCLAT said in its February 15 order asking the government to appoint an administrator.
READ: Delhi Gymkhana: One of India’s most elite clubs has again sparked a bitter takeover battle
The ministry questioned the club’s prestigious memberships. As per the norm, 40 per cent of the membership is for civil servants, another 40 percent is for defence services and the remaining 20 per cent is reserved for ‘others’. But, over the years, the proportion of ‘others’, which includes the city’s prominent businessmen, has gone up.
Aspiring members were charged ‘exorbitant’ registration fees despite having a waiting list pending since 1972, the ministry said. The membership applications of ‘green card’ holders — permanent members’ dependents — were fast-tracked while other applicants had to wait for decades, it said.
Also, while the land was allocated to the club for sporting activities, only 2 per cent of the accounts showed expenditure on sports events. Catering, liquor and cigarettes made up as much as 30 per cent of the expenditure, in violation of the terms of land allotment, the ministry said.
The legacy and the expenses
The legacy-rich Delhi Gymkhana Club is counted among the country’s most exclusive and oldest social clubs. Others include the Bangalore Club (1868), the Bombay Gymkhana (1875) and the Bengal Club (1827).
Set up as the Imperial Delhi Gymkhana Club in July 1913, the institution was allotted 27.3 acres of land on a perpetual lease. Its first president was Spencer Harcourt Butler, first governor of the then United Provinces of Agra and Oudh (now Uttar Pradesh). The word ‘Imperial’ was removed in 1959.
The management of the club, which is listed under the Companies Act as a Section 8 company, comprised a president and a 16-member committee elected by around 5,600 members every year. The president’s post rotated between a retired civil servant and a person from an Army background.
The Club was in the news in 2008 when two defence services — the Army and the IAF — locked horns over the president’s post at the club, which had the likes of Rahul Gandhi and LK Advani as its members. A compromise was worked out later.
The Club had created fixed bank deposits worth Rs 28 crore from the fees collected from existing and aspiring members, a member said. Of this, cheques worth Rs 7 crore were reimbursed to aspiring members on the waiting list, till the petition was moved. The club’s daily income from its restaurants, bar, gym and sports facilities is Rs 7.5 lakh.
Over the years, the registration fee for government officials to join the club has jumped from Rs 5,000 to Rs 1.5 lakh and for non-government candidates from Rs 5,000 to Rs 7.5 lakh. Once membership is attained, a government member has to pay Rs 5 lakh while a non-government member has to pay up to Rs 22 lakh as membership fee.
The government ‘takeover’ has not gone down well with members. Former chief of the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) AS Dulat, who has been a member of the club for over 50 years, said he hoped it was temporary.
“I hope the government takeover is temporary. It has been a sports club all through. All clubs have exclusive memberships so does this club,” he told Moneycontrol.
The club houses 26 grass tennis courts — the most in any club in the country — and seven clay courts, three squash courts, badminton courts, a billiards room and a covered swimming pool. The dining hall has three bars and the library has about 31,000 books. For members visiting from abroad, the club has 43 transit cottages.
Dulat suggested that instead of having a government administrator, the club should have a committee again with members from the government on it.
“In the Delhi Golf Club, there are government representatives in the management committee. The Gymkhana can also have a member from the government in the committee to keep a watch on the state of affairs,” Dulat said. The 19-member committee of the Delhi golf club has three government nominees.
Major (retired) SK Yadav, a long-time member of the club, defended the club. “The government says that the club earned interest on registration fees from aspiring members. We used to keep the money in the bank and the bank added the interest, which was used for the club. What else would we do with the money?” he asked.
The law says that section 8 companies, such as the Gymkhana Club, are not meant to be profit-making and thus have certain privileges such as tax benefits and exemption from a minimum capital requirement.
With the government taking over the autonomous club, its members, and those who were in the disbanded committee, told Moneycontrol they are considering taking the matter to the Supreme Court