While hearing a dispute between two warring factions seeking to control Mumbai’s elite Breach Candy Club since 2014, a document was submitted to the Bombay High Court. This was an application for membership filled up in 2003 by a person called Lalit Agarwal.

On the face of it, the document seemed to be laced with improbabilities. How could a form filled in February 2003 contain a Gmail address if Google started its email service only over a year later? Why did the applicant furnish a seven-digit landline number when MTNL had introduced eight-digit phone numbers by then?

These were some questions a judge of the Bombay High Court pondered over while passing an order in the case last October.

Not just that, Ayesha Shroff, the wife of actor Jackie Shroff, told the police that the signature supporting Agarwal’s application to the club, which was purported to be her mother’s, had been forged.

Some explanations were proffered to explain these irregularities, but the court was not convinced.

In an interim order last October, the court said, “All these explanations seem to be far too contrived and do not dispel the cloud of suspicion cast by all the strange circumstances noted above collectively.”

Amidst the legal battle, one curious anachronism has been brought into focus: 70 years after Independence, only Europeans can legally be trustees of this elite establishment.

Power play

The spat between two factions seeking to control the South Mumbai property flared up in 2012.

On one side is Lalit Agarwal, Dipesh Mehta and others of the club’s previous managing committee led by Indian members, while on the other is a faction comprising European managing committee members, which took control of the club in October 2013 when it sacked the managing committee led by Indians.

The judge who issued last year’s interim order observed:

“One inescapable conclusion which flows from a collective reading of these provisions [of the club's constitution] is that unless you are a European inhabitant of Bombay admitted as a trust member you cannot be an Ordinary Trustee or in the management of the Trust. That is beyond a pale of doubt.”

This order was challenged, and in September, a division bench of the High Court appointed a three-member temporary committee to handle the affairs of the club until the dispute has been resolved. This committee, which includes two retired senior judges, took charge last week.

Elite club

Like other colonial clubs in other parts of the country, membership to the Breach Candy Club is a badge of honour and a marker that one has arrived in society.

“The class of people is different,” said one member, who declined to be identified. “The place is peaceful and spacious and now it has become a prestige issue [to gain membership].”

But what is so special about the club, and how did it get to be this way?

Set up exclusively for Europeans in 1875, the property that sprawls over a sea-facing slice of South Mumbai was meant to be a white man’s haven away from the natives.

In 1928 came the club’s most iconic addition: a specially-designed swimming pool “in the shape of British India” that cost Rs 13,600 to construct. This permitted well-heeled Europeans in colonial Bombay to splash about in the western provinces and paddle through the Deccan.

Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen swam in its famous pool while the protagonist in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children mused how Indians like him were not permitted to use it: “In their spare time [the Europeans] could be seen from our bedroom window, cavorting in the map-shaped pool of the Breach Candy Club, from which we were, of course barred…”

After Independence, it took a few years for Indians to be permitted in as guests – this happened only in 1960. Following charges of discrimination, in 1964, a new club constitution was drafted, which allowed Indians to become ordinary members in 1967. However, the old policy of only Europeans as trustees continued.

But one of the warring factions claims that this isn’t so.

“A big fraud has been played on the Indians,” said Mehta of the former committee led by Indians. “We have a letter from the charity commissioner in 1965, which says you cannot have a colour bar against Indians with regards to the Trust membership.”

He added: “This is a public charitable trust… and enjoys all tax benefits and perks of a charitable institution. Does an Indian have to fight for his rights as an Indian in the 70th year of independent India?”

Thus while the Indian faction has made insinuations of racism and Raj-era discrimination, the European side is focused on charges of fraud and illegality. The latter has said that the club’s constitution has been tampered with and various illegalities committed, with the race card being tangentially introduced.

“For all these years everything has been fine,” said Archit Jayakar, a lawyer for the new [European] committee that was elected in 2013. “There is an unnecessary racism angle which is only a red herring. It has never been a European issue because that clause was accepted as part of the 1967 constitution.”

Decline in quality?

The club now has 3,000-odd members of which not more than 500 are European.

Members say that in the past 15 years or so, or roughly since the now-ousted faction came to power, the profile of the club has changed.

According to the rules, a new member must be supported in his or her application by two trustee members. In 2013, it was reported that membership had re-opened after 15 years, and that new members had to part with Rs 1.12 crores (for a couple) as a one-time fee to enter the club in addition to the annual membership fee.

“Earlier, one knew everyone, the club took only a certain class of people,” said a member, who declined to be identified. “But after the new committee came, some people managed to get in in certain ways.”

Some members rue what they perceive to be an overall decline in the quality of the club – and cite more noise, more people, and a declining number of staff. The fact that only Europeans can become trustee members seems to be less of an issue.

Members alluded to what they described as “underhand dealings” and people buying their way into the club.

“There are members who became members just for the prestige,” said a member, who said she does not visit the club as frequently as she used to. “Then where is the quality? It is not like it used to be.”

Mehta, on the other hand, says increasing the membership fee helped increase the funds available to the club in order to improve facilities.

The dispute has taken a toll on the functioning of the club – new memberships have been stalled, and the atmosphere has been vitiated.

“The standard has gone,” said Jayakar, the lawyer for the new committee. “People are upset.”