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India's elite stand in queue for IIC membership

Sahil Makkar  |  New Delhi 

India International Centre (IIC)

People are squatting in the lawns and filling forms. No, this is not an examination centre; it's the rush for membership of the premier India International Centre (IIC). The sight is common these days and the institution, which recently opened its doors to new members, has already sold over 15,000 forms and made a windfall gain of Rs 75 lakh - this might grow much more by the time the sale of forms closes on November 30.

This rush might not be misplaced, given that an IIC membership is perceived to reflect on an individual's resume as a sure-shot stamp on having arrived in career. It seems to suggest the person, indeed, belongs to the upper echelons of the society. For an aspiring member, it means an entry into the cohort of Supreme Court judges, eminent personalities, ministers, lawyers, senior journalists and intellectuals, who could be commonly seen at the institution, sharing drinks, food or thoughts with their contemporaries.

The prize attached to IIC's name can be gauged from the fact that it is the same institution that had rejected former Union minister Lalu Prasad's entry bid seven years ago. The incident had then created a lot of fuss over the class of people who could be members. It even led to resignation of Karan Singh, one of IIC's life trustees, and the institution began to be seen as an exclusive club for India's intellectuals and outstanding personalities.

Years later, a similar race has again begun and a similar set of people is competing for a limited number of IIC memberships thrown open last month. The prospective members have time till December 28 to apply. Though the IIC management does not disclose the exact number of openings, it is expected to be 500-600. In 2005, when the membership was opened after many years, the institute had enrolled around 600 members. But the selection process, arguably, is arbitrary. In keeping with the history, many a complaint is likely, as there also are applicants denied memberships thrice in the past.

"It is not a reflection of anyone's record or achievements, if he or she is denied membership. It is just that we have limited seats and are looking only for those who can contribute to the institution," says IIC president and former attorney general of India, Soli J Sorabjee.

"As the name suggests, it is India International Centre: For us, it is India first; international second and the rest third. The robust selection process ensures we maintain the highest standards at IIC. Our decision on (Lalu) Prasad has now been proved correct," he adds, emphasising words such as "snobbery" should not be associated with IIC. Lalu Prasad was last month convicted in one of India's most infamous scams. Grapevine has it that he had been denied membership because of his "mannerism".

Since it's inception in 1962, IIC has maintained its originality, successfully. People such as India's former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, former President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and John D Rockefeller III were among the minds behind setting up of the centre, to serve as a "bridge" for cultures and communities from across the world. Prince Akihito, then crown prince of Japan, had laid the foundation stone in 1960. The institute's building sits next to the famous Lodhi Gardens, overlooking a magnificent landscape of gardens and historic monuments from the 15th and 16th centuries, in the heart of the capital.

IIC Director Kavita A Sharma says the institution is renowned for its lecture series, seminars, film club, cultural events and exhibitions. It provides people a platform and freedom to air their views fearlessly.

"It is open to the public, for free (entry to its restaurant, bar and library is for members only). We conduct 800 lectures a year. The idea is to create knowledge and public awareness," she says, trying to highlight the difference between IIC and other institutions like the Indian Habitat Centre , Constitution Club and Gymkhana Club.

"We are not a club. It's an intellectual hub, where people discuss over dinner and wine," she adds.

IIC is not funded by the government; it generates revenues by letting out its venues.

Among the dignitaries who have visited IIC in the past are Christopher Patten, Romano Prodi, Henry K Cardoso, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Sir Edmund Hillary, the Rev Jesse Jackson, Wangari Mathai, Kofi Annan, Shirin Abadi, Jody Williams and Mairead Corrigan-MacGuire.

Its restaurant and library, too, are factors that set it apart. "Our library usage is up to 45 per cent vis-a vis the number of books in our collection. The archives of audio-video lectures are also heavily used by members," explains Chief Librarian S Maujmdar.

"IIC records each lecture and this helps people like me who cannot attend all of those," says Seyed E Hasnian, who is associated with the Indian Institute of Technology and is an applicant this time. For those like Anwar Jamal, who has won several awards for his documentary films, it is a spiritual hub. "If IHC is vibrant and happening, IIC is cozy and full of intelligentsia."

However, though IIC scores on most counts, one thing that stands against it is the average age of its members. There are around 6,200 members and their average age comes to 60 years. There also are people who are 80 years old.

"You see a lot of grey-haired people being wheeled in here. There is an attempt to change this; the minimum age for prospective members has been lowered to 25 years this time. Earlier, it was 30 years," says a person who does not wish to be identified.

"But the problem is that the standards of selection are so high that young people can barely make it," the person adds.

To make itself somewhat vibrant, IIC has reached out to Abhinav Bindra, India's only Olympic gold medallist, to become a member. But the institution still has a long way to go, as most of the country's population is aged below 35 years.

First Published: Tue, November 19 2013. 00:35 IST