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Ignoring the safety of women players

Sexual harassment complaint against WFI chief has brought to fore inadequacy of redressal committees in sports bodies

Ignoring the safety of women players

(From left) Wrestlers Sangita Phogat, Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat & Sakshi Malik on dharna at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi.

Vinayak Padmadeo & Indervir Grewal

Surprise was writ large on the faces of wrestlers Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik when they first sat on dharna on January 18 demanding action against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, president of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI). Earlier that day, the grapplers, who had shared two Olympic bronze medals and a World Championship medal, had rocked the very foundation of the Indian sports ecosystem when they alleged that some of them had been sexually harassed at the hands of Singh, a six-time BJP MP from Kaiserganj in Uttar Pradesh.

After the shocking allegations, one checked the WFI’s website to see whether the body had an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) in place to address such issues and if the wrestlers had filed any such complaint with the committee. The WFI did have a committee. Curiously named ‘Sexual Harassment Committee’, it is headed by current secretary general VN Prasood and joint secretary Jai Prakash as convener.

The five-member committee, as mandated under the guidelines of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013, also known as ‘POSH Act’, had two other male members. Sakshi Malik was the only woman member of the committee.

She laughed off insinuations from the WFI that despite being part of the committee, the Rio Olympics bronze medal winner never raised one case of sexual harassment with the body. “I had no idea that I was part of any such committee. Mujhe toh bata dete (I should have been notified, at least). This is how the WFI works,” was the quick rebuttal from Sakshi Malik.

The WFI’s committee is a clear violation of the guidelines where the ratio of members has to be divided equally among men and women. “Provided that at least one-half of the total members, so nominated, shall be women”, the chairperson of the ICC also has to be a senior woman officer. If the WFI or the Indian Weightlifting Federation (IWLF) have erred in the composition of members, with no external or independent member, there are others like the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), who, too, have got the composition wrong.

The IOA’s seven-member POSH committee is headed by six-time world champion boxer MC Mary Kom and has five women. The treasurer Sahdev Yadav and advocate Shlok Chandra are the only male members in the body.

“It is important to have a 50:50 ratio for the probe to be impartial. We have to give both the accused and the victim equal opportunities to make their case. Initially, we have to see whether the complaint merits an investigation, and after we are satisfied, only then we proceed for depositions and calling of witnesses,” said a former member of the Internal Complaints Committee of the Sports Authority of India (SAI).

The Gymnastics Federation of India, the Table Tennis Federation of India, the Handball Federation of India and the Volleyball Federation of India are a few of the major sports associations that do not have a redressal committee for safeguarding of women athletes and support staff. Other federations, including the Badminton Association of India and the Archery Association of India, do not have independent members in its ICC. The National Human Rights Commission has sent notices to all federations and asked them to submit a detailed report within four weeks. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has given all ministries, government departments and federations eight weeks’ time to constitute those bodies.

In fact, the SAI is, perhaps, the only body involved in the sports ecosystem of India that has worked towards safeguarding women athletes and coaches. Names and contact information of the ICC members is displayed on notice boards at all its centres. Under a strict policy, if an employee of SAI is accused of such an act, he is promptly suspended pending enquiry. If found guilty, the employee stands to lose employment status. Interestingly, the names of its ICC members are conspicuously missing from its website.

Winning is all that matters

Lack of awareness and will is what makes most of the sports federations indifferent to such serious issues. The National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) had brushed aside a similar complaint in 2015 filed by several shooters against the Kazakh rifle coach, Stanislav Lapidus, for misconduct. The complaint filed on behalf of juniors alleged that the coach “asked for sexual favours from a few junior shooters”. The NRAI’s disciplinary committee was assigned to deal with the issue. By then, the NRAI top brass had already given a clean chit to the coach and called it a derogatory allegation.

Activist and advocate of gender equality in sports, Dr Payoshni Mitra, says that the reason why sports bodies the world over are indifferent towards the safety of women is because the culture of sports promotes winning medals and making money.

“Historically, the sports culture is limited to the idea of winning at all costs. It prioritises winning medals, making money. In such an environment, safety of women athletes isn’t prioritised,” Dr Mitra explains.

“Sports associations also tend to listen to those who are inside, like the officials and sports administrators. I have followed the wrestlers’ case and saw a video where he (Brij Bhushan) slapped a male athlete; clearly, he is misusing the power and gets away with it most of the time,” she adds.

What Dr Mitra was hinting at was a close-knit group of administrators and coaches which sometimes derails the entire complaint to save its own.

In June last year, a female cyclist complained that the chief coach of the sprint team was making sexual overtures during an overseas training stint in Slovenia. The coach was promptly removed from his duties after a preliminary investigation. A year prior to this case, however, a woman cyclist’s complaint against an assistant coach deputed at the Indira Gandhi stadium was dealt with differently. Despite complaining twice, the coach was only given a warning. The cyclist from Ludhiana has since quit the sport.

No cases, no worries

In states, the situation is anything but different. Lack of awareness and indifference towards gender sensitisation and safety of women athletes is rife.

There is a general sense of confusion among sports associations and coaches about proper procedure in a sexual harassment case in Punjab. While some federations confirm, without giving much detail, that they have formed committees to deal with such issues, other bodies admit they have no such panels.

“Honestly, I am not aware of the proper procedure, or even if there is a committee,” said a female hockey coach when asked if she knew how to handle a sexual harassment complaint from one of her trainees. “We have never been told about these things. Even when I was a player, this issue never came up,” she added.

Incidentally, the Punjab hockey federation has a committee for such complaints. It is headed by former India captain Pargat Singh, who is also the chairman of the advisory committee in Hockey Punjab. “Thankfully, we have never had any such incident in hockey,” said an official of the federation.

A member of the Punjab Volleyball Association, however, admitted that the body did not have any specific committee for sexual harassment, adding that any such complaint is handled by the national body. “The national federation forms a disciplinary committee, and if there is any case, it takes necessary action against the state body. But we have not had any such case so far,” the official said.

According to Raja KS Sidhu, secretary general of the Punjab Olympic Association (POA), one of reasons why there are no sexual harassment cases in Punjab sports associations is the involvement of renowned former players in most of the sports federations. “As an Olympic association official, I deal with all the federations. In my long association with the POA, I have never had a sexual harassment complaint. I have dealt with many complaints, mostly about selection issues. I always take the complaint as written, and then confront the relevant federation,” Sidhu said.

“The reason we have not had sexual harassment cases is because most of the associations have highly accomplished and respected former players involved in some capacity. There is Pargat Singh in hockey, Kartar Singh in wrestling, Jaipal Singh in boxing, and many others,” he added.

Timeline of the wrestlers’ protest

  • Jan 18, 2023: Wrestlers begin protest at Jantar Mantar and level allegations of sexual harassment against WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. The sports ministry seeks explanation from the WFI.
  • Jan 19: Wrestlers say they have evidence against Singh and will file an FIR if need be. Wrestlers meet Sports Minister Anurag Thakur, but no solution is found.
  • Jan 20: Wrestlers write to the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), demanding Singh’s resignation, formation of an inquiry committee and dissolution of the WFI. The IOA constitutes a seven-member panel under MC Mary Kom.
  • Jan 21: Wrestlers call off protest after the Sports Minister says an Oversight Committee will be formed to probe the allegations and Singh will step aside till the probe is completed. The WFI submits response to ministry, denies allegations of sexual harassment. Ministry asks the WFI to suspend all ongoing activities.
  • Jan 23: Mary Kom is made head of the five-member Oversight Committee.
  • Jan 31: After wrestlers complain they were not consulted before forming the panel, former wrestler and BJP member Babita Phogat is included as sixth member.
  • April 16: The WFI announces election on May 7 after Oversight Committee report is submitted to the sports ministry, which does not make the report public. Singh says he will not contest for the president’s post.
  • April 23: Wrestlers return to the protest site, saying seven female wrestlers, including a minor, have filed a sexual harassment complaint against Singh in Delhi. They want findings of the Oversight Committee to be made public.
  • April 24: Sports ministry says absence of ICC under the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act is one of the ‘major findings’ in the report. The ministry asks the IOA to form an ad hoc committee to conduct the WFI elections within 45 days.
  • April 25: Wrestlers move the Supreme Court seeking registration of FIR against Singh. The SC issues notice to the Delhi Police.
  • April 27: The IOA forms a three-member panel. IOA president PT Usha criticises wrestlers, saying instead of taking to the streets, they should have approached IOA.
  • April 28: The Delhi Police informs the SC it will register an FIR against Singh. The SC directs the Delhi Police to make an assessment of threat perception to grapplers and provide adequate security. Wrestlers say they will continue their protest until Singh is sent behind bars.
  • May 3: Usha meets wrestlers. Late in the night, wrestlers and the Delhi Police get involved in a fracas in which two protesters are injured.
  • May 5: After farmers’ unions and khaps join protest, wrestlers form two committees.
  • May 6: Sports ministry formally opens talks with wrestlers as a two-member delegation, led by SAI director general, visits Jantar Mantar.

#bajrang punia #Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh #Vinesh Phogat

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