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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 5, January 21 & January 28, 2023

Power, Corruption and Abuse In Indian Sports | Kobad Ghandy

Saturday 21 January 2023, by Kobad Ghandy

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We have already seen in an earlier article that sports is big business [1]. In India it is not only that, but extremely political with top politicians or their close relatives dominating the lucrative bodies like cricket, wrestling, tennis, boxing, etc.

Sports is big time politics in India. Jay Shah, son of home minister Amit Shah, is Honorary Secretary, BCCI and was elected as the President of the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) following its AGM held virtually. Ten years president of the Wrestling Federation of India (against whom recent complaints have been lodged) is the powerful six-term MP from UP, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh (BBSS) (Kaiserganj), whose money and muscle power is said to influence over ten other Lok Sabha seats in UP. His son is an MLA. In Sept 2020 the All India Tennis Association elected Anil Kumar Jain as president. He is a BJP Rajya Sabha member. Ajay Singh, also the chairman of Spicejet airlines, was elected chairman of the Boxing Association of India in Feb 2021. The list could go on and on. Why cannot sportspersons head sports bodies and why do we need politicians, businessmen at the top.

The obvious answer is not sports development but money augmentation is the goal of sports bodies in India. Besides, the Indian government spends one of the least on sports development and facilities. The previous Sports Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore stated in Parliament that the central government spends a total of 3 paise (Rs 0.03) per day per capita on sports. During a discussion on sports as a career in the Lok Sabha, Rathore said that the total amount spent in 2017-18 by the Department of Sports was a pitiable Rs 1393.21 crore. Compare this to China wherein the Chinese government spends 316.5 billion yuan annually on sports, which translates to roughly Rs 3 lakh crore and Rs 6.1 per capita per day, almost 200 times more than it’s Indian counterpart. And the two countries have roughly the same population. In developed countries per capita expenditure is even higher. And, in India, a large part of this expenditure goes in corruption, providing sub-standard amenities at training centres, thereby restricting an already low sports budget.

Women Wrestlers’ Horror

And now what has come to light is the horrific sexual abuse of women wrestlers forcing them to sit on demonstration at Jantar Mantar. Should we be proud of our sportspersons who have won laurels for our country at international events or treat them like dirt, sexually abusing them and harassing them to the extent that they are forced to go on a demonstration. Probably never before has such an incident happened in the history of sports in India Though many cases of abuse and mistreatment have come to light, but they have all been pushed under the carpet. It was probably only when things went totally out of hand and there was no hope for any improvement that it finally burst out into the open.

We have already seen in the previous article how 10-yr old Kerala cycle poloist died under mysterious circumstances after their team was neglected at the competition in Nagpur. After some initial noise the issue has faded away from the media. Buried. Imagine a young sportsperson, superbly fit, with enormous potential to flower, dies due to neglect (falling sick would have been bad enough). That too at such a young age! It is such criminal neglect and corruption in our sports world that results in India being at the bottom of world sporting events. Except for some individual talent, mostly achieved at their own expense, India is nowhere, often worse off in medals than small African countries. So much for the patriotism of our politicians who run these sports bodies, making fortunes through corrupt practices at the expense of our talented sportspersons. Horror stories filter through the mesh of censorship of sub-standard food served at training centres and sexual abuse of female talent.

What is finally being forced out by India’s top wrestlers is probably just the tip of the iceberg; yet, inspite of what has come out the brazenness of the president and his aides is unbelievable. And those demonstrating at Jantar mantar are not ordinary wrestlers they are those who have brought glory to the country winning medals at international events. Let us see the course of events and then delve into the history of similar incidents.

BBSS’s chilling effect of his grip on power in the wrestling body is evident from the fact that even India’s most decorated athletes, with medals form the Olympics, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and World Wrestling Championships, amongst others, felt the need to sit on dharna in the bitter Delhi winter, rather that seek redressal through the internal complaints committee. Joining internationally famed wrestlers, Pogat and Malik, who initiated the dharna, were other award winning wrestlers. While BBSS continued at the helm of the wrestling body , Vinesh Pogat at a press conference on Jan 18th voiced fears of taking on the “powerful people” speaking of the “10-20 girls” she knows who have been exploited “in the national camps over the past 10 years who are too scared to fight back because they are ‘not powerful’.” BBSS has a reputation of a bhau bali who could do anything.

The trigger for India’s top wrestlers to stage an unprecedented protest against the sports administrators was a series of phone calls to two-time world championship medallist, Vinesh Pogat, received from several young women expressing fears about the “unsafe environment” at a national camp they were asked to attend in Lucknow. It was after the young wrestlers told her about their plan to boycott the camp — and even quit the sport — that Vinesh decided to go public with allegations of sexual harassment by WFI president BBSS and other national coaches. The Lucknow camp was to begin the same day but after the protest, it was cancelled by the sports ministry.

On the second day of the protest, Jan. 19th the sit-in venue at Jantar Mantar was packed with international wrestlers and dangal pehlwans from Haryana, UP and Rajasthan, along with farmer leader Narendra Tau, gathering there, after Olympic bronze medallist Bajrang Punia sought support on Instagram the previous night. Other elite wrestlers, Anshu Malik and Sonam Malik (both of whom were part of the Tokyo Olympics) also joined Olympic medallists Vinesh and Sakshi Mallik in the protest. It is then that the current sports minister, Anurag Thakur, and Indian Olympic Association (IOA) president, P.T.Usha, sought to diffuse the situation calling them for discussion — but there was no suggestion of any action on the president. The federation secretary, Vinod Tomar, also went into action to diffuse the situation and protect the culprits.

On day two, while at the protest, Vinesh Pogat was constantly contacted by women wrestlers about the harassment they had faced by BBSS. Even wrestlers from Kerala and Maharashtra said they had faced similar bad experiences. On the 19th Vinesh’s uncle Mahvir Pogat (father and coach of Sangita and Babita, and the inspiration behind film Dangal) visited the venue with a message from the government. BJP leader, Babita also sought to convince the protesters. But the protesters stood firm not falling for these ploys and sweet talk of all these emissaries.

While BBSS had earlier mocked at the supposed handful of protestors, soon the crowd swelled to hundreds of wrestlers. Apart from Bajrang’s Instagram post, a video appeal was also posted online by Tokyo Olympic silver-medallist Ravi Dahiya. Even coaches, like Kuldeep Malik (former chief coach from 2013 to 2021) who were part of the system till recently came to meet the wrestlers.

Meanwhile WFI Presidents house, close to the venue of the protest, had a huge police presence guarding him and even entry into the WFI office (in his bungalow) was illegally banned.

Yet the brazenness of the president was such that on the third day of the protest, Jan, 20th, he dug his heals in, denying any sexual misconduct, demanding the party not to intervene in the issue. BBSS declared publicly on Friday 20th that he would not quit. He had spent 10 years at the post having become WFI president for the third time in Feb 2019.

Seeing his adamant approach the wrestlers too upped the ante with Vinesh Pogat and Sakshi Malik threatening to practice on their mats at the protest site from 21st if the Sports Minister did not accept their demands. In addition the wrestlers’ letter to the IOA mentions that Vinesh was “mentally harassed” and “tortured” by the WFI President after she returned from the Tokyo Olympics without a medal which resulted in her “contemplatingsuicide”.

 Before the wrestlers agreed to end their protest, the panic-stricken Indian Olympic Association had on Friday 20th formed a seven-member committee of its own, headed by M C Mary Kom, to investigate the charges against BBSS. The IOA panel was constituted even as the wrestlers’ sit-in protest entered the third day.

 Along with the sexual harassment complaint, the wrestlers accused the WFI of financial misappropriation of funds and claimed that the coaches and the sports science staff at the national camp “are absolutely incompetent”. In their letter the athletes wrote “it has taken a lot of courage for us wrestlers to come together and protest against the WFI president. We fear for our lives. If he is not sacked then the careers of all the young who joined the dharna will be over”. They ended the letter saying “we will not budge until the President is sacked”.

It was only after such a firm stand did the sports minister, Anurag Thakur, announce that they are “setting up an independent committee to look into the allegation of the wrestlers which will file its report in four weeks. And till this time BBSS will step aside”. Incidentally BBSS’s four-year term was anyhow coming to an end by last week of March. This was probably yet another ruse to bury the entire episode and the four weeks will be used, no doubt, to neutralise the accusations through a combination of threats and bribes corrupting the entire atmosphere even more — rather than focus on developing sports and the talent of those involved. They were also been forced to suspend WFI assistant secretary, Vinod Tomar, because of reports of “the functioning of WFI”. The aggrieved wrestlers had alleged that Tomar took bribes from athletes and was involved in financial corruption, helping him to build property worth crores.

The 28 year old Vinesh is known as an outspoken rebel and also a brilliant wrestler. Vinesh was 8 when she lost her father and in 2004 her mother was diagnosed with cancer. It was her uncle (father of Gita and Babita of Dangal fame, Mahavir) who adopted her and introduced her to wrestling. Vinesh has the reputation of calling a spade a spade, being forthright and straightforward, but also a ‘caring and emotional person’.

Sexual Harassment In Sports

Yet this is not an isolated incident. These very serious charges have been levelled in the backdrop of yet another case of criminal offence in 2022, involved in outraging the modesty of women registered in Chandigarh by a woman coach and a reputed athlete, against the Haryana Sports Minister and former hockey player, Sandeep Singh. This junior woman coach is running from pillar to post to get justice in her fight against the state sports minister, being supported by the Haryana government.

And these are women who have broken patriarchal norms and ostracization, who have put their lives on the line and quite literally invested their blood, sweat and tears into gruelling months and years of training, with little initial societal support, making their exploitation at the hands of the corrupt officials all the more poignant. Sadly, what has come to light is only the tip of the iceberg with no impact of the grievance and redressal system; in fact, most of the time women athletes who dare to raise their voice are forced to give up their careers that they have invested unimaginable time and effort in. Most of the international sportswomen have made it to that level with their families pooling in all resources at their disposal to support them. It is only once they win some medals does govt support and corporate sponsorship enter the scene.

One horrifying case worth remembering is regarding tennis player Ruchika Gihotra from 1990 who dared to raise her voice against the president of the tennis federation and IG Haryana, SPS Rathore. The entire state machinery and many caste-based organisations rallied behind the accused. He was rewarded with a promotion to subsequently become DGP of Haryana. In that atmosphere Ruchika was forced to suicide and her father too died during the fight for justice. Finally after a lengthy legal battle over 19 years and enormous costs Rathore was jailed for a mere six months and fined a pitiable Rs.1,000. What message does this send to the women athletes of our country?

Not much has changed for sportswomen since then when we see Vinesh Pogat’s face, the tears in her eyes, while talking of her desperate thoughts of taking her life ....when they face such humiliation even after winning medals for their country, while the political class shamelessly shield such accused every time a woman tries to raise her voice against injustice.

Sexual harassment in sports in India, has a long history, and is at an all-time high today. The suicide of Ruchika in 1990 has had no impact on the vultures who thrive off the talent of others.

Bronze medallist at the 2009 Women’s Senior National Boxing Championship held in Uttar Pradesh, 24-year-old E Thulasi claimed in her petition to City Commissioner of Police T Rajendran that association secretary A K Karunakaran misbehaved with her, asking her ’to cooperate’ if she wished to be selected for important events.

In March 2011, charges of harassment, molestation and criminal intimidation were slapped on the Tamil Nadu State Amateur Boxing Association Secretary after a champion woman boxer accused him of seeking sexual favours in order to select her for national-level events.

January 2014, a coach was accused of kissing and groping girls at a training centre. By the time SAI found him guilty three years later, he had already retired. He was punished with a 10% cut from his pension for one year.
In September 2014, a complaint of sexual harassment of a woman gymnast by her coach surfaced.

The gymnast accused her coach Manoj Rana and fellow gymnast Chandan Pathak of making lewd comments against her during a training camp at the Indira Gandhi Sports Complex in the capital.

According to the data obtained in 2020 by The Indian Express, 45 complaints of sexual harassment have been registered in the past 10 years. Out of these, 29 complaints have been filed against coaches. In February 2019, a parliamentary committee constituted for the empowerment of women indicated that the incidents of sexual harassment in sports can be higher as they often go unreported. Even after this report sexual harassment continued apace.

In Jan 2020, Delhi Police registered an FIR in connection with the alleged molestation of a female cricketer by her coach in southeast Delhi’s Nizamuddin area.

In July 2021, seven sportspersons accused renowned Tamil Nadu’s track & field coach P Nagarajan of sexual harassment. He already had a complaint filed against him and was reportedly abusing athletes for years. He had also threatened the athletes to cease their training. A 19-year-old athlete was the first one to level such charges against Nagarajan.

In July 2022, India U-17 women’s football team assistant coach Alex Ambrose was sacked following allegations of sexual misconduct during their Europe tour. After the complaint was filed to the All India Football Federation (AIFF), the football body quickly brought Ambrose back.

The abovementioned incident endorses the claim of predatorial behaviour and instances of misogyny in the sports industry. It also elaborates how coaches — mentors and purveyors of wisdom and knowledge — create an intimidating and fearful atmosphere. These incidents, however, only form part of an extensive and deeply-rooted system of harassing women sportspersons.

Usually, the accused coaches are punished with transfers to a small cut in their pay. In other cases, investigations are still pending. The perspective of gender plays a significant role in the sexual harassment of athletes as well. Experts have also noted that women athletes who are often from humble backgrounds feel compelled to withdraw their complaints.

Conclusion 

Just like earlier enquiries the present one is also never likely to see the light of day and who knows what happens to the complainants once the glare of the media is over.

Ironically, amidst all this misogyny in sports and harassment of women athletes, a seven foot tall statue of a female gymnast was inaugurated this very month at Chembur, Mumbai at huge cost. Made of fibre-reinforced plastic, coated with polyurethane polymer, it is symbol of our hypocrisy — giving the impression that we honour our sportswomen while treating them like dirt. As in sports, so in life, idealise women as gods (kali) while treating them as either sex-objects or house-maids. The 50 shades of patriarchy!!!

Sports of course, is not just for medal winning. It should be part of the curriculum from childhood. It should be an essential part of our education which helps develop the body and mind and also a great form of entertainment, certainly far surpassing TV/mobile addiction. And with the masses involved in varied sports events with governments, local bodies and educational institutions providing the facilities there will be a huge pool from which talent can flower. Once spotted they should be vigorously trained and it will be these who will then get medals at international events. With such a large population of youth our country should have been in the forefront of gaining medal, not the laggard as we are today.

Meanwhile, in the Hockey world cup being played at Bhubaneshwar, India just lost to a third rate team — New Zealand — and is now out of the reckoning. The Indian subcontinent is the home of this sport and yet India has not won a gold medal since 1980, though it had won eight medals in the years before that. In fact today, the top teams are Pakistan, Netherlands, Germany, Australia — India is nowhere. Such is the pathetic situation of what is our national sport.

Even in the much-hyped cricket events India is a laggard. India’s performance in the ICC events is not that good in recent years. India lost the last 6 ICC events including 2 fifty overs World Cups, one Champions Trophy, and 2 T20 World Cups. Most of our top cricketeers are too busy making money from advertising, gaming and IPL auctions to both about bringing trophies for our country. It, after all, is the most lucrative sport in India and top posts are always occupied by key politicians like Arun Jaitley, Anurag Thakur, Jay Shah and such like.

Meanwhile our wrestlers must get justice and encouraged to further their potential. Indian women wrestlers have fought all odds and made tremendous advance in spite of the deep patriarchal atmosphere, not only in the states from where they come, but also in the wrestler’s bodies themselves.

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