The Athlete’s Tales - Is SAI fixing its sexual harassment policies?

Editor’s note: We at Nation of Sport, aim to be a platform where stories of wrongdoing are told fearlessly. Specific names, places and other particulars have been changed in this story to protect the anonymity of the survivors. We also realised that Indian sport has a long way to go in curbing the issue of sexual harassment, something evidenced by how many officials accused of sexual harassment are still actively involved with Indian sport. Yes, we want the perpetrators to be brought to justice and we want the survivors to find peace of mind. However, until a sea of cases are brought to light, justice is a distant dream. Until that day comes, we have to keep telling these stories anonymously.

*names have been changed to protect the identities of the survivors.

Hansika*, a 20-year-old athlete, looks at me warily, expecting an explanation for having stopped her from calling her coach.

It is Friday morning. We are in a small playground in Rohtak, Haryana, and Hansika is sprawled across a rubber sheet on the ground – all five feet six inches of her - her fingers lightly playing with the sand spilling over at its borders. “Whatever you want to say, I’ll call the coach to talk to you about it or you can talk to my father. He’ll come here in some time to pick me up,” she says.

Going in, I thought this would be a heart-to-heart between two young women where we would talk about the joys of playing sport, the escape it provides from her chores at home, and the perils – or challenges – of being a woman in Indian sport.

“I cannot talk to you about anything unless my coach or my father or my brother knows,” Hansika repeats, giving me a reality check.

Despite her young age, her achievements are remarkable. She has made it to and won at nationals. She also coaches beginners and is fighting off marriage. But something is amiss. The glare from the sun’s rays on the rubber sheet tells me it’s time for Hansika to leave. She’s been here for three hours; since before the sun was out this morning.

I give up, but not without responding with a little food for thought: “Tell me Hansika, why do we always need some man in our life to tell us when to talk about our lives?”

I finally see a smile which, shortly after, turns into a smirk. “Mard toh hona chahiye. [Men should be there]. Why I’m in this sport is because of my father allowing me out of the house wearing shorts. Why I’m at nationals is because of my coach, another man. You won’t like what I say, and you won’t get anything from me, but the reality is, sports is a masculine thing. Women are changing it, but only with the help of other men. So what use are our voices anyway?” she counters.

Her blunt response got me thinking on my bus ride back to my base in Jhajjar, Haryana. Like most female players, Hansika is acutely aware of the gender bias in the Indian sports industry. However, the buck doesn’t there. There is also a disturbingly deep internalisation of sexual harassment in sport. Many of the women that I’ve interviewed are pushed to accept that sexual harassment is simply a part of the game, and that allowing it to happen arises from an indebtedness to a male coach. Not surprisingly, many minor athletes (under the age of 18) in Jhajjar met my probing questions with a poker face.

Sonam*, one such young athlete, fidgets with her track pants as she tells me, “Yeh hota hi rehta hai. Aur kya kar sakte hain? Chhod yeh sab. Bas. Kaam karte rehna. Practice karte rehna. Kuch coach misbehave karte hain toh chhod. Kuch toh karna padega aagey badne ke liye na? Itna bura nahi hoga,” she says. [This keeps happening. What can we do? Just keep working. Keep practicing. If a coach misbehaves, then leave it. We anyway have to do some things to get ahead. It’s not so bad.]

She is interrupted by Gauri, a fellow athlete, who tells her about a senior who tried to end her life after the coach had repeatedly harassed her. This prompted a heated discussion. “Tujhko toh pata nahi hai yaar. Mera baap ke umr jaisa ek coach mujhe harass ya touch karte hai, toh game mein kaise focus karenge na?” [You don’t know though. When a coach my father’s age harasses or touches me, then how can I focus on the game?],” says Gauri

“Maybe it’s a fake case,” Sonam says, looking to me for approval. “Some girls seeking this publicity and all jab nationals nahi jaa sakte [when they cannot make it to the nationals]. Sab fake case. Chalo, [All fake cases, let’s move on]” she says abruptly, walking away.

*

I managed to find a case in Rohtak. At the Mahila police station, the inspector handed me two FIRs filed by players against their coaches in the last two years. “They are both fake. Neither of the girls turned up at the station after the FIR and one withdrew her FIR,” the inspector said. When I reached out to the families of the girls who had filed their cases, one refused to talk to me and the other had shifted houses. “We don’t know where they moved. But after filing the case, their house was destroyed. The coach was a big man,” said the girl’s neighbour.

“This kind of intimidation is routine,” says Shakuntala Jhakar, a former sportswoman-turned-activist. “I think, if we push more, we can get the Sports Authority of India to act.”

I get the impression that Jhakar is barely in touch with reality. The SAI already has sexual harassment committees, I tell her.

“Oh? I didn’t know that. I’m sure they have to handle a lot of cases then,” she states.

Not really. As part of a Lok Sabha questionnaire in 2016, the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports was asked to list the number of sexual harassment cases between 2013-2016 – and their response amounted to a measly five cases. Many cases not mentioned in the answer were either still under investigation with the charge-sheet filed or where coaches were suspended. Jhakar is not surprised at this paltry number.

“Maybe the rest were fake cases,” she says.

Unarguably, there are fake cases. However, everyone seems ready to discount the possibility of a case that is actually legitimate. Activists like Jhakar are plenty but among those I spoke to, few are concerned about following up on cases of sexual harassment. As if in response, Jhakar pulls out a thick file of newspaper cuttings.

“These are all the cases I’ve heard of,” she says.

“But, in a quote you’d given a newspaper, you said you were actively investigating cases from your end, whether they appeared in the paper or not,” I ask.

“Well, if you’re an activist, you need to say these things,” she says, chuckling.

In their prime, many athletes make veiled statements about having to endure sexual harassment. A popular badminton player called me after she voiced her concerns about the level of harassment that is rampant in the sport. “It hasn’t happened to me,” she said, “but I’ve heard of it. That’s why I said it.” Her reply is similar to those I’ve heard from other elite-level players. Talking about sexual harassment means putting lives and careers at stake; and there is little chance of getting justice in a system that is skewed towards male superiors.

*

“I made something up. Like Praveen is coming to visit.”

I meet Anjana*, a 21-year-old athlete and sexual harassment survivor, at a mall in Lucknow. I found her through a friend who saw her delete a Facebook post calling out her coach. Her parents had advised her against talking to me, saying that her career would be ruined if she did. Anjana is adamant that something be done for women who fall prey to abusive and predatory coaches.

Glancing around, she remarks, “There is such a comfort I find in public spaces like malls – a sea of people who don’t know me, don’t know my past and don’t care about it. And my past is ugly.”

I assure her that we do not have to discuss her past if she isn’t comfortable.

“No, it’s time to do something,” she says, eyes welling up.

“Go ahead, and if you feel the urge to cry, we can stop briefly,” I say.

Anjana says, “I am no stranger to abuse. I was molested every day when I was 11 by a man I considered my mentor – my tuition teacher. When I was 16, I was sexually assaulted by another man I considered my mentor – my coach. I was ostracised by my own teammates for aspiring to be a model, to do what I liked to do. But they all called me a slut, a whore, a loose woman, and my mentor had levelled rumours against me that I had sex with him.”

She continues, “In 2015, after giving my selection for Nationals, I came to Delhi with my coach. Other players caught their trains, but I had to stay back, so I had to go with my coach. What he said to me was that he would check out of all the rooms because everyone else had left for Delhi. He started playing videos. He provoked me by saying I have to do bikini shoots. I said, ‘What is the need?’ He said, ‘You cannot become an actress.’

Her voice breaks, but she ploughs on.

“We were in a camp and the coach had told me that he didn’t have space and if he could sleep in my room, which I was okay with. I trusted him since I was seven years old. He asked me if I wanted to be a model, and I said, ‘yes’.”

Coach: “Don’t you have to wear bikinis?”

Anjana: “Yes.”

C: “Well, show me. Show me how it looks on you.”

A: “Why?”

C: “Show me. I’ll turn off the lights.”

“I said no, and that was that,” said Anjana.

Then, at 4:00 am, Anjana’s coach was on top of her and started running his hands all over her body.

“I pushed him away and got ready. He said he didn’t let me sleep properly. Slowly, his hand went on my chest, and I knew it was wrong. He then apologised immediately and pled ignorance.”

“I just thought of going back home. I couldn’t make eye contact with him. The next day I went to train. I met my friends and told them, and one of my friends had told everyone. He (the coach) said, ‘Either you will stay, or I will stay’. He even took a written letter from my mother with her signature and said nothing happened between my coach and me.”

“He continued to create problems for me during every national game and didn’t allow me to even put my name in selections. He said this would be my last national, but I won a bronze. I was isolated very badly. I didn’t have that team spirit. No one cheered for me. I asked my coach for dates right after I won the bronze, and he refused to tell me. ‘Go play for another state,’ he said.”

The harassment didn’t end there. Just as she was about to give up, she met Karthik, another senior coach. Karthik offered to help her and put her name for the national selections.

He also offered to fix matches in favour of Anjana, much against her will.

She says, “I thought he was a good man until he told me that I should give him something in return and asked me to come with him to his room. I didn’t want to anger him because he had done so much for me. He began taking my clothes off and exploited me sexually, and I froze. In my mind, I thought he would finish my career in a second.”

“When I was leaving, he said, ‘Do you want some money?’”

At the next national games, he offered to fix her games again. She won a medal and was asked to meet him again.

“I ignored him and he messaged me saying I had used him and that I was acting smart. He angrily told me, ‘You wear makeup and short skirts and talk to boys.’ He then began telling senior female players that I was a slut, a whore, and that I would sleep with anyone to get where I wanted to be.”

“All my friends backed him and began to ignore me.”

*

SAI’s murky sexual harassment committee – Who is in charge?

In 2012, a junior woman wrestler from Haryana accused her coach and another administrator of sexual harassment during a national team training camp at the SAI centre in Lucknow. The wrestler filed a complaint (signed by four girls) with Ajay Maken, the Sports Minister at the time. Maken asked SAI Lucknow to look into the matter by constituting a three-member committee headed by Rachna Govil, SAI’s Regional Director.

Govil had served on multiple National Standing Complaints Committees for issues related to sexual harassment of women working at SAI offices. She instructed the accused coach not to travel with the team, and she did not divulge the names of the victim and the alleged perpetrator to the media. At the time, she stated, “I will send my report to the SAI head office in Delhi in two to three days. This is a very serious matter. Giving out their names will not be right.”

However, a few months later, the incident reached a dead-end. In June 2012, a Hindustan Times report quoted an anonymous SAI official stating, “All the four girls have withdrawn their complaint. They have stated that their signatures were forged and that they did not accuse any coach of harassment during the camp.”

While the veracity of the wrestler’s claim cannot be established now, a pressing question remains: Why did the wrestler go to Sports Minister instead of the SAI administrator at the time? The answer brings to light a murky reality.

At the time of this report, the topmost link in a Google search for ‘sports authority of India sexual harassment committee’ leads to a document that lists Govil as the Chairperson of the Sexual Harassment Committee at the SAI head office in Delhi. This is strange because she still maintains her position as Executive Director at SAI Lucknow.

The confusion around who exactly is in charge runs deeper.

Sources reveal that Govil’s tenure as chairperson of the sexual harassment committee extended only from 2011-14. According to the 2015-16 SAI annual report (pg. 276), after Govil’s three-year tenure in 2014, Meenu Dhingra took over.

During the three months of this reporting, Govil’s office had claimed that she was still the head of the SH committee, while Dhingra’s office claimed that her [Dhingra] tenure as SH committee head had been extended.

However, the SAI website currently hosts a document claiming that Meena Bora is the Chairperson of SAI’s sexual harassment committee, which runs contrary to notification No. SAI/RC-Lko/Admn-13/88 dated April 13, 2016 that appoints Madhu Joshi as the Chairperson of the Standing Complaint Committee. Interestingly though, the letter makes a specific mention of ‘Women Employees in SAI Regional Centre Lucknow’. And while there is no other clarification as to whether the committee’s scope extends beyond Lucknow, the letter refers to notification numbers SAI/PERS/1604/2000/1068 dated August 16, 2010 and SAI/1604/PERS/2000/230 dated February 14, 2013 - annexures in SAI’s annual reports of 2011-12 and 2012-13 respectively - both of which mention SAI head office in Delhi, indicating that they are all-India committees. We were unable to find an official notification assigning Bora as the head of the sexual harassment committee.

As 0f publishing this, however, Nation of Sport confirmed over the phone that everyone including Govil’s, Dhingra’s and the SAI’s head office are all on the same page that Meena Bora is the head of the SH committee.

*

Sifting through the Lok Sabha response sheet submitted in 2016 where Members of Parliament asked the Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports to state how many sexual harassment cases had been recorded, we discovered that four of the five cases were recorded during Dhingra’s tenure till March 15, 2017.

Another claim in the answer was that a 24/7 helpline had been established for SAI trainees to redress their grievances, especially when reporting cases of sexual harassment and ragging. This was also recommended in 2015 by the then SAI Director General, Injeti Srinivas. However, no such helpline exists.

Five additional cases (mentioned below) have also been reported in the media but, surprisingly, were missing in the Lok Sabha answer:

- In 2013, an 18-year-old cricketer accused Alpesh Shah, the convenor of the under-19 selection committee of the Madhya Pradesh Cricketers Association for attempting to sexually harass her. The allegation was denied by him, but he resigned from his post. A police complaint was lodged. No arrest was made, and Shah is currently untraceable.

- In 2013, Radha*, a kabaddi coach, was sexually harassed by an accounts officer in SAI in Vijayawada. She won the case against the perpetrator in 2018.

- In 2014, a woman footballer from Meerut had filed an FIR against a senior coach Shamsuddin in the government-backed Uttar Pradesh sports directorate. The directorate suspended the deputy sports officer, Shamim Ahmad, who allegedly took the girl to the senior coach’s home where she was physically exploited. Shamsuddin denied the charge levelled against him, calling it a conspiracy. While this case triggered protests and was widely discussed, it still did not make it into the Lok Sabha report. Shamsuddin continues to be the head coach of the UP football team.

- In 2014, a woman gymnast accused Asian Games coach Manoj Rana and gymnast Chandan Pathak of making obscene remarks against her as they were about to leave for the Asian Games. A case had been filed but no inquiry or action has been taken since then. The woman also alleged that the Gymnastic Federation of India, which is government-affiliated, tried to suppress her complaint.

- In 2015, a female athlete committed suicide, allegedly following harassment by seniors in May 2015. The athletes were undergoing training at a SAI water sports centre at Vembanad Lake, Alappuzha, Kerala. The Regional Director of SAI had said that they would submit their report to the Sports Minister within a day; however, no report was found.

Dr. Rajdeep Kaur, Chairperson of the NIS Patiala Sexual Harassment Committee responded to us over a call, detailing her experiences when handling such cases during her time. According to Kaur, during the last two to three cases of her tenure heading the committee, the women who had lodged complaints never turned up.

“We found out that a lot of these women withdraw these complaints because they go through intimidation,” she said.

But Kaur states that men are also harassed.

“From my point of view, men are also harassed by women. We have to be very particular. It is not true that women are right in all cases,” she says.

For example, Kaur claims she has received letters from three women with allegations against a coach for a sex racket. When they were called to the committee hearing, Kaur discovered that no such women existed. This, she considers, is fraud. “There are always women who had relationships with men and since that didn’t work, they harassed the men and filed a complaint,” Kaur says and adds, “Kisi se nahi banta, toh men ko defame karte hai. [If an athlete’s career does not work out, they defame men]”

*

Thirty-five-year-old Radha*, a senior kabbadi coach in Vijaywada, remembers every minute of her harrowing ordeal.

“In 2012, I wrote a complaint to my department at SAI Vijaywada against an accounts officer who repeatedly made advances and stalked me. He knew that I was unmarried. He had a family, but he would pursue me, send lewd messages, and ask my students what I was doing, whom I was going with, which male coach used to talk to me. And I knew it was time to make a complaint. Can you imagine a senior female coach, doing her job, being harassed by an accounts officer?”

At the time, there was no formal sexual harassment committee at the SAI centre. After filing her complaint, Radha continued to send several reminders until the department finally nominated an interim committee. This committee investigated the matter and submitted a report but no disciplinary action was taken against the accused. Radha persistently wrote to this committee for two more years. Meanwhile, her harasser challenged her complaint by requesting for a cross-examination. By this time, the SAI centre had constituted a formal sexual harassment committee that eventually intervened and reiterated the need for a cross-examination. A cross-examination is called for when a committee feels there has been a lapse in the investigation or reporting of a previous committee.

Radha said, “They conducted the inquiry in Bangalore where the officer was present. But the incident had happened in Vijaywada where I worked. So, I had to keep coming back to Bangalore to see my harasser every day for the next six months. I asked to transfer the examination to Vijaywada, but they refused. That’s when it got worse.”

According to Radha, the accounts officer used his influence to transfer her to a remote village in Andhra Pradesh where she didn’t have even a single student to train. The officer would call other trainees and people in the area to ask them about what Radha was doing and who she was with. Added to this, she faced a cash crunch: having a job that did not pay well in addition to travel expenses to and from Bangalore put enormous strain on her finances.

But, Radha’s patience finally paid off earlier this year when SAI ruled in her favour and ordered the perpetrator to take voluntary leave, thereby ending her six-year long battle.

Having lost her fiancé to an accident, Radha has decided to remain unmarried and work towards improving the state of kabaddi in small towns and villages. “I think losing my fiancé has taught me how to be stronger, and so has this incident. I learnt to fight whenever I was down. I never let go of my spirit,” she says, a jubilance in her voice, “and I fought the good fight,” she ends.

“Sports is the worst job. When compared to politics, it’s a little better; but women bear the worst of it,” she says.

*

A lot has changed since Neelam Kapur took the reins at SAI in January this year.

Within a span of eight months, Kapur has resolved up to five cases of sexual harassment at SAI centres. “The decisions they have taken so far also send a message across that this is not something that will be taken lightly,” she said to Scroll.in. “We can’t allow these complaints to languish for years on end.”

Kapur also told Scroll.in that while the SAI’s ICC had been established in almost all its centres since the law was laid down, not everyone was aware about it. Now, that is changing – and the change is evident.

The SAI had recently dismissed a coach from Tamil Nadu who was found guilty of sexually harassing an athlete. After multiple letters were written to Kapur, she promptly took action.

SAI Bengaluru threw up another case of a kabaddi coach who was accused of sexual harassment by a 13-year-old. He was swiftly suspended by Kapur following an inquiry but was found hanging in his hotel room in October this year.

Radha’s* case was from the same SAI centre. Her perpetrator was a repeat offender and had harassed many women players before he was forced to retire after an internal inquiry was ordered by Kapur. Another case in SAI Gujarat is being probed currently.

With Kapur on the frontlines, one hopes that the nationwide call centre, as mentioned in the Lok Sabha response, may finally come to fruition. She has also been conducting workshops in various languages to educate both coaches and sportspersons so they can better understand and report sexual harassment.

But only time will tell if Kapur’s relentless stand will work. Nation of Sport reached out to Kapur, who declined to comment. This copy will be updated if and when Kapur responds.

*

Shilpa*, a sportswoman at her prime, has faced the brunt of sexual harassment but prefers not to discuss it. “In the current climate, people are still making their name. It’s a very male-dominated sport, especially in boxing and wrestling,” she says as she is gears up for a major tournament. She declines to speak in detail about her account of harassment. “I will lose my focus,” she says.

According to her, these committees must be fair and have an equal number of men and women. “The Indian male mentality is that there are very few men who look at woman as an equal. It sounds great that there is no tolerance [for sexual harassment], but sexual harassment is such that women dress differently, have different habits, and men are threatened by it,” she says.

“The generations playing right now are from villages and from all strata. They have always looked at us [women] as a homemaker, to raise kids. When we come into their territory, the men are uncomfortable. This is exactly what happens. The number of women in sports have gone up so you can’t turn a blind eye. Back in the day, men did take advantage of the situation. There was no fear and no committees were set up. Because of the sexual harassment coming into limelight, unfortunately, you see women trying to get back at men. The authenticity of all these cases have a question mark. There are settlements outside as well, and that’s where cases are also taken back,” she says.

*

Anjana isn’t entirely convinced about Kapur’s proactive attitude but feels Kapur has brought method to the madness. She also welcomes the idea of workshops. “Knowing how to file a sexual harassment case is something every woman needs to know. There is no doubt about that.”

She remains wary, though. “You can take action, you can sack, you can suspend. But how does SAI plan on dealing with the deep-rooted mindset of sexism among men in the field? There needs to be an equal level of sensitisation for male coaches and players about how systemic sexism and abuse needs to be addressed. That coaches have no right whatsoever to shame a player for the length of her skirt,” she says.

In the thick of her harassment issue, Anjana remembers meeting a female coach and confiding in her, telling her everything that happened. The coach helped and trained Anjana and gave her a roof over her head. She says, “When someone touches you when you don’t want, it doesn’t leave your mind easily. But the female coach would listen to me without judgment. I was on antidepressants; so, I learnt to cope.”

“My boyfriend told me to never practice or associate myself with a SAI centre because of the way they treated women. But this might change,” she says.

“People asked me to leave the game. But it’s not about leaving the game, it’s about self-respect. It’s about knowing that you have not done anything wrong. So why should I leave?” she demands.

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The Athlete’s Tales - Is SAI fixing its sexual harassment policies?

Credit: Trip Creative Services / Arun Kishor

About the Writer

Divya Karthikeyan is an independent journalist based in Chennai. She writes on politics, development and culture in South India. @divya_krthk

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