Disclaimer: The following article contains the ideas of the writer alone and does not represent the views of the magazine.
If you ask any young woman playing at any competitive level of sports in India whether they’ve heard of or experienced a harassment problem at any point in their career, the answer would most probably be yes. In fact, more often than not, it would also be the same if you ask any young man in the same field. But if you ask any of these players aiming to make it big on the grand stage whether they know what to do in case they do face abuse, they wouldn’t know the answer to it. Most athletes would also not know what federations are legally obligated to do for them, nor would they understand the complexities of the functioning of said federations— and this plays a major role in the consequent lack of player safety.
The wrestlers’ protest which is based on allegations of the same against former WFI President Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh brought this issue careening into the limelight. While there are many nuances that we should take note of when talking about the protests themselves, I’ll avoid going into its rights and wrongs, and I’ll not comment on the politics surrounding it in this piece. Instead, this article will focus on the structural and institutional problems in Indian sports that make up the core of this issue, which have reduced a nation of great ambition, quality and capability to one that simply cannot seem to reach the top of the podium at the biggest stage.
The Government of India recognises around 61 national level sports federations (or NSFs), including the Wrestling Federation of India, Hockey India and the All India Football Federation among various others. Following the guidelines of the National Sports Development Code of India (NSDCI), they receive aid and assistance from the state to function and conduct their activities to the best of their abilities, which include holding regular elections and complying with the code.
From all this information, the view is simple and democratic— that there is a federation to which elections are held, and the elected personnel then manage the affairs for those who voted for them.
Except corruption and mismanagement, unfortunately, tend to exist even when a myriad of safeguards are present in an institution to counter them. It’s not that democratic functioning is entirely absent, for we are certainly in a far better place in the field of sports than we were at the time of independence. But with the new generation of Indian sportspersons perhaps being one which can break the glass ceiling for India in sports once and for all, it is still not enough.
If you keep an eye on the news, conflicts between athletes and the NSFs seem to be endless. They’re not a new phenomenon, but as we gain significance in sports and in the world at large, they certainly have far-reaching implications. Let us consider a few examples of these over the past two years after our last major sporting event. India’s stint at the 2020 Olympics perhaps fell short of high expectations, with the medal tally falling to a number we had not touched since the 1990s. Agreed, it was a strange year all around, and the nation had only somewhat recovered from the painful second wave of the pandemic, but we were unable to medal in what were considered to be very key events.
Right after the Olympics, a conflict in the National Rifle Shooting Association came to light, with President Raninder Singh proclaiming that coach Jaspal Rana had been a “negative factor” in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics, especially on trailblazing shooter Manu Bhaker, who was unable to medal after she faced a coaching change some three months prior to the Games due to friction between her and Rana. Although the President did state that the burden of these Olympic results should not be placed on him, and Bhaker clarified that it was not her autonomous decision to change coaches, the staff and players would undoubtedly have taken some amount of mental strain. Shortly after, Singh promised a complete overhaul of the NRAI’s coaching staff after the disappointing Olympic run.
This was still relatively mild to what other federations have faced recently. In August 2022, the All India Football Federation faced suspension from FIFA due to “undue influence from third parties”. The AIFF had not held elections for some two years, and the Supreme Court in May had disbanded it and appointed a three-member committee to temporarily govern the sport, amend its constitution and conduct elections. At first glance, it may seem to be an incredibly arbitrary decision— but the case was taken to Court as a result of a very obvious violation of the aforementioned NSDCI which mandated elections to federations. India was temporarily stripped of its rights to host the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, but elections were held soon after the issue came to light. However, former men’s team captain Bhaichung Bhutia, who lost 33-1 to Kalyan Chaubey, made allegations of continued political interference occurring even in these elections. India’s hosting rights were indeed restored, but image of the federation remains publicly damaged.
And of course— the wrestler’s protest against WFI’s Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh is the latest public conflict between players and the federation, and reveals before all else the consequences of a federation unable to resolve its own issues without bias. Many heads of Indian federations are also usually a part of major political parties, and while this need not be a certain proof of lack of integrity, it frequently leads to unnecessary interference. This can affect sound decision-making and compromise the future of Indian sports as it can lead to a politically charged atmosphere and friction with players of varied socio-economic backgrounds, or conflicts of personal interest.
When issues are not resolved directly, or players feel stifled by the sluggish addressing of their complaints (a problem not unique to just sports federations in the country), those involved feel it necessary to make their grievances public as it becomes the only way they may be taken seriously. Undoubtedly, it is a risk to do something of that sort— civil protests are still somehow considered too radical in a nation built upon them— and the complainants may face legal consequences or ostracisation from their diverse sports community. But regardless of the outcome or circumstances of the protest at hand, it remains a general principle that players cannot focus on their work if they are distressed by what they face, especially if it stems from those supposed to be aiding them.
A myriad of committees are supposed to be set up by federations to ensure that this does not occur and redressal is provided swiftly, but once more, this is where it gets complicated. For example, the Oversight Committee which was set up on January 20, 2023 to address the issues put forward by the protesting wrestlers only made its findings public in April—a needless yet significant delay which heightened tensions. The Indian Olympic Association— which currently has a former athlete at its head— also seemed to be more eager to brush off the issue than to resolve it, perhaps by misunderstanding or an error of judgement made in grasping the gravity of the situation.
More glaring findings by the government panel showed that the problem of institutional integrity and cohesion especially in relation to prevention of abuse is not unique to the WFI, and it is certainly not novel. “This didn’t have to happen,” Indian Express notes with regards to the wrestlers’ protest. 16 of 30 national sports federations do not have an internal complaints committee (ICC) or don’t meet the conditions stipulated for such a committee by the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act, 2013. The paper upon inquiry found that the WFI lacked such a committee, which could have proved to be centric in an internal resolution of the issue.
There is no shock registered then, when we come across an ESPN article that brings to light that the protest is simply one of five instances in nine months from May 2022 to January 2023 of allegations or proven cases sexual harassment in Indian sport— and these are just those that majorly caught the public eye and involved only the relatively small bracket of national-level players competing in international tournaments. There is a very rampant, obvious problem of sexual violence which has barely been dealt with in a targeted manner by federations— and regardless of whether the protest by itself leads to specific proof, it is essential that victims across Indian sports can at least access mechanisms for speedy filing, inquiry and redressal of complaints.
The impacts of the protest may be far-reaching, and they may not be, but one thing is certainly clear— until players do not feel fully comfortable with their supporting staff, until revolutionary and critical changes are not made in the institutional, structural and strategic functioning of NSFs, and an effort is made to free federations of electoral interference— Indian sports will not be able to catch up to the swift developments taking place in the global arena. We place a heavy value on achievements and medals, and we pride ourselves in gaining international honour. If we want our realities to meet our ambitions, we need to take great care of those who make them happen.
– Yashasvini Verma, Amity International School, Noida
I like this!