“We have had no complaints of sexual harassment.”

Even as India’s #MeToo movement explodes on to the front pages of newspapers, the world of sports seems to offer a sanctuary unlike any in the country. When asked if there have been any official complaints of sexual harassment registered in their organisations or sport, the blanket statement from a majority of sport federations in India was in the negative.

But just because there have been no complaints, does it also mean that sexual harassment is not prevalent in Indian sport?

A poll of global experts that was released in June 2018 said India is the most dangerous country for women, with sexual violence rife. Indian government data shows reported cases of crime against women rose by 83% between 2007 and 2016, when there were four cases of rape reported every hour.

Given this background, it seems difficult to believe that sports associations around the country have received no complaints. Rather, it makes one wonder... why have they not received any complaints?

Sport and sexual harassment

In 2007, the International Olympic Committee issued a Consensus Statement, which said:

“Sexual harassment and abuse happen in all sports and at all levels. Prevalence appears to be higher in elite sport. Members of the athlete’s entourage who are in positions of power and authority appear to be the primary perpetrators. Peer athletes have also been identified as perpetrators. Males are more often reported as perpetrators than females…Research demonstrates that sexual harassment and abuse in sport seriously and negatively impact on athletes’ physical and psychological health. It can result in impaired performance and lead to athlete drop-out. Clinical data indicate that psychosomatic illnesses, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, self harm and suicide are some of the serious health consequences.”

In 2016, Bettina Rulofs at the Sport University in Cologne revealed research findings (in German) based on a prevalence study funded by the German government.

She found that a third of German squad athletes, registered as elite athletes in the system of the German Olympic Sport Confederation, have experienced some form of sexual violence within sport. One in nine German athletes have experienced severe sexual violence, such as sexual assault and rape. Despite this, only 50% of just over 20,000 sports clubs in Germany surveyed believed that sexual violence was a relevant topic to deal with.

Another 2015 study by criminologist Tine Vertommen looked at the prevalence of interpersonal violence in sport among a sample of 4,000 adults who had participated in sport as children in Belgium and the Netherlands. The study found that 14% had experienced sexual violence – varying from 17% for the female respondents to 11% for male respondents.

The recent scandal in the United States of America involving Larry Nassar, a former doctor with USA Gymnastics and sports medicine physician at Michigan State University who pleaded guilty to charges of criminal sexual conduct and child pornography, showed just how vulnerable athletes (even if they are elite) can be.

In India, however, this is a topic where omerta is firmly in place. No athlete talks about it. No official talks about it.

We may choose to bury our head in the sand but there have been cases in the past, from documented complaints to those only in the whisper networks, to suggest that sexual harassment in Indian sport is lurking under the surface.

From the the 2009 case where the Andhra Cricket Association secretary V Chamundeshwarnath was accused by a few players of sexual misconduct or when former secretary of Badminton Association of India Vijai Sinha and his son Nishant were arrested for sexually abusing minor girls at the Uttar Pradesh Badminton Academy, one-off cases have been made public over the years. But none of these cases were actually handled by the said sports federations according to the procedures laid down in the law.

So what can an Indian athlete do?

If an Indian sportsperson is sexually harassed, do they know what is the procedure to lodge an official complaint? That there has to be a complaints committee headed by a woman? Or even that they can escalate the issue under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013?

According to the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013, any workplace with more than 10 employees needs an internal complaints committee.

And contrary to what many believe, sport facilities do come under the law as a workplace. The Act has a specific sub-section in the workplace definition that states:

“Any sport institute, stadium, sports complex or competitions or games venue, whether residential or not used for training, sports or other activities relating thereto.”

But a chat with athletes across sports is enough to understand that most sports federations in India do not really take the matter seriously. Details of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) at federations are difficult to find – most are not available on official websites and neither are they available (according to some athletes) on notice boards in training centres across the country.

One official told Scroll.in on condition of anonymity: “Apart from a few federations, no one has given this a serious thought. A few complaints keep coming up at regular intervals but most of the time the coaches accused are directly employed by Sports Authority of India and hence federations have little authority on them.”

However, all National Sport Federations (NSFs) are technically supposed to have a complaints procedure in place.

The National Sports Development Code of India of 2011 said that it is the responsibility of the NSFs and other sport bodies to ensure women’s safety. They were asked to include rules prohibiting sexual harassment, notify everyone about these rules, and have appropriate forums for women to raise the issue. The setting up of a complaints mechanism was mandated, with even provision for a third party who is familiar with the issue of sexual harassment. A majority of federations have not put these mechanisms in place, and by virtue of that are guilty of violating the law.

Some of these NSFs have athletes’ commissions to deal with complaints and grievances, but they are not – as is mandated – specifically for sexual harassment, and headed by women. The general procedure is approaching the officials, the secretary or president, and communicating verbally. This means there is no documented complaint, which is a pre-requisite in ICC. This also explains why the number of official complaints is often zero.

The mechanism in place

The Sports Authority of India is at the forefront of tackling the issue, empowering its ICC to take tough decisions over the last year. One of the most prominent cases has been the sacking of a Tamil Nadu-based coach without pension after an inquiry found him guilty of harassing junior campers. Another employee was made to opt for compulsory retirement after he sent lewd messages.

SAI Director General Neelam Kapur told Scroll.in that the organisation follows the due process as laid down by the Supreme Court and the 2013 Act.

“We have an ICC everywhere, all our regional centres as well as the headquarters,” she said. “The constitution is strictly as per the guidelines and the whole process is followed, as in the case of the sacked coach. He was sacked without pension and he was close to retirement so he has lost a lot. There is a system of appeal as well, the accused is given a chance to give his side as well. In this particular case, he had tried to intimidate the girls. We followed the due process before taking action.”

Kapur herself has dealt with four to five complaints of sexual harassment in the eight months since she took over the post at SAI. She said that dealing with sexual harassment ranks very high on her priority list. “The decisions they have taken so far also send a message across that this is not something that will be taken lightly,” she said. “We can’t allow these complaints to languish for years on end.”

Apart from taking action, SAI has put in other mandated mechanisms in place as well. It has also started conducting awareness workshops as mandated by law because many trainees are minors as well. A call centre, manned by a third party, is also in the works.

Kapur said that while the SAI’s ICC has been in place in almost all its centres since the law was laid down, not everyone knew about it earlier. That is now being changed. “I joined this post in February this year and I took this up as the highest priority making sure that not only is the framework there but also that people are aware of it,” she said.

However, national sport federations are autonomous bodies and SAI does not have the authority to give them orders. “It is mandated by the law and they have to make sure that they follow it,” she added.

Among the major national sport federations, Hockey India and All India Football Federation have a properly defined and publicised sexual harassment committee. The name and members of the panel are mentioned on the website and, as mandated, there are more women in the team, including the head. The Table Tennis Federation of India also has a committee headed by former international Indu Puri, but the details do not feature on the official website.

NSFs that have sexual harassment committees

NSF Is there an Internal Complaints Committee specifically for sexual harassment? What is their mechanism to deal with complaints? 
Hockey  Yes Sexual harassment committee, headed by a woman 
Shooting  No Athletes Commission 
Wrestling  No A disciplinary committee headed by ID Nanavati, the senior vice president. 
Basketball No  A female official accompanies every team
Football Yes Sexual harassment committee, headed by a woman 
Boxing  No  A women’s representative in the executive council. 
Badminton  No Players' Grievance Committee formed earlier this year 
Athletics  No  Women's Commission 
Table Tennis Yes Sexual harassment committee, headed by Indu Puri
Kabaddi No Women's Commission and Disciplinary Committee 
IOA Yes Sexual harassment committee, headed by a woman 
SAI Yes Sexual harassment committee, headed by a woman 

The National Rifle Association of India has an athletes commission, which is fairly active and deals with such complaints. Anuja Jung, a member of the current commission, said that while no case has been registered during her tenure, there was one in the past which the then commission dealt with.

In 2013, two shooters were banned for “mental harassment involving incidences of abusive and indecent language” but were absolved of sexual harassment charges on the recommendation of the six-member investigation committee headed by veteran Anjali Bhagwat.

The Wrestling Federation of India also said they had a system in place to handle disciplinary issues. “The Wrestling Federation of India has a disciplinary committee headed by ID Nanavati, who is also a WFI senior vice president,” the federation’s assistant secretary Vinod Tomar said. “Whenever we have any complaints the disciplinary committee reviews it. The president of the Wrestling Federation of India Brij Bhusan Singh Saran oversees all matters including all complaints.”

The Basketball Federation of India doesn’t have a committee to deal with sexual harassment, but a female official accompanies every team so they can be approached by the players if such a circumstance arises.

Secretary general Chander Mukhi Sharma said the federation didn’t feel the need to have a committee for sexual harassment as it has not received any complaints in the past. “We have never got any complaints of sexual harassment in the past. We ensure that every age category [in women’s basketball] has a woman official – either the coach or assistant coach or team manager – so they can approach them whenever.”

From such conversations, one can understand that the seriousness of the matter is lost on most sports associations. They have NOT, as mandated by law, put the number of complaints in their annual reports; they have not set up ICCs; they have instead adopted ad-hoc measures and have never really tried to identify the true extent of the problem.

The culture within an institution has a strong influence on the degree to which abuse might occur
within it. Poor leadership, closed structures, ineffective policies and procedures, together with the
discouragement of reporting – all this facilitates a malign climate that colludes with those inclined to sexually abuse children.

The male-dominated back offices in Indian sport often see things from a very male perspective. But if we truly want our athletes to come out and speak freely, we need to empower them in word and in deed.

Our federations say that they have had zero complaints but the true, ugly picture that hides behind the varnish is the one we must all seek to expose. Unless we do that, we are letting down our athletes in the worst way possible.

Scroll.in has approached the other sports federations and this story will be updated as and when they give a response.

With additional reporting from Praveen Sudevan and Vinay Siwach