Indian sport has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Even as the scams associated with the Commonwealth Games began figuring in the media, there was a spate of allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct made by leading Indian sports women.
The scandal involving women’s hockey came as a bolt from the blue. Th. Ranjitha, a member of the Indian women’s hockey team, complained bitterly against chief coach, M.K. Kaushik. In a four page letter, Ranjitha charged Kaushik for having made sexually coloured and offensive remarks. She alleged that Kaushik had told her that she was very beautiful and that his room was always open to her round the clock and that she could walk in any time. Luckily for Ranjitha, her colleagues supported her. In fact, all 31 women hockey players who had attended a national training camp in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, recently expressed their outrage at Kaushik’s behaviour. Then, as if to underline the widespread nature of such abuse, Sydney Olympic bronze medallist Karnam Malleswari – who, incidentally, is the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal - accused the Sports Authority of India weightlifting coach, Ramesh Malhotra, of sexually harassing junior lifters.
Some action did follow. While the Indian Weightlifting Federation suspended Malhotra, a Hockey India panel, after examining Ranjitha’s complaint, found Kaushik prima facie guilty and suspended him. To salvage its image and rebuild the confidence of players, the Union Sports Ministry put Sandeep Somesh, a former player in the Indian men’s hockey team, as the coach in charge of women’s hockey. The Sports Authority of India also appointed Pritam Rani Siwach, a former captain of the women’s team, and Sandeep Kaur, a former player, who had played in the World Cup and the Asian Games, as additional coaches. The reconstituted team now has Rupa Saini, former government observer for women’s hockey, in place of Madhu Yadav, who was team manager.
But the changes, by and large, are only at the managerial level. Women’s activists and sports commentators believe that the malaise of Indian sportswomen having to face sexual abuse remains unaddressed and that it is far more widespread than generally acknowledged.
According to senior Delhi-based sports journalist, M.S. Unnikrishan, the casting couch is a reality, both in individual and team sports. “I have heard of several cases of exploitation of women players from tribal and remote areas by coaches and officials. Only last year, Edward Alloycious, goal keeping coach of the women hockey team, was removed following a complaint of misbehaviour by a woman goalkeeper. Sports like swimming and tennis are full of unreported stories of sexual exploitation. Basketball, volleyball, athletics and weightlifting have their own share of sex scandals. Sexual exploitation of players is rampant in women’s cricket too,” says Unnikrishnan while drawing attention to complaints made by women cricketers of the Andhra Pradesh Cricket Association. A few months ago, two women cricketers had charged the Secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Cricket Association, V. Chamundeshwar, of harassing them.
Considered India’s greatest athlete, Chandigarh-based Milkha Singh is in favour of blacklisting coaches found guilty of such charges. “A coach is meant to be a guru. Such wrongdoing is condemnable and brings a bad name to all coaches in the country. I have heard of similar cases in athletics. Will parents send their daughters for coaching in such a scenario? If the allegations levelled by women hockey players are true, neither the government nor the hockey federation should spare the accused.” His wife, Nirmal Milkha Singh, a sports woman in her own right, and former secretary of the Indian Women’s Hockey Federation during Asiad 1982, comments wryly, “Sexual harassment in sports is as much a reality as the intake of performance enhancing drugs!”
Tragically, the situation has remained unchanged over the years. Says Dr Jagmati Sangwan, former international volleyball player and recipient of the Bheema award, “Indian women sports persons have been facing sexual harassment over the last three decades at least. In fact, the plight of Indian sportswomen figured in her doctoral thesis titled, ‘Women’s participation in sports - a case study of international sportswomen with special reference to Haryana’. Sangwan, who is today an Associate Professor in the Department of Physical Education, Maharshi Dayanand University, Rohtak, recalls the years when she was an active player from 1974 to 1986. She would often notice coaches passing needlessly vulgar remarks at women players. “They were lecherous, and their gestures were obscene. But women players of that period suffered it all in silence in the larger interests of the game,” she reveals.
Sangwan, who is also the Rohtak-based Assistant Secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), was part of an AIDWA delegation that recently met Union Sports Minister, M.S. Gill, to impress upon him the need to usher in endemic changes in women’s sports. AIDWA is among those organizations, which believe too little has been done too late on the larger issue of sexual harassment, and specifically on the exploitation of sportswomen.
Not only does AIDWA want the government to take criminal action against Kaushik, in the memorandum that it submitted to Gill, it demanded a gender sensitive sports policy and the constitution of a sexual harassment complaints committee in all the disciplines. Observes Kirti Singh, AIDWA’s legal convenor, “Despite the widespread prevalence of sexual harassment on the sports field, sports bodies don’t have a complaints committee to deal with such cases. This amounts to a failure to follow Supreme Court guidelines on the prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace.”
Unnikrishnan argues that penalty should depend on the gravity of the offence. “In any case, any coach or official, whose name is tainted by allegations of sexual harassment, cannot get away easily. He can only take up a coaching assignment once he has been exonerated of all charges,” he says.
Women activists also want 33 per cent reservation for women in selection committees, sports associations and federations. They believe that unless the sports ministry takes proactive measures to include women in the selection committees and decision-making committees of sports, sexual exploitation will continue. AIDWA is of the view that the time has come to enact appropriate legislation to tackle cases of sexual harassment in an exemplary manner and with the urgency they deserve.
The Union Sports Ministry is receptive to the demand for a gender sensitive sports policy but would like to hold consultations with women organsiations, well-known women players (contemporary and past) and the National Commission for Women. He also promised the AIDWA delegation that his ministry will issue a circular to all state governments to set up anti-sexual harassment committees in sports bodies.
The culture of impunity is not going to change overnight. The challenge is to keep the focus on the issue and ensure that both the government and the sports administration bring in institutional change so that women athletes can concentrate on their sporting talent rather than having to deal with lecherous coaches and indifferent administrators.
By arrangement with WFS