“The accused is roaming free, he is being sheltered by the government and we athletes who won medals for the country are now being put in jail for demanding justice for the country’s daughters”
– Vinesh Phogat
Sportswomen in India have made a difference on the world stage by breaking through glass ceilings, leaving their mark, and setting new goals. Since the turn of the millennium, there has been a significant increase in the number of Indian women athletes competing on the international stage. The twenty-first century saw a significant increase in Indian women athletes leading from the front and making their mark in Olympic sports such as weightlifting, boxing, and badminton. Indian women athletes have been gaining international recognition and acclaim. There are clouds on this shiny horizon, however. The Indian Sports Federation that has recently been in the headlines for reasons other than celebrating champion victories.
More than a month has passed since the protesting women wrestlers approached the Supreme Court of India to get the Delhi Police to lodge an FIR against the BJP MP and Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh on their (women wrestlers’) complaint of sexual harassment. The grapplers are still agitating to press for the arrest of Singh, who has also been accused under the POCSO Act. To date, the Delhi Police has not even submitted an investigation report post filing the FIR.
The sports arena of India, similar to the other structures and agencies, is male dominated. In the Indian sports industry, women have had to fight tooth and nail to make space for themselves, to earn the right to participate. In most of the sports federations of India, the chiefs, coaches and trainers are men. The bottom line is this: it is difficult for a woman athlete to survive in a male-dominated industry, then to be able to speak out about their complaints of sexual harassment against men in power, in a patriarchal society like India, is another story entirely.
Since the beginning of this battle for justice, started by Vinesh Phogat, Sangeeta Phogat and Sakshi Malik, the protesting wrestlers have had to face huge hurdles. From the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, Shri Vinai Kumar Saxena, to the union sports minister, Anurag Thakur, these protesting women have had to fight head-first with men in authority. Even when a government-appointed Oversight Committee was set up to “probe” the allegations against Singh, the women wrestlers came out with details around procedure and functioning g of the panel that revealed that it was neither fair nor transparent.
The Committee, which was ironically headed by boxer Mary Kom, reeked of a patriarchial callousness. The Committee reportedly asked the three testifying wrestlers to provide “audio or video” proof of their harassment. A Committee member had also reportedly told one of the wrestlers that Singh was “like a father figure and his acts were done in all innocence and were misconstrued by them (the wrestlers)”, once more showing that this battle would have to be fought by the women wrestlers in solitude and alone. It was a battle against the whole system and its culture.
At every stage of this protest, the response of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government and the Delhi police, which falls under the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), headed by Amit Shah, revealed an anti-women and anti-democratic character by preventing and trying to crush what has been a very peaceful, violence-free and orderly protest of women wrestlers. The complainants, who have levelled serious allegations of sexual harassment are themselves are being treated as enemies of the state and chaos mongers. While, in fact, it is the WFI chief and the union sports minister, Anurag Thakur who are the ones who have allegations attached to their names. Anurag Thakur. Thakur had, at a rally in Rithala in the national capital on January 27, 2020, egged on the crowd to raise an incendiary slogan “Desh ke Gaddaro ko, Goli maro saalo ko” (shoot the traitors and enemies of the country) after lashing out at anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protesters of Shaheen Bagh. In April 2023 itself, the Supreme Court asked the Delhi Police to respond to the plea of CPI(M) leader Brinda Karat, challenging the Delhi High Court’s order dismissing a petition against the Delhi trial court’s refusal to order the registration of an FIR against Union Minister Anurag Thakur for his alleged hate speeches on anti-CAA protests.
The only demand made by these protesting wrestlers is that the law be enforced against a powerful male who has sexually inflicted violence on them. For lesser mortals than Singh, the mandatory arrest of the perpetrator under POCSO would have immediately resulted. However, in this case, no justice has come their way.
Even as such grave injustice and superficial crumbs are being handed out to the protesting women wrestlers, few are raising their voices in support of the protest. Is this the first time that this dark side of patriarchy has reared its head? Sadly, no. Sexual harassment of women athletes by men in power has happened before and remains an unresolved issue for the Indian system today defying both transparency and accountability.
History of sexual harassment allegations in the Indian sports fraternity
“Athletes are particularly vulnerable because of how hierarchical the coach-athlete relationship is in the sporting context”
– Payoshni Mitra, CEO of Global Observatory for Gender Equality and Sport
According to a reply in filed Rajya Sabha in July 2022, since 2017, 30 complaints of sexual harassment against the coaches and staff have been received by the Sports Authority of India (SAI), out of which two were anonymous complaints. The reply did not list what actions were taken and it only stated, “Necessary action has been taken in all 30 cases”. In an RTI reply, it was reported that between the period of 2010 and 2020, there were 45 complaints of sexual harassment to SAI, of which 29 were against coaches. Of these, five coaches were penalised with a pay reduction, the contracts of two coaches were terminated, one was suspended, five were acquitted and one, unfortunately, died by suicide.
1. Haryana sports minister Sandeep Singh Case:
Allegations: On December 29, 2022, a junior coach accused Haryana sports minister and former Olympian Sandeep Singh of sexual harassment. The junior athletics coach had alleged that Singh had touched her inappropriately. Speaking to the press, she added that she hadn’t spoken of the harassment earlier as she was afraid of the negative impact on the sports industry. “I tried as much as I could. He created such an atmosphere officially that a girl comes to him automatically,” she added.
Action Taken: On January 1, the Chandigarh Police filed a sexual harassment case against Sandeep Singh on charges of sexual harassment and wrongful confinement. Singh resigned from his post on “moral grounds,” post the FIR, though he dismissed the allegations as baseless. In early May, the Chandigarh court dismissed the application moved by the Chandigarh police seeking permission to conduct a polygraph test on Singh.
2. Assistant coach Alex Ambrose case:
Allegations: In July 2022, India U-17 women’s football team assistant coach Alex Ambrose was accused of sexual harassment in their Europe tour. According to various reports, a player complained against the coach after her roommate, a player of the squad, was missing from her dorm and she raised the issue with head coach Thomas Dennerby.
Action taken: In July 2022, Alex Ambrose was suspended and sent back from a training camp in Norway for allegedly abusing a minor player, and was later sacked. Ambrose, who was also the All India Football Federation’s head of scouting, denied the charges and served the federation a legal notice. A case under the POSCO Act was filed. In February 2023, a Delhi court issued a non-bailable arrest warrant against him.
3. Woman cyclist sexual harassment case:
Allegations: In June 2022, Indian cycling was embroiled in a controversy when a woman cyclist complained of “inappropriate behaviour” by national team chief coach RK Sharma during an overseas training camp in Slovenia. The senior woman cyclist alleged that Sharma had allegedly forced himself into her room, offering her a “post-training” massage and stating that he “wants her to be his wife,” during the national team’s camp in Slovenia. After the incident was reported, another cyclist also accused Sharma and his assistant of inappropriate behaviour.
Days later, his predatory behaviour was called out by Andaman’s Deborah Herold, the current national champion and international gold medallist. Herold alleged that the “toxic atmosphere” in the team under Sharma “did not allow cyclists to perform to their potential”.
Action taken: On June 8, 2022, Sports Authority of India (SAI) terminated the contract of chief cycling coach RK Sharma.
4. Case of Tamil Nadu coach sexually abusing athletes:
Allegations: A 19-year-old national-level runner filed a sexual harassment complaint against renowned sports coach P Nagarajan in Chennai. She alleged that the coach would touch female athletes inappropriately, on the pretext of helping them with physiotherapy and stretching. Two months after the first complaint, seven more athletes, including some who have represented India, came forward with similar allegations.
Action Taken: Nagarajan was arrested and is facing charges under the IPC and POCSO Act.
5. Boxing coach accused of sexual assault case:
Allegations: In March 2020, a boxing coach was arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting his 19-year-old student when they were in West Bengal for a tournament in February. The teen, who was representing Haryana in the tournament, alleged that while she was going to Kolkata from the New Delhi Railway Station (NDLS) along with her other team members to participate in the tournament, her coach sexually assaulted her in the train. She added that she was also sexually assaulted by her coach during their stay in Kolkata.
Action Taken: no updates available
6. Coach booked for molestation of female cricketer:
Allegations: In Jan 2020, Gautam Gambhir had taken to Twitter and revealed how a girl reached out to him and sought his help after she was sexually harassed by her cricket coach.
Action taken: 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.
7. Gymnast, coach booked for sexual harassment
Allegations: While attending a national camp for the 2014 Asian Games at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Sports Complex, a female gymnast accused Coach Manoj Rana and gymnast Chandan Pathak of sexual harassment. The female gymnast had told the police that the duo passed vulgar remarks about her clothes and also made some indecent comments on her.
Action Taken: The gymnast and his coach were booked for sexually harassing the woman gymnast. On September 17, 2014, however, even as the SAI launched an inquiry into the allegations of sexual harassment even as the accused, gymnastics coach Manoj Rana and gymnast Chandan Pathak, flew to Incheon for the 17th Asian Games.
8. Tamil Nadu boxing official accused of seeking sexual favours
Allegations: E Thulasi, bronze medallist at the 2009 Women’s Senior National Boxing Championship, in 2011 levied charges of sexual harassment against Tamil Nadu State Amateur Boxing Association Secretary AK Karunakaran. She alleged that he had misbehaved with her, asking her ‘to cooperate’ if she wished to be selected for important events.
Action taken: Following an investigation by DCP (Kilpauk), Karunakaran was arrested.
9. Women’s hockey team accused coach of sexual harassment:
Allegations: In July 2010, a member of the Indian women’s hockey team accused the team’s coach and Olympian, Maharaj Kishan Kaushik, of sexual harassment.
Action taken: Following sexual harassment allegations, Maharaj Kishan Kaushik resigned from his post. He was eventually absolved of all the charges by an inquiry committee formed by Hockey India and the Sports Authority of India.
Is there any future of sports beyond patriarchy?
We won’t bog down anymore and will fight for our rights.– Vinesh Phogat
All eyes, international and national, were on the Jantar Mantar protest, until it was violently disrupted by the Delhi police itself because the women wrestlers dared to escalate their protest to outside the then to be inaugurated New Parliament building. Today the injured wrestlers are re-grouping, on the threshold of a fresh stage of their protest that they have vowed not to give up. Will this sustained battle for dignity and justice lead to a decisive breakthrough, or will history repeat itself and mere crumbs in the name of justice be given to the protesting women wrestlers? The dismissal of this protest by large sections of the visible commercial media and senior sports stars, along with the government and systems’ attempts to silence these women, highlight the abysmal treatment of women sportspersons and athletes in India, the omnipresent predatory behaviour of the men in position of power in the sport industry.
It is critical for the country –and all sections of citizenry – that has been applauding our sportswomen for demonstrating their incredible talent and grit in crashing through the glass ceiling of familial, societal and institutional discrimination and excelling in international competitions, cheer them on in this crucial battle. A battle that is a battle for dignity, autonomy, the right to consent, bodily integrity and the right to life – against an oppressive and vicious nexus of patriarchy, power, and privilege.
Coming forward and highlighting the vicious cycle of sexual harassment within the sports establishment requires enormous strength on the part of sportswomen, who have now been supported by their male colleagues in the case involving the WFI.
It is crucial now that the government as well as those presiding over these bodies are made to answer, held accountable for their unapologetic ignorance and their denial of justice. In a country where sexual violence against the women is on the rise, it is critical that the cries of these women, who have reached a position of privilege, reach, and support, must be addressed and an opportunity to be heard is given. Such incidents are not one-off exceptions and must not be treated as such with delayed responses mired in political calculations. If these wrestling women protestors have had to suffer so much at the hands of our government and justice system, women who are a household name, it is unimaginable what a woman from a minority community or a marginalised background would have to go through to even get her voice heard. This fight is no longer just limited to those seven women, it is a fight that every girl child and every woman is a part of.