In Sports or Otherwise, Failing to Act on a Complaint of Sexual Harassment Is Criminal

All the while that the nation has been applauding our sportswomen who have shown amazing talent and grit in international competitions, these remarkably talented women, it now turns out, have been silently fighting another battle – against a vicious nexus of patriarchy, power and privilege.

If there was any doubt in the minds of people with regard to the nexus it should be put to rest by the fact that both Sandeep Singh, the  minster accused of sexual harassment by the athlete in Haryana, and Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the head of the Wrestling Federation of India, who faces grave allegations of similar nature are still in the saddle.

It is reported that while the former has given up charge of the concerned portfolio the other been asked to ‘step aside’ and will not participate in decision making. 

While an enquiry is proceeding based on the FIR lodged by the complainant, what should be noted is that a committee headed by the additional director general of police (Rohtak Range) Mamta Singh, deputy commissioner of police at Panchkula Sumer Pratap Singh, and additional commissioner of police at Panchkula, Raj Kumar Kaushik, has been constituted to enquire based on a complaint lodged by the accused minister. However, Singh still holds charge of the department of printing and stationery. However, as chief minister of Haryana, Manohar Lal Khattar would have us believe, this will ‘not affect the probe’

Meanwhile, the junior athletics coach – who is also a 400m national-level athlete – who lodged the complaint against Singh was transferred to Jhajjar, where she said that the necessary facilities for her sport were unavailable.

The reportage on both the Haryana incident and that relating to the Wrestling Federation speaks of the accolades those accused have won for the nation and their public stature.

This despite the fact that there have been attempts to silence the protests.

Players simply want self-respect as they prepare for big sporting events. Referring to the pressure on those seeking justice from the predatory behaviour of those in the WFI, champion wrestler Vinesh Phogat has stated, “We won’t bog down anymore and will fight for our rights.”

Top Indian wrestlers in their New Delhi protest against BJP lawmaker and Wrestling Federation of India president Brijbhushan Sharan Singh. Photo: Twitter/@Phogat_Vinesh

For sportswomen – supported by their male colleagues in the case involving the WFI – to come forward and highlight the vicious cycle of sexual harassment within the sports establishment requires tremendous courage. Such complaints threaten to disrupt the ties that have evolved between the sports bureaucracy, politicians and the corporate sector.

The complaints that have been registered need thorough investigation. That is necessary if others who may be silently suffering are to pick up the courage to speak up.

There is an urgent need to put procedures to handle such complaints in place, as per the law. These are required at all levels, be it talent search, training, selection processes, awards and the administrative sphere.

Democratisation of these bodies is urgently required to instil confidence in the players, as well as to garner fresh talent, as are transparency and accountability, specifically in handling complaints of sexual harassment, including the actions or inactions of those holding charge and responsibility for enquiry into complaints made. A person in authority who fails to act on a complaint of sexual harassment is equally guilty of violating the law. There is need to deal with incidents of sexual harassment by meting out exemplary punishment.

It is criminal to have ministers and senior people hold positions when, as per the law, they have been accused of crimes which include sections that are non-bailable.

Governments and those presiding over these bodies must be made to answer. 

Finally, there is a need for greater transparency in processes of decision making. This also includes selection, training, awards and talent search across the country. It is important that eminent sportspersons come forward to initiate such processes to restore the confidence of the people, especially women, who have contributed in no small measure to achievements in this sphere. 

The women’s movement in India has long argued that violence, including sexual violence – of which sexual harassment is a critical aspect – across a spectrum of socio-political institutions needs to be addressed if women are to attain equality as also equality of opportunity. Such incidents cannot be approached as a one-off, with delayed responses mired in calculations which smack of political considerations. 

While campaigns such as #MeToo go a long way in enabling individual women to come out and speak, the lack of response and abdication of responsibility at the top ensures that many go scot-free. As the Supreme Court of India averred in the Vishaka Guidelines, employees and women are entitled to a workspace free of discrimination on account of sexual harassment, which creates a hostile work environment.

Equal opportunity and a level playing field are the least that women in sports in India are entitled to while we expect them to win laurels for the country, even as they perform in extremely competitive conditions under extreme pressure, having fought patriarchy and prejudice all along the way. 

As for those who still choose to speak up for the rights and reputation of the accused, one is reminded of an incident in 1998 when Rupan Deol Bajaj, an officer of the Indian Administrative Service, spoke out against senior police officer K.P.S. Gill. At that time a senior editor had (in)famously opined that India as a nation ‘does not know how to honour its heroes.’ Bajaj took her fight to court, which ruled in her favour in 2005. 

One can only say that contemporary India does not know how to ensure the safety of, leave alone honour, its heroines.

Indu Agnihotri is former director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi.

This article was first published on The Wire.