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HomeFeatures‘No panga with minister’—Haryana woman sprinter's lone battle against sexual harassment

‘No panga with minister’—Haryana woman sprinter’s lone battle against sexual harassment

Her allegations against Haryana minister Sandeep Singh have stirred a political storm, with Congress leaders demanding his resignation in the state assembly.

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She’s a sprinter. But she needed the endurance of a long-distance runner to get the Department of Sports and Youth Affairs to act on her complaints of sexual harassment against Haryana sports minister Sandeep Singh. She yelled, screeched, and banged on the doors of officials, bureaucrats and ministers, but nobody answered.

The sprinter, who is also a state-appointed coach, alleges she was harassed by Singh,  former captain of the Indian hockey team, at his residence in Chandigarh. She later told the police that the minister had invited her to his home. The two had been in touch on social media apps like Snapchat and Instagram before they met in person on the evening of 2 March 2022.

“In the beginning, we were gossiping about other sportspersons and ministers. He then asked me to move to a cabin inside his room. There, he came and sat next to me on a sofa and started caressing my thighs, professing his love to me,” the complainant claimed in an interview with ThePrint. This account is similar to what she told the police months later, when nobody in the state government allegedly responded to her many emails and calls.

All sports bodies are bound by the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act 2013, also known as PoSH, which mandates internal complaints committees to deal with cases of sexual misconduct. Under this Act, any sports institute—including stadiums, sports complexes, competitions and venues—constitutes a workplace. The young coach did not know about PoSH-mandated internal committees but says she contacted the directorate of Haryana’s sports department, the district sports officer, and even the Indian Olympic Association. But the mechanism to initiate an inquiry and take it to the internal PoSH committee did not kick in.

“He asked me to marry him and move to Dubai. When I rejected his advances, he grabbed me by my hair and banged my head against the wall. He tore the crop top I was wearing and then complimented my bra, saying purple is his favourite colour,” says the athlete. “He said he just wants to do ‘it’ one time, and could help me financially.” However, this information—other than allegations that he tore her clothes—finds no mention in the police FIR. While ThePrint reached out via calls and messages, Singh is yet to respond to these allegations.

A tall, lean woman, the coach has narrated the events of 2 March 2022 multiple times—to officials, lawyers and magistrates. At a recent meeting in her lawyer’s chamber at Panchkula district court, she goes through the events of that evening again. She tears up but makes a visible effort to overcome the urge to sob.

“I have an injury in my hamstring. I thought Singh would empathise with my struggle. After all, there is an entire biopic on his struggles with injury,” she says, referring to the 2018 film Soorma, where Punjabi actor and singer Diljeet Dosanjh plays Singh.

For small-town athletes and coaches, the path to redressal can be murky. It takes national star athletes like Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia to come to Delhi and raise questions on alleged rampant sexual harassment in sports before the government machinery springs into action.

“Most women in sports come from rural areas and poor backgrounds. They won’t find support at home if they do speak up. And even if they want to, they don’t have redressal mechanisms available because the federations aren’t complying with sports codes,” alleged Rahul Mehra, advocate and sports activist.

The coach comes from the small town of Jhajjar in Haryana, where her family still lives.  Her father is a retired school principal who supported her decision to become an athlete, and her mother is a homemaker.

Also read: Lights, camera, sexual harassment—PoSH committees in Mumbai showbiz failing MeToo

‘No panga with minister’ 

When no one in the government took action, the coach tried to contact the police. However, she claims she was discouraged from filing a complaint. “I approached the highest authorities in the police and told them what happened to me. In response, their office bearers told me: ‘He’s a minister, madam; let him go. Don’t take panga with him. Let it go,” she told ThePrint.

Frustrated, she decided to go public on 30 December 2022. She organised a press conference in Chandigarh where she accused Sandeep Singh of harassment and filed a police complaint. It was a brave move, one that put her in the centre of a political storm and upended her life.

The Congress, for one, is demanding the minister’s resignation—Party MLAs even created disorder in the Haryana assembly on 20 February, flashing beti-bachao, beti-padhao placards. The minister himself was not in attendance at the time.

After her very public accusation, the police acted immediately. An FIR was registered in Chandigarh’s East Sector-26 police station. Singh was booked under Sections 354, 354 A and 354 B (outraging modesty by a person in power, attempt to disrobe), 342 (wrongful confinement), and 506 (criminal intimidation) of the Indian Penal Code.

According to her lawyer, IPC Section 509 (word, gesture or act to insult the modesty of a woman) was added after her statement in front of the magistrate, under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). Under this CrPC provision, metropolitan or judicial magistrates can record any confession or statement made to them in the course of an investigation, regardless of whether the matter falls under their jurisdiction. Chandigarh police have formed a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe the case.

In her account, the woman says the minister continued to hound her even after the 2 March 2022 incident, describing it as “stalking”.

“He started manically calling and texting me, saying things like it’s okay. It was only our first meeting. ‘Slowly, you’ll fall in love with me,’ he said,” the coach claims. ThePrint has not seen these messages because the complainant’s phone is with the SIT probing her allegations.

Singh’s team, too, allegedly kept pressuring her to meet him at his office. Finally, on 1 July 2022, she says relented.

“I was pressured to meet him again because his office said the minister needed to verify my documents for my job as a junior coach at Tau Devi Lal stadium in Panchkula,” she says.

At the second meeting, she claims, the minister “pounced at her after she emerged from the toilet.”

The FIR, however, mentions only one incident on 1 July. “The police complaint was made in a hurry, so she didn’t mention two separate incidents. However, in her 161 [examination of witnesses by police] and 164 statements, as well as previous statements to the media, the complainant has detailed both the incidents,” says her lawyer, Deepanshu.

Singh, she claimed, threatened her and warned that her family would “meet the same fate as the Unnao victim” if she complained against him. Singh has been booked for criminal intimidation, though the FIR makes no specific reference to the Unnao rape victim.

ThePrint reached out to Singh via WhatsApp messages and calls to seek a response to the allegations against him, but he did not revert.

Also read: I am a sexual abuse survivor. No, I am not a woman

Knocking on iron doors

Months before the press conference, the coach mailed the sports directorate on two separate occasions. She also met the District Sports Officer Sudha Bhasin and showed her the minister’s messages. “Bhasin advised me to simply ignore everything,” she says. Bhasin has yet to reply to ThePrint’s calls or acknowledge WhatsApp messages. This story will be updated once a response is received.

Meanwhile, Pankaj Nain, director of Sports and Youth Affairs, Haryana, didn’t confirm if his office received any mails from the coach.

“The police is investigating the case. I have nothing to add or subtract,” he told ThePrint over a phone call.

The woman claims to have called the president of the Indian Olympic Association, P.T. Usha, and duly informed her of the harassment she was facing. But she hit a dead-end there too.

ThePrint contacted P.T. Usha via calls and messages but did not receive any response at the time of publishing.

The junior coach also claimed she had narrated the entire incident to an officer in Deputy Chief Minister Dushyant Chautala’s office.

“I have more than 50 people working for me. I don’t know if any such interaction happened. I didn’t know anything about the allegations until she went public with them,” Chautala told ThePrint. He recalled the coach approaching him over problems she faced at Tau Devi Lal stadium, which he says were resolved.

The woman’s fight to be heard illustrates the many hurdles female sportspersons face when someone in power sexually harasses them.

Her decision to fight the case and the minister has affected her career—which she devoted her entire life to.

“Last year, on many occasions, I wasn’t allowed to train at the stadium freely. I was transferred to Jhajjar, where there’s no synthetic track or grass track to practise on. Every direction I ran in, I only found him, standing there, blocking my way,” she says.

Nobody in the directorate of Sports and Youth Affairs in Haryana explained why her allegations weren’t heard by an Internal Complaints Committee. Information on the ‘harassment committee’, available on their website, dates back to 2018 and has not been updated. Members of Internal committees need to change every three years, according to the 2013 PoSH Act.

Also read: There’s only one way to tackle India’s sexual violence epidemic – sex education

Struggling to raise their voice

Across India’s towns and cities, women who have won medals in the international arena are celebrated, feted and looked up to. But when it comes to sexual harassment, the cost of speaking up is too high. Many choose silence because they fear their families will prevent them from training.

“We fight a long battle at our homes to reach the akhadas [wrestling rings]. If our parents come to know of the environment in sports, they [will] call us back immediately. So women hardly speak up against sexual harassment,” a Commonwealth-medal winning wrestler says. She spoke to ThePrint when wrestlers were protesting against sexual harassment in the sport and Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh in January at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar.

The wrestler paints a bleak picture of what happens at national camps in Lucknow.

“Coaches book rooms next to our lodgings. We’re called to their rooms late at night. Anyone who refuses comes on their ‘hit-list’. They drink all night and gamble in these rooms,” she alleges. This ‘hit list’ comprises female athletes coaches despise because of their refusal to comply, and plan to attack in vicious ways later.

Jagmati Sangwan, former volleyball player and vice-president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, who was also affiliated with the Communist Party of India in the past, says women pay the price for the lack of safety mechanisms in sports.

“None of the federations have properly constituted committees, and even if they do, women have no clue about their existence. No information is given to sportspersons to raise complaints,” she says. “Even if committees are constituted for investigating allegations of sexual harassment, the maximum that happens to the accused is a transfer,” she adds.

Sangwan notes that sportswomen are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment since they come in close contact with male coaches, physiotherapists and others due to the nature of their work.

Another athlete, on the condition of anonymity, says that a coach at a sports camp in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram walked into her room one night, laid down next to her, and held her tightly without her consent. Aghast, she yelled and called for help.

The next day, the coach was suspended for a week, but no written complaint was taken from the athlete despite her insistence.

“In athletics, performance is differentiated by a matter of seconds, which gives coaches a lot of heft when it comes to sending players to international competitions. Coaches openly ask for sexual favours and threaten to not recommend our names for international competitions if we don’t comply,” she alleges.

The Indian sports fraternity has been rocked by sexual harassment cases many times in the past. Four athletes training at a Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre in Alappuzha, Kerala, attempted suicide in 2015 by eating a poisonous fruit over alleged sexual harassment and ragging. A 15-year-old among them, who was training at SAI’s Water Sports Centre, died in the process. SAI gave a clean chit to the hostel warden and other senior officials at the centre. The deceased’s mother was offered a job, but she declined it, seeking justice for her daughter.

In response to a Right to Information (RTI) query filed by The Indian Express in 2020, SAI revealed it had registered 45 cases of sexual harassment in the last 10 years. As many as 29 of 45 allegations were against coaches.

In the last nine months, Indian sports have recorded five cases of sexual harassment. One of them is that of gymnast Aruna Budda Reddy, who alleged that her coach Rohit Jaiswal videographed her without her consent during a fitness test. The Gymnastics Federation of India (GFI) gave Jaiswal a clean chit in the case. A three-member panel by SAI is currently probing the matter.

Also read: How to save your teenage child from sextortion on Instagram

Non-compliance with sports code, PoSH 

In June 2022, the Delhi High Court stopped the Union Government from extending grants, funds and patronage to the National Sports Federations (NSFs) that did not comply with the National Sports Development Code of India (NSCI). The NSCI is an amalgamation of various government orders issued to NSFs since 1975.

Annexure 16 of NSCI on sexual harassment committees, dated 12 August 2010, mandates all federations to have a sexual harassment committee headed by a woman, where no less than half the members should be women.

ThePrint reviewed the sexual harassment committees of 11 Olympic sports and found most don’t have 5-member committees or detail particulars of external members.

The WFI faces an existential crisis after senior wrestlers staged protests in Delhi over allegations of rampant sexual abuse. To top it all, its four-member PoSH committee lacks gender diversity: Comprising mostly men and chaired by a man.

The same goes for the Indian Kabaddi Federation’s sexual harassment Committee, whose chairperson is also a man, Dr Vinay Soren.

Advocate Rahul Mehra, a sports activist who has filed various PILs against NSFs says the formation of such committees is a good sign, but reforms took place only after 2021—11 years after the NSCI mandated the formation of sexual harassment committees.

“We have never been briefed about a sexual harassment committee or anything,” says ace archer Deepa Kumari. But she also adds that she has never faced or seen any instance of sexual harassment in her sport.

A squash coach who trains national players says PoSH briefings duly occur before tours.

“Players are informed of the practices that are considered right and wrong. They’re also informed of the redressal systems at their disposal if anything untoward happens,” she says, stressing that the problem of sexual harassment in sports is “exaggerated”.

“Everyone keeps saying that sports are the den of dirty men. They aren’t. There are problems, yes, but things are not as bad as they’re projected to be. Such a narrative also discourages families from letting their girls explore a career in sports,” she says.

Also read: Can’t silence cases. As more women join, Indian military must address sexual assault problem

Fighting a mammoth battle

The coach taking on Sports Minister Sandeep Singh counts herself fortunate because her family is standing by her. “Without their support, I wouldn’t have been able to stand my ground,” she says. She has three sisters and a brother, but her father says he has “three babies” and one boy.

“I built my character in my last job when I was principal of a girls’ school,” her father says. The experience exposed him to the struggles that girls and women face.

“I have always taught my students to be bold, stand against wrongdoing, and never suffer injustice quietly. Conditions are tough for my daughter right now, but one must face life’s curveballs. Only then can you emerge victorious,” he adds.

It’s these life lessons that are helping the distraught coach go through what could well be one of the toughest fights of her life. She does not have a single friend or colleague to talk to in office in Panchkula. The workplace is hostile, she says.

“People look at me a certain way. They often pass my room making remarks, calling me all kinds of loose names, saying that I don’t care about my career. Stuff like that,” she says. It hurts her deeply, she adds.

“But the world should know, ki minister ne galat ladki se panga le liya (the minister has crossed the wrong woman),” she says, smiling grimly while brushing away the tears that well up in her eyes.

This article is part of a series called PoSH Watch.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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