Panchkula: Her career is in shambles. Her colleagues give her the silent treatment. Most of her friends have ghosted her. And the unrelenting whispers and side-eyes follow her wherever she goes. Six months after she publicly accused Haryana’s sports minister Sandeep Singh of sexually harassing her, the junior coach and athlete has come to realise that it was not her single bravest act. Living with the fallout of her decision is.
“Don’t take panga with the minister,” she had allegedly been warned by the police before she held the press conference on 30 December 2022. It was not an easy decision, but knocking on the doors of politicians and sports officials had achieved nothing. The police may have acted with alacrity after media outlets across India picked up her story, but her life has been on hold since then as she faces censure from within the sporting fraternity itself for speaking up.
The scrutiny that she is being subjected to and her experience so far stand testimony to why many women continue to struggle in silence for years. It takes courage to speak up, but it demands fortitude and forbearance to deal with what comes after. For women seeking justice against a more powerful abuser, is an uphill battle, one that is fought on all fronts—professional and personal—day after day, sometimes for years.
“I hardly sleep at night nowadays. I am unable to eat, unable to train… is this what a country does to a woman who tells her story and chooses to speak up?” said the junior coach and athlete.
A year ago, she was giving interviews to TV channels about her plans for the Asian Games, speaking confidently about her prospects. Now, she can no longer train at Tau Devi Lal stadium in Panchkula. The prosecution in her case hasn’t begun as police are yet to file a chargesheet five months after the FIR was registered. And her already acrimonious relationship with her landlords is playing out in the media and courts. Her parents watch helplessly from their hometown in Jhajjar, over 200km away.
“Women in sports in India come from very humble backgrounds, and break a lot of shackles to make a career for themselves. It is very liberating for them. It’s not easy for them to speak up [when something goes wrong],” senior advocate and sports activist Rahul Mehra had told ThePrint earlier.
The ongoing protests by wrestlers—Bajrang Punia, Sakshi Malik, and Vinesh Phogat— against the president of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar shows how rampant abuse is in sports.
“Bajrang, Sakshi and I are accomplished players, Olympic-level players, and even then we’ve had to struggle so much for anyone to hear our story. Imagine how difficult it must be for a young woman in sports to speak up. Their careers can get destroyed,” said Vinesh Phogat in an interview with ThePrint when she spoke about how the protests in Delhi were a cause for fear for many young female wrestlers in Haryana.
Also Read: ‘Bigger than Olympics’. Wrestlers brave heat, mosquitoes, abuses to mount Nirbhaya-like protest
No safe havens
At the end of every day, the junior coach retreats to her room in an independent house in a quiet residential neighbourhood in Panchkula. She rents the room for Rs 9,000 a month as a paying guest, but it is no longer a safe haven.
On 31 December, a day after the press conference, the police filed an FIR against sports minister Sandeep Singh and booked him 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.
In the wake of public uproar and concerns over her safety, she was provided with police protection. But she claims that instead of escorting her and ensuring her safety, the personnel assigned regularly breach her privacy and mentally harass her.
“The police personnel stationed here deliberately play loud music at night, and don’t turn down the volume even when I request them to. My younger sister is staying with me, and she has to study at night but the personnel wouldn’t budge,” she alleged.
In February she had written to the DGP of Haryana Police about their behaviour detailing how they would pick fights with domestic workers and her landlady.
A month later, on 25 January around 9:30 pm, some unidentified personnel had allegedly tried to enter the house without permission.
“…On other several occasions SHO Women Police Station Panchkula along with two-three other male persons who were in police uniform came to my house without any permission, and stood there for 15-20 minutes even though I asked them to not come,” she wrote in her letter to the DGP, a copy of which is with ThePrint. “It is quite evident to me that such police officials are trying to mentally harass me….”
The athlete claimed she received no response from the police. ThePrint has reached out to the DGP and the article will be updated when they respond.
To make matters worse for her, the junior coach can no longer devote the necessary hours to the sport that she loves. Lack of security and persistent threats have also meant that she’s unable to train at the Tau Devi Lal stadium.
“I was told in an informal fashion by the District Sports Officer to not train at the stadium since I can be a threat to other people playing there. This has severely jeopardised my career,” she alleged.
ThePrint reached out to DSO Panchkula, the article will be updated when they respond.
The coach has enrolled in a private gym for the time being, but for a track athlete that’s not enough.
“I am nearing 30, I need to be performing at my peak. But it isn’t happening,” she said.
Security personnel provided by the government do not accompany her to her place of work or anywhere else but remain posted at her residence. This, she claimed, has made her more vulnerable to attacks.
On the night of 26 April, she was almost run off the road by a man driving a black SUV. She claimed she had stopped to refuel her two-wheeler when the SUV came out of nowhere towards her. She survived the incident unscathed and lodged a complaint with the Sector 5 Police station at Panchkula. In her statement to the police, she described the driver as a man with long hair. He was driving the SUV rashly with the intention of hitting her two-wheeler and causing her harm. An FIR has been registered, but so far, no arrests have been made.
Recounting the incident, the junior coach said even driving her vehicle has become a cause for anxiety for her.
“I have started driving slowly, not going beyond the speed of 30 km per hour, on one side of the road. I’m always looking for any perceivable threat.”
Also Read: ‘No panga with minister’—Haryana woman sprinter’s lone battle against sexual harassment
Delay in police procedure
Every day, the junior coach has the same questions for her lawyers and the police: Is there a chargesheet? Her messages receive the ‘blue tick’, but there is no response from the cops. And that’s because there is no chargesheet.
Deputy Superintendent of Police, Palak Goel of the DANIPS (Delhi, Andaman and Nicobar, Lakshadweep, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Daman and Diu Police Services) who is also the investigating officer in the case, refused to comment on the delay in filing the chargesheet.
“This is a sensitive issue, and we’re investigating. I have no further answers to give you,” she said. The junior coach calls her ‘didi’ (sister), and said that Goel listens to her grievances patiently.
But there are some cops who still look at her with a degree of suspicion. “One officer told me that my harassment has only just ‘begun’ and that I should brace myself for more severe scrutiny,” she told ThePrint.
Deepanshu Bansal, the junior coach’s lawyer said that she had given all statements and proofs to the SIT in the first week of January in itself, so the delay in filing the chargesheet is suspect.
“The mapping of the crime scene, witness evidence and statements were all done in January itself. If any common man is booked under such sections, they usually get a chargesheet within three months. This kind of delay, especially when a minister is involved in the case, is not justified,” he told ThePrint.
Meanwhile, a Special Investigation Team of Chandigarh Police had moved an application for a polygraph test for the minister in Panchkula District Court on 10 March. After taking further dates from the court four times, Singh posted a detailed response on 5 May, refusing to undergo the polygraph. He accused the SIT of prolonging the “agony”, stretching the matter, and filing applications for conducting various tests that cannot be admitted in evidence.
Neeraj Kumar, former commissioner of Delhi Police said the delay in filing a chargesheet or a police request for a Polygraph test are not unusual. “During my stint as commissioner, I had filed a chargesheet 13 years after the case was registered,” Kumar pointed out.
He added that one can’t ask the Investigating Officer about the delay. “Only supervising officers or courts can ask that question,” Kumar contended.
Singh had been questioned intensely by the police on 8 and 11 February 2022. But there are some discrepancies in the testimony, one of which is the duration of the time the coach spent at his residence where the alleged assault took place, the police wrote in its application to the court. Uber records had been provided by the complainant. Refusing to undergo the polygraph test, Singh’s defence team denied the assault and said that he shared a strictly formal relationship with the coach.
For a while, her story made the front page in local newspapers, but with each passing week and little progress in the investigation, the junior coach has been relegated to the inside pages. It simmers on the back burner of public memory.
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Troubles at home
The events over the past few months have exacerbated an already acrimonious relationship that the junior coach has with the PG owners. The situation has devolved into a slanging match with both parties filing cases and counter-cases against each other.
The couple who owns the house, Pooja and Arun Jogi, admitted that media attention and the constant presence of the police have become problematic. Reporters land up outside the gates even late at night. They are unable to rent out their upper floor unit to anyone else and have stalled their plans to start further construction to expand their home.
The couple claim that they had asked her to vacate the premises four days before she went public with her complaint against the sports minister. But the coach alleges that a day after the press conference, the Jogis ransacked her room, threw her belongings out of the balcony and asked her to vacate the premises immediately.
“They came to my kitchen and completely destroyed it, threw my stuff here and there and asked me to leave immediately,” she told ThePrint.
The Jogis deny these allegations and said they simply asked her to vacate because the coach was constantly late on rent dues, and was confrontational with them. “She’s in a fully furnished room. Even the crockery in the kitchen is ours, why would we throw it?” said Pooja.
The coach moved the district court to seek an ad-interim injunction to secure her stay at the house. On 24 January, the Panchkula district court ruled in her favour and restrained the Jogis from dispossessing her till the next hearing, which is on 25 May.
“We haven’t received rent since December. She has not even paid the electricity bill. What else would you call a kabza (forceful possession)?” said Pooja.
The coach, however, said that she had paid all rental dues till February, “I am not paying rent now, I will wait for the court’s directive. If I am asked to pay the rent, I will.”
Now, tensions have come to a head. Both parties say the other has been physically violent. Allegations and counter-allegations are now being made in the media, in police complaints and in petitions before the court.
On 4 May, the landlords also conducted a press conference where they revealed her identity to the public. At the press conference, the Jogis alleged that unidentified personnel had brandished a weapon and threatened their son in the market, and claimed that the goons had been sent by the complainant.
Meanwhile, the junior coach has filed a complaint against the landlords at Panchkula sector 5 police station for revealing her identity but an FIR has yet to be registered. “Only people in the sporting world knew that I was the one to complain about Singh. Now everyone, even in my hometown, knows my identity,” she said.
Arun Jogi, in his defence, said that he and his wife felt threatened for their safety which is why they went public. “Additionally, the junior coach has given media interviews without a face mask on and made allegations publicly. We are not the first ones to ‘out’ a secret,” he told ThePrint.
The only time the junior coach lets down her guard is when she is with her lawyers in their chambers. They have not taken any legal fees from her yet. They are not afraid of associating themselves with the woman who took on the sports minister.
The junior coach refuses to back down and wants to see it through to the end.
“The more they try to suppress me, the stronger I emerge,” she said.
(Edited by Theres Sudeep)