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Table tennis, football, hockey — why courts are intervening in functioning of sports bodies

Three sports federations have been brought under a court-appointed committee of administrators (COA) over the last five months due to alleged lapses in their functioning.

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New Delhi: In the last five months, three sports federations — the Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI), the All-India Football Federation (AIFF), and Hockey India — have been brought under a court-appointed committee of administrators (COA), putting a question mark on their functioning.

The three orders that led to the setting up of the committees — one by the Supreme Court and two by the Delhi High Court — are a critique of the allegedly unprofessional style of working of these sports bodies.

The federations are also accused of non-adherence to the National Sports Code (NSC), which lays down bye-laws to conduct elections for national sports federations.

In February this year, a Delhi High Court bench of Justice Rekha Palli suspended the executive committee of the Table Tennis Federation of India and transferred its control to a COA headed by former Jammu & Kashmir High Court Chief Justice Gita Mittal. The order came on a petition filed by Olympian Manika Batra who alleged malpractices in TTFI.

On 18 May, the Supreme Court stripped All-India Football Federation President Praful Patel and his executive committee of administrative powers.

“This state of affairs is not in the interest of the proper governance of the federation,” a bench led by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud observed, while nominating former SC judge Justice A.R. Dave to head the COA with the specific mandate to draft the federation’s constitution and hold fresh elections to the executive committee.

A week later, on 25 May, a Delhi High Court bench led by Justice Najmi Waziri constituted a COA, once again under Justice Dave’s chairmanship, to prepare a constitution for Hockey India in accordance with the National Sports Code and also an electoral roll for elections to the executive committee.

This, the court said, was in the “interest of hockey, its development and the sentiments of the hockey-players, aspirants and enthusiasts”.

While committees of administrators have not in the past fixed all the “malaise” in various sports bodies, those who have spearheaded litigation in courts believe these federations are answerable to the public and must adhere to the NSC.

“These bodies cannot be run as someone’s personal fiefdom,” former Chief Justice of India (CJI) R.M. Lodha, who headed the SC-mandated committee that suggested reforms in the Board of Control for Cricket in India, said, while speaking to ThePrint.

Most national sports federations, including the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), have allegedly not amended their constitutions to adopt the bye-laws laid down in the NSC, resulting in litigation to overhaul their administration.

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Litigation over the years

The first move to bring more accountability in the functioning of national sports federations was in 2010, when advocate Rahul Mehra filed a public interest litigation against the then NDA government for staying its own regulation that fixed the tenure of a president and members of a sports body. The regulations permitted a president to serve for three terms, equivalent to 12 years, and a member for two consecutive terms.

On account of Mehra’s petition, the government on 1 May, 2010, lifted the stay and reintroduced the fixed tenure rule.

Additionally, the NDA government then also framed the National Sports Code 2011, which was an amalgamation of all orders and circulars issued by the Union Ministry of Sports since 1970.

The NSC was challenged by the Indian Olympic Association before the Delhi High Court, which in 2014 declared the code “as the law of the land”, mandating all sports federations to follow it. Any violation, it said, would invite derecognition of the sports body.

This judgement, the high court ordered, would remain in operation until the government came up with a sports legislation.

The verdict marked the beginning of judicial interventions in the running of sports bodies.

Following the pronouncement, Mehra moved an application in his 2010 PIL, complaining that the Archery Association of India (AAI) and the AIFF had not amended their constitution according to the NSC.

In August 2017, the Delhi High Court constituted a COA to look after the affairs of AAI till its constitution was amended and fresh elections were held to elect a new executive committee. Later, in 2019, the court further directed the Sports Ministry to form a five-member transitory committee to look into the affairs of the suspended AAI till fresh elections were held.

Advocate Mehra told ThePrint that the politician who headed the AAI then held the post for about 44 years before he was removed subsequent to the Delhi High Court’s 2017 judgement.

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Later, in October 2017, the HC also brought the AIFF under a committee of administrators. This was done after the court opined that the federation’s constitution was in breach of the NSC. However, the HC order was stayed by the Supreme Court soon after the AIFF challenged it there.

As a result, the federation’s executive committee, with Praful Patel as president, continued to operate AIFF until last month when the apex court vacated its stay.

The SC bench led by Justice Chandrachud was particularly piqued to learn that Patel had continued at the post despite expiry of his term in December 2020.

The AIFF’s plea that the appointment of a COA could result in a ban by the International Football Federation (FIFA) was brushed aside. Mehra alleged the AIFF had raised this issue in 2017 as well to get the Delhi HC order stayed. “If it (AIFF) has so much love for the game, it should have put its house in order and complied with the NSC,” he added.

Non-compliance with the NSC became a ground for the Delhi High Court to place Hockey India under COA’s supervision last month as well.

Former hockey player Aslam Sher Khan, who was part of the Indian team that won gold during the 1975 World Cup, had approached the HC in 2020 with a request to ensure the federation is run according to government rules and the NSC.

He questioned the continued presence of certain persons as office-bearers “under not so innovative nomenclatures”, such as Life President, Life Member and Chief Executive Officer, describing them as unwarranted, illegal and not in consonance with the NSC.

The HC prima facie agreed with Khan’s view and ended the post of Life President that was given to Narinder Batra, who also heads the IOA, at Hockey India. As for the appointment of CEO, the HC said the COA would ascertain if the post was in compliance with the sports code and then decide.

Khan’s lawyer Vanshdeep Dalmia said his client resorted to litigation because the federation was allegedly being run by an individual “like a private family-owned enterprise”.

“Merit has been disregarded in the selection process and utilisation of funds is an issue too,” he alleged.

On whether a COA is the solution, Dalmia added: “It is required at times as a temporary fixture to plug-in loopholes and ensure amendments to respective constitutions so that they sync with the law of the land, which is the sports code.”

‘They do not respect their autonomy’

Former CJI Lodha said he did not favour “extraneous interference” in the working of national sports federations. The judiciary had to step in, he alleged, because of failures on the part of these autonomous bodies. “Unfortunately, they do not respect their autonomy,” he said.

Justice Lodha also claimed that favouristim was an issue in some sporting bodies. “The office-bearers join these organisations because of their political affiliations and backing. They want to help their own people, without thinking whether they are good players or not,” he said.

According to him, the old members do not accept fresh ideas that could help bring in better governance and administration of the federations.

This February, the Delhi HC came down heavily against the TTFI for safeguarding the interests of its office-bearers instead of promoting players. Olympian Manika Batra’s petition, on which the HC order was given, had alleged that the national coach, Soumyadeep Roy, had “pressured” her to “throw away” an Olympic qualifier match in favour of one of his personal trainees.

Advocate Mehra, who is still pursuing his 2010 PIL, has pointed out alleged violations in the functioning of the IOA as well. The HC has already reserved its order on this.

In 2020, Mehra filed another petition in the Delhi HC seeking to know the status of compliance by all NSFs of the court’s 2014 directive regarding applicability of the NSC. The HC recently sought a report from the Union Ministry of Sports on this and is scheduled to hear the matter on 2 June.

“Courts are extremely reluctant to interfere. In the case of IOA, the court had given an opportunity to it to amend its constitution according to the NSC. A special observer was appointed to attend its special general meeting. However, the members ended up fighting during this meeting, leaving the court with no option but to hear the case on merits,” Mehra said.

(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)

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