In the backdrop of the ongoing protests by women wrestlers against alleged sexual harassment by Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president Brij Bhushan Singh and the media focus it has brought on the conditions under which female sportpersons train and work in India, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has taken cognisance of non-compliance of sports federations, including the WFI, with the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act, 2013. The NHRC has given 16 non-complying sports federations a month to submit a detailed reports on the status of constitution of sexual harassment panels and steps taken to address reported violations.
THE National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has issued notices to 16 of the 30 national sports federations in India for failing to meet the compliance requirements regarding the constitution of ‘internal complaints committees’ (ICCs) under the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act (PoSH), 2013.
Suo motu cognisance by NHRC
The NHRC took suo motu cognisance of the matter after violation of the law was highlighted in an article by the Indian Express on May 4. The article noted that of the 30 federations in India, five do not have an ICC, the rest have constituted ICCs, but four of them do not have the stipulated number of members, six lack any external member, as is required, and one has two panels, but does not have an independent member.
The matter came to light after the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president and member of Parliament of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Brij Bhushan Singh was accused of sexual harassment by several women wrestlers. On Friday, the Delhi Police had informed a special court that a special investigation team (SIT) had been constituted to probe the allegations of sexual harassment levelled by women wrestlers against him.
Of the 30 sports federations in India, five do not have an ICC, the rest have constituted ICCs, but four do not have the stipulated number of members, six lack any external member, as is required, and one has two panels, but does not have an independent member.
“The commission has carefully examined the contents of the news report which are shocking and alarming,” the NHRC has stated in the notice. In its view, the matter is one of concern “as the issue relates to the right to equality and dignity of sportspersons.”
The oversight committee’s response
In January, an oversight committee formed by the Indian Olympic Association, which is headed by boxer and former member of Rajya Sabha M.C. Mary Kom, had also flagged the absence of duly-constituted ICCs. The committee had noted the overall “lack of adequate mechanism for awareness-building among sportspersons for grievance redressal.” The report drafted by the Mary Kom oversight committee is yet to be made public.
Soon after the constitution of the oversight committee, the Ministry of Sports had sent a letter to all national sporting federations reminding them of the need to comply with the PoSH Act. While claiming that “most bodies have the necessary structures in place”, the letter had called on sports federations to “reexamine their structures and policies” and make necessary changes to comply with the law. The Indian Express newsreport disclosing the existence of this letter has also been taken note of by the NHRC.
Errors of fact by NHRC
The NHRC makes two errors of fact while stating that “an FIR has been registered on the directions given by the Apex Court”. In actuality, two separate first information reports (FIR) have been registered against Singh. One, under Sections 354 (assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage modesty), 354A (sexual harassment), 354D (stalking) and Section 34 (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. Since one of the seven complainants is a minor, the matter falls under the scope of Section 10 (aggravated sexual assault) of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO), 2012.
The second error relates to the claim that the criminal complaints were registered on the directions of the Supreme Court, a statement also erroneously forwarded by BJP member of Parliament Singh himself during media interactions.
Also read: Supreme Court closes wrestlers’ petition, says ‘purpose fulfilled’ with FIR registration against WFI chief
The said FIRs were registered after the Delhi Police, through Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta, informed the Supreme Court on April 28 that “we have decided to register an FIR. It will be registered today”.
“The commission has carefully examined the contents of the news report which are shocking and alarming,” the NHRC stated in the notice.
This was submitted merely two days after the Delhi Police told the court that a preliminary enquiry might be needed first. Mehta did not elaborate on the reasons for the change of stance of the Delhi Police which followed the widely reported protest by wrestlers and their allies.
The report relied upon by the NHRC has also erroneously omitted the fact that the Wrestling Federation of India has a sexual harassment committee, though its mandate appears to be beyond merely investigating complaints of sexual harassment at workplace, and it does not meet the mandatory requirements for the constitution of an ICC.
WFI’s sexual harassment committee
The stated mandate of WFI’s sexual harassment committee is “to ensure ethical practices and fair play in sports including elimination of doping practices, match fixing, fraud of age and sexual harassment of women in sports”, as per its website.
Considering the above, “the WFI has established an ethics commission”, the website states. It is not clear whether this panel was formed to deal with complaints of sexual harassment or ethical malpractices.
Nevertheless, the said panel consists of four office bearers of the WFI and only one external member: Olympic bronze medallist freestyle wrestler Sakshi Malik.
The law on ICCs
As per Section 4(2) of the PoSH Act, an ICC shall constitute of the following members:
Presiding officer: A woman employed at a senior level at the workplace from amongst employees.
Internal members: Not less than two; from employees preferably committed to the cause of women or who have experience in social work or have legal knowledge.
Independent member: One; from amongst non-government organisations (NGO) or associations committed to the cause of women or a person familiar with issues relating to sexual harassment.
Supreme Court issues guidelines for enforcement of PoSH Act
In a judgement delivered on Friday, a division Bench of the Supreme Court issued a set of guidelines to ensure the urgent and efficient enforcement of the PoSH Act in the interest of working women across the country.
Also read: A decade after its enactment, SC issues directions to ensure better implementation of the PoSH Act
The judgement in Aureliano Fernandes versus State of Goa and Others (2023) highlights that the successful implementation of the Act depends on the constitution of ICCs at the workplace by every employer and the constitution of local committees and the internal committees by the appropriate government.
The constitution of such committees ensures that there are proper institutions in place to conduct inquiries into complaints of sexual harassment at the workplace, the judgment notes
The constitution of ICCs ensures that there are proper institutions in place to conduct inquiries into complaints of sexual harassment at the workplace, the judgment notes.
The court issued the following directions:
In a time-bound manner, the Union of India, all state governments and Union territories are directed to verify whether all the concerned ministries, departments, government organisations, authorities, public sector undertakings, institutions, bodies, etc., have constituted committees in accordance with the PoSH Act.
It is directed to ensure that updated and necessary information regarding the constitution and composition of the committees, details of the email IDs and contact numbers of the designated person(s), the procedure prescribed for submitting an online complaint, relevant rules, regulations and internal policies are made readily available on the website of the concerned authority.
All statutory bodies of professionals at the “apex level” and the state level, including the bodies that regulate doctors, lawyers, architects, chartered accountants and other professionals, as well as universities, colleges, training centres and educational institutions, and government and private hospitals and nursing homes, are directed to conduct a similar exercise.
The authorities, management and employers are directed to take immediate steps in familiarising the members of the committee with the manner of conduct of an inquiry.
The authorities, management and employers are directed to conduct orientation programmes, workshops, seminars and awareness programmes to upskill members of the committees and to educate women about the provisions of the law.
The National Legal Services Authority and state legal services authorities are directed to develop modules to conduct workshops and organise awareness programmes to sensitise authorities, managements, employers, employees and adolescent groups with the provisions of the PoSH Act.
The National Judicial Academy and state judicial academies are directed to include in their annual calendars, orientation programmes, seminars and workshops for capacity building of members of the committees established in the high courts and district courts and for drafting standard operating procedures to conduct an inquiry.
The secretaries of all the ministries of the Union government and the chief secretaries of every state and Union territory are directed to ensure the implementation of these directions.
Also read: POSH Act: Cases suggest need for safeguards even while keeping Evidence Act inapplicable
In the judgement, Justices Hima Kohli and A.S. Bopanna made a specific reference to the report the NHRC has relied upon to issue notices to the 16 sports federations. The NHRC has given the said federations four weeks time to submit a detailed report on the present status of the ICC in their organisations and the steps taken or proposed to be taken to address the issue.
Table: Status of ICCs at sports federations as per PoSH Act
|1. Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India (run by an administrator)||ICC has only two members|
|2. Archery Association of India||ICC has no external member|
|3. Badminton Association of India||ICC has no external member (One member is considered both external and internal member)|
|4. Basketball Federation of India –||ICC has no external member|
|5. Billiards & Snooker Federation of India||ICC has only three members|
|6. Indian Triathlon Federation||ICC has no external member|
|7. Gymanastics Federation of India||No ICC. Has an ‘investigation committee’ with two women in a six member panel, no external member|
|8. Handball Federation of India||No ICC|
|9. Judo Federation of India||ICC has only three members|
|10. Indian Kayaking and Canoeing Association||ICC has no external member|
|11. Squash Rackets Federation of India||ICC has only three members|
|12. Table Tennis Federation of India||No ICC|
|13. Volleyball Federation of India||No ICC|
|14. Weightlifting Federation of India||ICC has three members, ‘prevention of sexual harassment committee’ has four members, but neither has an external independent member|
|15. Wrestling Federation of India||No ICC. Has a sexual harassment/ ethics committee|
|16. Yachting Association of India||ICC has no external member|
Click here to read the National Human Rights Commission’s notice (Diary No. 64208/CR/2023)