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Playing kabaddi with the law: Examining the Delhi HC’s decision in K.P. Rao versus Union of India

The Delhi High Court’s decision shows that even though the court gave directions back in 2019 on how the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India is to be run, attempts were still made to subvert the directions while also bypassing the National Sports Code of India.

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ON February 10, the Delhi High Court disposed of a batch of petitions in K.P. Rao versus Union of India & Ors. that had been filed concerning the election procedure at the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India (AKFI). Inter alia, an election notification dated August 7, 2019 had been challenged by the petitioners, alleging that it was in contravention of an earlier decision of the Delhi High Court in Mahipal Singh & Ors. versus Union of India & Ors. (2018) wherein the high court had appointed an administrator to run the AKFI and also recommended certain amendments be made to the constitution of the AKFI.

What is the background of the case?

This dispute is set in the backdrop of litigation surrounding the National Sports Code of India, and more pertinently, whether the age and tenure limits (basically, a set of limits in place to prevent any possible abuse of power in relation to the term and age limit in respect of a position) prescribed therein should be applied to all members/employees of a national sports federation (NSF).

The high court in Rahul Mehra versus Union of India & Ors. (2022) had inter alia observed:

Compliance with the Sports Code is non-negotiable. If a sports federation does not comply with the law of the land, it will receive no recognition from the government. All benefits and facilities to it will stop promptly.

The Union of India therein was directed not to grant recognition to the Indian Olympic Association or to any NSF that refuses to comply with the code.

This dispute is set in the backdrop of litigation surrounding the National Sports Code of India, and more pertinently, whether the age and tenure limits prescribed therein should be applied to all members/employees of a national sports federation.

Last year, the Supreme Court in All India Football Federation versus Rahul Mehra & Ors. (covered by this author here) had recognised the age and tenure limit, while also directing that elections of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) should be held in conformity with the Sports Code.

Also read: AIFF ban: Lack of coherent policy marks Indian sports governance

Lastly, in Mahipal Singh, the petitioners therein had approached the Delhi High Court alleging hegemonic control exercised over the AKFI by sports administrator Janardhan Singh Gehlot and his wife Mridula Gehlot. In Mahipal Singh, a challenge was made to the amendment of the constitution of the AKFI which had made J.S. Gehlot president for life.

As stated earlier herein, the Delhi High Court allowed the petitions and appointed an administrator to stand in place of Gehlot, and also gave certain directions for how the elections of AKFI should be conducted. After Mahipal Singh, amendments were carried out to the AKFI constitution, which were now being challenged in the present matter as being contrary to the directions given in Mahipal Singh.

What were the issues before the court?

It was argued that certain amendments were made, giving opportunity to the state bodies to defy directions of the AKFI and violate the Sports Code.

The issues framed by the high court have been summarised as follows:

–          Whether the age and tenure restriction on members imposed by the Code applies only to AKFI, or does it also apply to its constituents too, that is, the state- and district-level associations?

–          What would be the effect of failure to comply with this age and tenure restriction?

–          Whether those officials contravening this restriction can constitute the electoral college for elections of the governing body of the AKFI?

–          Whether the amendments carried out to the AKFI constitution were lawful?

Also read: Analysis of the Delhi High Court’s decision in Manika Batra vs. The Table Tennis Federation of India through the President & Ors.

What did the court hold?

The high court traced the object of the code, adding that there is a need to promote professional management and managerial accountability in sports.

It highlighted a glaring misuse of position in the case of AKFI where J.S. Gehlot, elected in 1984, continued as President till 2013 without a single election — only to then be succeeded by his wife — a practising gynaecologist. She also served two terms as president till her election was finally declared illegal in Mahipal Singh.

The high court held that the age and tenure restriction prescribed by the code applies not only to the AKFI, but also to its constituents at the state and district level.

The Delhi High Court held that the amendments to the AKFI constitution had clearly given an opportunity to state and district bodies to defy the directions of the AKFI and violate the National Sports Code of India, as the directions given in Mahipal Singh, and resultantly quashed the amendments, restoring the aforesaid provisions to their previous form.

Next, it analysed the amendments made to the AKFI constitution.

Clause 15.10 of the constitution had been deleted and it read as follows (prior to deletion): –

15.10 Holding of Office: No office-bearer of AKFI will be eligible to be office bearer simultaneously in any other National Sports Federation, excluding Indian Olympic Association.

Next, Clause 30 had been amended. A comparison between its amended and unamended form is as follows:

Pre amendment Post amendment
30. The Affiliated Member Units will abide by the Constitution of AKFI. 30. The Affiliated Units will abide by their obligations if any under the constitutions of AKFI, however, for the purpose of their own organisation, they shall continue to be governed by the respective state legislation(s) applicable to them.

The high court held that these amendments had clearly given an opportunity to state and district bodies to defy the directions of the AKFI and violate the code, as also the directions given in Mahipal Singh, and resultantly quashed the amendments, restoring the aforesaid provisions to their previous form. Directions were also passed to state and district bodies to amend their constitutions and conform to the code, particularly in respect of age and tenure restrictions imposed by the code.

The election notification of August 2019 was quashed and the administrator was directed to prepare and notify a new schedule for holding elections.

What is the larger takeaway from the entire saga?

This is yet another example showing a National Sports Federation of India in absolute shambles. The Delhi High Court had already given directions way back in 2019 for how the AKFI was to be run, yet attempts were made to subvert the directions while also bypassing the code.

This does seem similar to the AIFF case, with there being discrepancies in the election procedure and the court stepping in to attempt to solve the discrepancies by giving appropriate directions.

Also read: Praful Patel, AIFF Committee Has No Mandate to Hold on to Their Offices: Sports Ministry to Supreme Court

Only time will tell how the AKFI manages to clean this mess, but with such an open and blatant attempt to bypass court orders as well as the NSF code, it makes one wonder how many such incidents go unreported in our sports ecosystem.

The Leaflet