Power corrupts…

(In a [paywalled] newsletter for The Morning Context earlier this month, I had written about the troubles roiling various National Sports Federations (NSFs), the looming threats of a ban on the All India Football Federation and on Hockey India, and how sports administration in this country got to this precarious point. What follows is an update, largely about the AIFF and a series of court hearings that occurred over the last few weeks).

A funny thing happened in the Supreme Court last week, during ongoing hearings into various petitions filed by, and against, the AIFF. Senior Advocate Gopal Shankaranaryanan informed the bench, headed by Justice DY Chandrachud, that the AIFF was not able to provide a comprehensive list of players — both male and female — who had represented India at the international level. “We don’t have any such database,” Shankaranaryanan quoted an AIFF official as saying.

Under compulsion, the AIFF finally produced a list of around 180 male footballers, and 3 — three — women footballers. The list was so superficial it did not even include the name of Oinam Bembem Devi, the Manipur-born footballer who has represented India 82 times and is the recipient of both the Arjuna Award (2017) and the Padma Shri (2020).

“Ten years ago,” Shankaranaryanan told the Court, “a woman player represented India thrice at the international level. Later, she got her law degree and when her parents told her that she had to choose between football and a career in law, she chose law. And she is standing right beside me now — my junior, Jhanvi Dubey. She could tell you the names of at least 20 women who have represented India.”

A startled Justice Chandrachud hit the pause button on the proceedings and segued into a discussion with Ms Dubey.

Why such a list was needed in the first place is part of a longer story.

Sports gets its Overton window

For the longest time, the administration of NSFs was straight out of the feudal playbook, controlled by entrenched officials who, with the support of politicians and others with vested interests, held on to their positions of power for decades.

The first real challenge to entrenched authority came in the form of Supreme Court advocate Rahul Mehra (Twitter) who, as I detailed in the Morning Context piece linked above, started filing Public Interest petitions that drew attention to acts of maladministration and malfeasance in various NSFs.

Mehra got lucky in that the Delhi High Court judge who heard the early petitions — Judge Nazmi Waziri — was himself a college-level boxer with a keen interest in sports. As petitions proliferated, the Delhi High Court in an unusual step created a special Sports bench.

Kabbadi was among the first to feel the heat. Its problems began with an indifferent showing at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia, following which an outfit calling itself the New Kabbadi Federation of India went to court over the selection process followed by the Amateur Kabbadi Federation of India, which is the governing body officially recognized by the Sports Authority of India. 

The Delhi High Court first stayed the election of office bearers to the AKFI, and subsequently appointed an observer — Justice (Retd) SP Garg — as observer for the selection trials held in September 2018.

Justice Garg, by his own admission, had no clue about the sport, which he does not follow — but that is beside the point of this post. The big picture outcome was that the courts became increasingly involved in attempts to clean up sports administration.

Initial judicial interventions largely dealt with discrete issues — an official overstaying his prescribed tenure, for instance. More recently, however, courts began considering the entirety of sports administration — more accurately, maladministration — and taking the view that it is time to revisit the founding documents of the various NSFs.

AIFF’s own goal

Indian football moved from the sports pages to the front pages of mainstream media when, on June 24, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) warned the All India Football Federation that it had to put in place a revised constitution within 38 days and conduct properly supervised democratic elections to the leadership posts before 15 September, or face a ban.

A ban would have immediate and costly repercussions — India is slated to host the FIFA Women’s U-17 World Cup in October, and a ban would take away that right. On 27 July, Home Minister Amit Shah tweeted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had approved the signing of guarantees for hosting the event.

Earlier, responding to a petition filed by Rahul Mehra, the Delhi High Court had appointed former Chief Election Commissioner Shahbuddin Yakoob Quraishi, who had also served as Secretary to the Ministry for Sports and Youth Affairs, and former national football captain Bhaskar Ganguly as administrators, with the brief of drafting a new constitution.

At that point, Praful Patel was into his third term as president of the AIFF. The Delhi High Court had, as far back as November 2017, quashed Patel’s tenure as president and asked SY Quraishi to take over as administrator. Patel appealed against the order, with Reliance Industries-affiliated attorneys appearing on his behalf, and got a stay.

Patel’s tenure officially ended in 2020 but, citing Covid and related issues, he ducked holding fresh elections and continued in office for a further two and a half years, until the Delhi Football Club, represented by senior advocate Prashant Bhushan, appealed to the Supreme Court against Patel’s illegal continuance in office.

On 18 May, a Supreme Court bench led by Justice DY Chandrachud, along with Justice Surya Kant and Justice PS Narasimha, finally kicked Patel out of office and appointed former Supreme Court Justice AR Dave to manage the affairs of the AIFF in tandem with Quraishi and Ganguly.

Stating that the existing state of affairs was “not in the interest of proper governance of the federation”, the SC bench asked the Committee of Administrators headed by Dave to facilitate the adoption of a new constitution for the AIFF, in accordance with the Sports Code (Full text) and other relevant guidelines.

The SC bench further asked the CoA to prepare electoral rolls for the conduct of proper elections to the AIFF executive committee and to carry out the day-to-day governance of the AIFF. This, the SC bench said, would be a temporary arrangement until the new constitution is ratified and fresh elections are held.

The SC’s decision to appoint Dave to head the CoA was born of the realization that Quraishi was dragging his feet for a good five years since his initial appointment by the Delhi High Court. He had submitted an early draft of the constitution in 2018, but the document was problematic on a whole range of issues. Dave was brought in to provide some adult supervision.

Praful Patel goes off-side

The road to hell et cetera…

Bhaskar Ganguly is aging, ailing, and disinclined to pay much attention to the legal side of things — all he wanted was whatever was good for the boys and girls playing football. So the heavy lifting had to be done by a 71-year-old former judge of the SC with minimal experience in sports administration, and a former CEC who was born two months before India attained Independence. Ranged against them were the state associations, most of them headed by feudal ‘landlords’ with ties to politics.

On 22 May, four days after the SC order, Praful Patel sent a memo to FIFA president Gianni Infantino, informing the latter that the Indian Supreme Court had removed him and his executive committee from power. Patel asked Infantino not to take any precipitate action such as suspending the AIFF, and personally “vouched” that Indian football will soon be back on track.

The intent of the letter was to position the Supreme Court as outside interference, and Patel himself as football’s savior.

On the heels of Patel’s missive, a delegation of FIFA and Asian Football Confederation officials landed in India and held meetings with state associations, with the AIFF, with sports ministry officials and with the CoA. They asked that Indian football clean up its act; mandated a proper constitution to be in place by end-July, that this constitution be approved by all state associations by the first week of August, and properly managed elections to the executive committee be held by September latest.

 Worth pointing out here is that the CoA, during its tenure, had been sending multiple emails over time to FIFA, keeping the global body appraised of all developments. The CoA, strangely, even sent FIFA a draft copy of the proposed constitution — strangely, because FIFA is a global regulatory body that has no locus standi when it comes to approving a member body’s constitution.

In any event, FIFA sent a few comments which the CoA duly accommodated in the draft constitution, which was placed before the Supreme Court in the last week of July.

During this hearing, Rahul Mehra made the point that this is the first time the Supreme Court will consider the constitution of a government-recognized NSF. It is therefore precedent-setting, and the outcome could become the template for all other NSFs. Given this, Mehra said, there is a need to make the exercise as comprehensive as possible, and to not rush it due to some externally imposed deadline.

All parties — the sports ministry, the local sports associations, and the CoA — agreed with Mehra’s point. For its part, the SC bench ruled that as a first step, democratic and fair elections overseen by the CoA will be conducted and a properly constituted executive committee will be put in place.

Synchronously, the draft constitution will be vetted by the state associations and all other stakeholders, any and all objections will be taken into consideration, and it will be finalized and set in stone in the space of three months or so. Again, all concerned parties were in full agreement with the SC proposal.

But where are the women?

The one sticking point, throughout this extended process, was the discomfort the state associations felt at the mandate that half the members of the general body should be sportspersons. This, association representatives felt, would result in their becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Status quo ante is that the general body is comprised of 72 members — two each (the president and secretary respectively) from each of the 36 state and Union Territory associations. The recommendation placed before the Supreme Court was that half of them — 36 members — should be sportspersons.

The criteria for a sportsperson to be eligible was, per the recommendations, that he/she should have represented the country on the football field at least once, and should have retired from international football at least two years before the date of elections. But even with such minimal qualifications, several of the state associations were likely to have problems filling their quota with qualified representatives. Hence the idea was tweaked, and it was proposed to have an association of former footballers comprising 18 men and 18 women, agnostic of state affiliation. This was again tweaked to a final recommendation that representation be on a 2 to 1 ratio, with 24 men and 12 women in the general body.

This is where Bembem Devi and Jhanvi Dubey came in — when it came to creating a list of eligible players, the AIFF told lawyers appearing on behalf of the CoA that they had no database of those who had played football for India, nor how many matches each had played at the international level.

Finally, the concerned parties came up with an ad hoc list of 30 names — players who had represented India at least once, who had retired at least two years prior, and who were under the age of 66 (This last to ensure that their tenure does not extend beyond the mandated maximum age of 70).

Via the AIFF website, the CoA is also attempting to get former players to register, in order to widen the field of available candidates — the goal being to pick the top 24 most capped male players who fulfill the criteria listed above, and also the top 12 most capped women, ditto.

Praful Patel flings a monkey wrench in the machinery

Following the Supreme Court order of Thursday, August 4, Praful Patel — who remains a member of the FIFA council — wangled a letter from FIFA to the CoA, the gist of which was that the CoA had not adhered to the assurances given to FIFA and to the promised timelines.

The FIFA email was sent on Friday, August 5 — not to the CoA, but to Sunando Dhar, a Patel appointee who is acting secretary general of the AIFF. Dhar promptly leaked the letter to the media. The Hindustan Times, and subsequently other mainstream outlets, went to town on the possibility of a FIFA ban. The CoA, as well as its lawyers, came to know of the letter only via the news reports.

The actual letter was forwarded to the CoA only in the second half of Saturday, August 6. “The idea,” Gopal Shankaranarayanan pointed out on a call, “was to give the appearance that the CoA was tardy and negligent.”

Meanwhile, on the 6th, Praful Patel called for a meeting of the 36 state associations and told them that the FIFA letter is of great use to them in getting their own way. Use it as best you can, Patel told the associations; we got the letter to help you. The CoA and its lawyers are now in possession of the recording of that meeting, and the full list of attendees.

It is a different matter that Patel had no authority to summon such a meeting in the first place.

Armed with this letter, representatives of the state associations met with joint- and under-secretaries of the sports ministry, asking for urgent intervention. Their demands included that there be no sportspersons in the general body.

The state associations filed an application in the Supreme Court, saying in sum that some sportspersons can be accommodated in the executive committee, but not in the general body. The CoA for its part is recommending that 36 of 72 members in the general body, and a minimum of 5 of the 12 members of the executive committee, should be former players.

Essentially, the sports associations were using the FIFA letter as a hammer to beat the SC-appointed CoA into submission.

The CoA, which has preferred to soft pedal and try to get all stakeholders to arrive at a consensus on all points, appears to have had enough — on Wednesday, August 10, the CoA filed a contempt petition in the Supreme Court (Full Text).

The petition, in essence, says that Praful Patel has abused his position as FIFA council member “to orchestrate a campaign among the state associations to undermine the various steps” taken by the Supreme Court, including having former footballers involved in governance and administration. The petition attaches copies of Patel’s correspondence and, crucially, the transcript of the meeting Patel had with state association representatives on the 6th.

In a hearing before the SC bench on the morning of the 10th, advocates appearing for the CoA told the court that there have been documented attempts to interfere with the court-mandated electoral process; and that these attempts were being orchestrated by those who have been removed from office by the court.

Additional Solicitor General Sanjay Jain told the court that the sports ministry’s intervention was on the basis of the FIFA letter. The court has asked the CoA and ASG Jain to get together and sort out the confusion.

Advocate Menaka Guruswamy, who appeared for the state associations, told the bench that the associations have filed an application — and got ticked off by Justice Chandrachud, who told her, inter alia, that the court does not “appreciate your back door methods to defeat the orders of the court. If your clients don’t want football in India, so be it. We have taken serious note of your conduct and we are watching it.”

The SC bench will hear the case again tomorrow (August 11). I’ll post an update following the hearing.

PostScript: The Comptroller and Auditor General of India, who had begun an audit of the AIFF’s accounts, has in June expanded the scope of its audit to cover the entire duration — 16 years — of Praful Patel’s tenure.

PS2: This piece — as also the Morning Context piece written earlier this month, is based on a review of 100s of pages of court documents, and extensive conversations with advocates Rahul Mehra, who is the lead petitioner in many of the cases now making their way through the courts, and with Gopal Shankaranarayanan, who appears on behalf of the CoA. I am grateful to the two advocates for sparing considerable time in the midst of much.

Relevant Documents:

October 10, 2017 order of the Supreme Court affirming the roadmap and timeline for the AIFF

A special leave petition filed by AIFF August 3, asking for the dilution of some recommendations

FIFA’s letter dated August 5

The CoA/AIFF response to FIFA’s letter of August 5

Contempt petition against Praful Patel moved on August 10

CAG audit to cover Patel’s tenure

(Lead image courtesy khelnow.com)

Update from SC hearing, August 11:

The SC, among other statements, said it will decisively interfere if any attempt is made to sabotage India’s hosting of the U-17 Women’s World Cup. Via Live Law, here is an update on what happened in court on Thursday, August 11.