Don’t dribble past this episode

We will probably never know the whole truth about what provoked 31 Indian women hockey players to sign a letter backing charges of sexual harassment against their coach, MK Kaushik. But if hockey’s sleazy story taught me one thing, it is this: women athletes are expected to wash their coach’s clothes, writes Namita Bhandare.

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We will probably never know the whole truth about what provoked 31 Indian women hockey players to sign a letter backing charges of sexual harassment against their coach, MK Kaushik. But if hockey’s sleazy story taught me one thing, it is this: women athletes are expected to wash their coach’s clothes.

Athlete Ashwini Nachappa says on national TV that this was ‘mandatory’ for athletes. Nobody blinks an eyelid or denies the charge, least of all coach Kaushik who quit after the charges were made public. Nachappa’s revelation is so stomach-churning that all conspiracy theories (coach is a good man who is being targeted, complaints are dicey, case is not strong, scandal is timed to skew the Hockey India elections etc) fly out of the window.

Is this what our national women athletes have been reduced to? Washing the dirty linen of their coach after hours and off the field? More than the charges — making lewd comments, calling players to his hotel room and being seemingly oblivious to team videographer’s pornographic photo display — it’s the reactions that are astounding.

On one side you have the country’s sports establishment. Our head of the Indian Olympic Association Suresh Kalmadi is uncharacteristically silent. Hockey India President Vidya Stokes, seeking re-election at 82, says the coach has resigned ‘in order to clear his name’. Former India captain and inquiry committee member Zafar Iqbal says the charges are ‘weak’. And Sudharshan Pathak, another committee member, says she is surprised that no allegations have previously been levelled against the coach.

Two things are apparent. The first, this is not a ‘sex scandal’, it is sexual harassment and should be investigated by an unbiased body, not the hockey boys’ club cronies. And, second, as with all sexual harassment, this too is about the balance of power.

There is a third aspect that isn’t so obvious. Workplaces tend to be male-dominated. But in sport, particularly in Indian sport, the balance is completely out of whack. All players (with the exception perhaps of cricket A-listers) play second fiddle to officials. For athletes, survival is about subservience. Getting into the team brings with it college admissions, jobs, a livelihood. But the centre of the system is the coach, not the player. He (and it is nearly always a he) has absolute power; who stays, who goes.

For women players, many from poor families, this power equation makes them vulnerable to sexual exploitation. We don’t even know who these players are, what their names are, what they look like, what they dream of. Apart from an occasional Chak De, they remain absent from mainstream imagination. Sometimes talent will erupt and a Saina Nehwal, MC Mary Kom, or PT Usha will break through. But we don’t see the daily humiliations — or we do, when a star like Usha breaks down after being invited to an athletics meet in Bhopal where officials were too busy to either receive her or arrange for halfway decent accommodation.

When sexual harassment happens on Wall Street or international publishing, we seem to be programmed to respond in a set way: ‘She dressed provocatively’, ‘She was denied a promotion’, and, the latest, it was ‘consensual flirting’. But in sports, where in the words of senior sports writer Sharda Ugra ‘women’s sport is secondary to everything else in this country’, the problem is worse.

Women athletes simply do not have the redressal mechanisms that women in the organised sector are slowly beginning to have. They lack education, support, and, most important, savvy. Helen Mary, former Indian goalkeeper who says she quit because of harassment by Kaushik, could not even begin to articulate words like pornography or sex, referring instead to ‘nonsense things’. What chance do women like these have against a mighty sports establishment?

The truth about sexual exploitation in women’s sport will probably never emerge. But a starting point could be, as former Indian Hockey Federation president K.P.S. Gill suggested, a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry. The irony seemed to escape everyone. Gill, alleged bottom pincher, was the only person who had come forward to try and restore some semblance of dignity to the girls.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.

It’s time to talk to the country

When Mohamed ElBaradei stood up to speak at the HT Leadership Summit in 2007, he began by praising Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Namita Bhandare writes.

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When Mohamed ElBaradei stood up to speak at the HT Leadership Summit in 2007, he began by praising Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Known then as the former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) rather than a presidential challenger, ElBaradei declared that Singh was the “model of what a political leader should be”.

As leadership change gets underway in Egypt, it is unlikely that ElBaradei will be looking to Singh for inspiration.

From being the ‘leader other leaders love’ (Newsweek, August 2010) to becoming a prime minister derided for a ‘lack of political instinct’ (Time, January 2011), it’s been a quite a fall.

Nobody questions Singh’s honesty, decency and intellect. Yet, for the first time there is a gathering view that the longest-serving prime minister of India, after Indira Gandhi, is simply not up to his job. Singh has been silent on the hot issues of the day, whether it’s the telecom scam or the issue of black money stashed in foreign banks. The Supreme Court has been asking what many in the country (including the BJP) are: why didn’t the PM act earlier on Raja? What is the inhibition in revealing names of those who have illegal accounts?

Nothing Singh says or does seem to be able to shake off this growing vocal discontent. Perhaps this is because he says and does very little. On the tiranga issue, for instance, it was the BJP’s voice that was loudest. For ordinary people, the Indian flag is a symbol of patriotism. So, when the BJP declares that it will hoist the flag at Lal Chowk in Srinagar, most Indians find it hard to understand why this is a provocation. By speaking to senior journalist Harinder Baweja at Headlines Today, Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah ensured that his voice didn’t go unheard.

Savvy politicians, Jairam Ramesh, for instance, aren’t shy of being heard, whether on Niyamgiri or on Adarsh. P Chidambaram isn’t wary, whether it’s setting the record straight over the selection of ‘tainted’ chief vigilance officer PJ Thomas or the rise of new terror groups. Kapil Sibal hasn’t hesitated in communicating his vision on telecom policy or education. Whether you agree or disagree, the key here is communication.

For all her other faults, Indira Gandhi made the art of communication seem effortless: slipping into local tribal gear, speaking emotionally to connect with an emotional people. A large part of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s popularity comes from his oratory skills. Sushma Swaraj makes effective use of Twitter to get her point across. Nitish Kumar was warm and affable as he shared a meal with journalists at the Indian Women’s Press Corps.

The absence of grand political gestures from Manmohan Singh, who has never won a direct election, ties in with his description of himself as an ‘accidental politician’. But the issue goes beyond natural reticence. It involves the entirely political office of the prime minister. It involves the role of institutions in a democratic set-up. Singh’s silence didn’t matter so much during the life of UPA 1 (though he was remarkably vocal on the India-US nuclear deal). This time around, there is a national crisis of confidence where faith, even in the army and judiciary, has been shaken. As head of state, Singh should have been providing leadership. “When there is a crisis, we expect the prime minister to be the voice of the nation,” says political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan.

In the age of television and social media, communication is the key to political success. Problem is that Dr Manmohan Singh has never seen himself as a politician first. He is an economist and an intellectual who gives the impression that he is above the hurly burly of political life. But the prime minister’s office demands political expedience. At the very least, it asks for elected representatives to talk to the people who have voted for them. If Manmohan Singh wants his legacy to remain intact, if he wants to maintain the sanctity of his office, he might have to recast himself.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.

Bhajji: From bad boy to cry baby

From facing a penalty, forfeiting match fee, and facing charges of intimidating an umpire, Harbhajan Singh now does a volte-face and plays victim over a UB ad, writes Namita Bhandare.

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Ah, yes, let’s see. This is the same gentleman who got away with charges of racism by calling his opponent a ‘monkey’. Oh, said an injured Harbhajan Singh back in 2008, he had never called Andrew Symonds a monkey.

He had merely used that common expression favoured by macho men who live north of the Vindhyas: maa ki….

Symonds (who in case you hadn’t noticed is of African descent) heard otherwise and complained and the man variously known as Bhajji and The Turbanator was slapped with a Level 3 offence; the match referee ruled guilty and banned him for the next three tests.

Threatening withdrawal from the series, the Indian team filed an appeal, keeping a chartered plane on standby – later denied by the Indians — presumably if the hearings went against their bachcha.

The racism charge could not subsequently be proved since Bhajji said he had been misheard – though that didn’t stop him from making simian gestures at a match before the second hearing.

Strangely, this reference to Andrew Symond’s mother’s, umm, delicate parts, was deemed ok even though Sachin Tendulkar had the decency to blush while trying to explain it to an Adelaide judge.

Bhajji forfeited half his match fee (small change compared to his ad endorsements), and the games went on.

In a strange and ironic (is there any other kind?) twist of fate, Bhajji’s mother has now jumped into the fray to protect what she sees as the family honour.

The provocation, for once, is not her son’s behaviour.

Rather it is a spoof, an ad that has a Bhajji look-alike trying hard to ‘make it large’, a reference to the tagline of Royal Stag whisky, a product endorsed by HBS.

The ad, which can be viewed on Youtube, has a young Bhajji working in his dad’s steel ball bearings factory, making humungous ball bearings in an attempt to ‘make it large’.

An enraged fictional dad (in real life, Singh senior did indeed have such a factory) gives him a resounding slap.

Cut to MS Dhoni, endorser of rival whisky brand McDowells, saying the important thing was not making it large, but doing it differently.

Size in other words doesn’t really matter; this is coming from your captain.

Leave aside the potential of big balls and size, the ad has so upset Bhajji’s maa reportedly for three reasons: the references to her son, to her late husband and to the Sikh community at large.


Since when did cricket’s bad boy turn into a cry baby?

As a rookie spinner back in 1998, HBS forfeited half his match fee and earned a one ODI match suspension for shouting words at departing batsmen Ricky Ponting.

In 2001, he was along with Virendra Sehwag and two others charged with trying to intimidate an umpire.

In 2003, our boy was back, abusing an umpire in Dhaka and forfeiting half his match fee, yet again.

And in 2005 he pointed a batsman towards the pavilion after his dismissal, getting a quarter of his fee docked for unsportsmanlike behaviour.

Towards his own team-mates Bhajji has been no wilting lily.

After an IPL match, Bhajji rocked headlines – sigh, again – this time for slapping S Sreesanth who was playing for a rival team.

He’s scrapped with cops in Guwahati. And let’s not even go into matters of questionable taste when he chose to dance on reality TV.


For Bhajji now to play the injured party is a bit rich.

Reportedly the legal notice mentions that his mother sees the ad as a dividing force within the team, and, hence, anti-national, that favourite word of the injured and the wronged.

But if this is anti-national, then what does Bhajji’s past behaviour, including his saying ‘maa ki’ to Symonds qualify as?

Or, how ‘national’ is it to sneakily endorse liquor ads (banned in India) through surrogate advertising?

Shame Bhajji shame. And you could have been a role model.

If I was Bhajji’s mummy, I would seriously consider the administration of a good spanking. It’s never too late to set your kids right.

If I was Vijay Mallya, I would be laughing my head off at all the free publicity this ridiculous controversy is generating.

But if I was Bhajji I might tell myself just two words: maaro goli yaar.

A version of this blog is up at