Women’s Cricket Is Rife With Stories of Sexual Harassment. What Is the BCCI Doing?

With the kind of wealth available in Indian cricket and the lack of safeguards, there is no estimating what a more accurate number of cricketers facing harassment by their superiors—coaches, selectors, officials—may be. Women cricketers who have left the game are able to draw a clearer picture, but on condition of revealing neither their names nor the states they represented.

This is an excerpt from Sharda Ugra’s cover story for The Caravan, on how the BCCI escapes regulatory scrutiny. Drunk on its wealth generated over a decade and a half, with the new muscle of its proximity to the BJP regime, the BCCI pays no attention to the acid in its groundwater. Read the full story here.

If there is another “sunrise sector” in Indian cricket that is as full, if not more, of shadows as BCCI’s state associations, it is Jay Shah’s cause célèbre: women’s cricket. Following India’s final appearance in the 2017 Women’s World Cup, the women’s game has burst into wider public consciousness, and Shah wants to be seen as their torchbearer in the BCCI. In October 2022, within two weeks of being re-elected BCCI secretary, Shah announced equal match fees for India’s international men and women cricketers. It was followed by the Women’s Premier League, in March, in which BCCI offered salaries of the kind rarely seen in women’s team sports worldwide. In a detailed interview given to the Hindustan Times, Shah said he believed the pay parity was a “watershed moment in the history of Indian cricket” and that the WPL was the “second biggest cricket league in the world after IPL.” Based on WPL numbers—Rs 951 crore for a five-year media rights deal and player salaries higher than the 26-year-old WNBA—women’s cricket became a sunrise industry.

The stories outside the headline makers and their headline-making numbers are murky and frightening. This year, a special POCSO court in Dehradun heard a case against 65-year-old Narendra Shah, the CAU’s co-convenor of women’s cricket and secretary of the Chamoli District Cricket Association. A teenager accused him of sexual harassment, bullying and obscene phone calls. A conversation has been recorded. In the police complaint, the father of the complainant, who will turn 16 in September, said that Narendra Shah had been harassing her and touching her inappropriately for several years.

The FIR also accuses Narendra Shah of saying that the complainant would have to fulfil the physical needs of the CAU secretary, Mahim Verma, and the CAU member Dhiraj Bhandari, whose names he would often drop. It accuses Narendra of hurling casteist abuse towards the minor: “Tum log neech jati ke log ho, tumhe unchi jati ke logon ke saath rehne ka adhikar nahin hai, phir bhi main tumhe khila sakta hoon”—You belong to a lower caste and do not have the right to live with upper-caste people, but still I will give you the opportunity to play. Narendra was arrested briefly, but the police’s appeal for his remand was turned down by the magistrate, with Narendra citing ill health and a suicide attempt. This ruling is now being challenged. Narendra has been summoned before the court and has also been charged under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Verma, while refusing to comment on the matter because the case was subjudice, stated “as soon as the matter came to light, the Apex Council of CAU removed Mr. Narendra Shah from his position,” and that the matter was referred to an Internal Complaints Committee.

With the kind of wealth available in Indian cricket and the lack of safeguards, there is no estimating what a more accurate number of cricketers facing harassment by their superiors—coaches, selectors, officials—may be. Women cricketers who have left the game are able to draw a clearer picture, but on condition of revealing neither their names nor the states they represented.

One cricketer who represented her state for more than a decade was forced out of cricket for ignoring a coach who sought sexual favours from her in exchange for a spot in the playing eleven. The cricketer was picked for a series, told to prepare to play in a game the following day and then left out. This happened through the series, until, with one match to go, came the same instruction—be ready for tomorrow. At 10 pm the night before the last game, the coach called her to his room under a flimsy pretext. “We had heard about this guy but didn’t know what to believe,” she said.

The cricketer said there had been rumours and signs. During a state camp, before the series when the coach turned on her, a team of researchers had shown up at the ground to collect data about harassment in women’s sport. She recalled the coach’s reaction. “His face changed colour,” she said. “He alerted everyone that that you have to say nothing of this kind has happened—our association is very good, facilities are good.”

When the coach called for her that night, the cricketer switched off her mobile phone and put her room telephone off the hook. The next day, she sat out the game again and fell back into a frustrating cycle: playing for her district well enough to be picked for the state camp, “but not playing in matches—I just sat out, this happened for three years.” The head of her state’s women’s cricket committee was a man, also with a dubious reputation. “No one wants to come out and speak about it,” she said. “It’s not easy to fight this system, and then there’s your career. I kept quiet. I had a few years left I thought I should play.”

When she tried to find whether she could represent another state, she discovered, as do many young Indian junior cricketers, male or female, about another circle of corruption: not about sexual favours, but plain old cash for selection. “When I was trying to move to another state after getting an NOC from my own, I was told that it was Rs 5 lakh to play senior in another state. It’s about seven to ten lakhs today.” She added that her career feels incomplete, “I was waiting for WPL that it will be an opportunity for me but, when it came, I had to leave cricket. I feel very bad, but some things are not in the hands of players. We become helpless.”

Nothing of what stems from here is a twist of fate, where someone’s career is cut short by injury or a bad performance in a match where selectors were watching or the appearance of a talent greater than theirs. This, instead, is just an aspect of an institution whose former CEO Rahul Johri was let off on a sexual harassment charge but advised to attend gender sensitisation training.

When I asked the BCCI about the absence of an Internal Complaints Committee under the Prevention of Sexual Harrassment Act, which is a legal necessity, the response was generic. “The matter of adoption of the Posh Policy was taken as an agenda item in the special general meeting held on May 27, 2023, in Ahmedabad,” they wrote. “In the meeting, considering the sensitivity of the issue, it was decided that a committee comprising Mr. Devajit Saikia and Mr. Ashish Shelar be tasked with the responsibility of reviewing the draft POSH policy considering both of them are eminent lawyers by profession. Accordingly, the POSH policy has been sent to them for review and finalisation. They are currently in the process of finalising the POSH policy. It may be also be noted that BCCI is currently in the process of appointing the Internal Committee and the announcement regarding this will be made very soon.”

The sudden surge of women’s cricket in corrupt or badly functioning state associations has only made the positions of the minors entering junior cricket very vulnerable. The fact that the BCCI has not yet enacted a POSH-mandated committee of its own nor brings down the hammer on cases where its state-level officials are accused of harassment, intimidation and bullying continues to give the perpetrators greater power.

Read Sharda Ugra’s full story on the BCCI here.