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Law in Sports

Rahul Mehra vs Union of India: A decade-long journey that will turn the tide of Indian sports administration

"Twelve years in office, is when the final whistle blows": A brief overview of an important PIL that will go a long way in ensuring power-hungry sports administrators are put in their place.

Delhi High Court

 Delhi High Court 


C.C. Chengappa

Updated: 19 Aug 2022 6:39 AM GMT

The past few months have been nothing short of tumultuous for Indian sports fans. The biggest blow has been the recent ban met out on the AIFF by FIFA. The key reason behind this ban is the selfish attitude and incompetence of the erstwhile President who rendered the AIFF an administrative body with no soul. As a result of delayed elections, a petty power struggle and a lack of awareness by the government, FIFA came down heavily on Indian football to enforce a ban. The main reason behind this was the undue influence of external third parties which goes against the basic tenets of governance of national football bodies as per the FIFA Statute.

As of now, even the Indian Olympic Association(IOA) has been placed under a Committee of Administrators (COA) owing to a Delhi High Court order. The Supreme Court has stepped in and demanded a status quo of the situation by temporarily putting on hold the functioning of the CoA.

The following article aims to give a concise breakdown of the recent Delhi High Court judgment regulating sports bodies and administering the same. The name of the case is Rahul Mehra vs Union of India and it has arisen out of a PIL filed by notable Delhi-based Senior Adv. Rahul Mehra. The judgment has several important mandates that are deliberated and discussed in detail regarding certain questions of sports administration.

The petitioner, Rahul Mehra had raised thirteen issues to be considered by the Delhi High Court. These issues were regarding administrative flaws and loopholes that were being exploited by sports administrators in India to their advantage.

The court has given a point-by-point breakdown of each 'pitfall' as per its understanding and interpretation based on relevant precedents and sports jurisprudence. It has laid down certain guidelines and recommendations as well that include striking down certain executive measures in place.

1) No concept of a Life President

The court reflected on the 2016 IOA debacle wherein two politicians had been appointed as 'Life Presidents'. It was the Central Government that stepped in to preserve and protect the integrity of national sports that was being violated by the top brass of the IOA. The main emphasis was that there were only fixed tenures for members of NSFs and that no individual could undertake an infinite existence while holding a position of authority and being funded by the government to discharge certain functions.

2) Differential voting rights cannot be permitted

An extremely bizarre trend that the court struck down was the concept of divisive/differential votes. It observed that certain sports federations had votes that were 1/2 or 1/3 in value as they had been divided based on the number of people per vote. Quite specifically, there is a mention of anomalous weightage in each vote to different sports bodies which is against the basic tenets of the Sports Code. Striking the divided voting rights down, the court reiterated the importance of following election procedures based on the Sports Code only.

3) Non-determination of the Electoral College by the IOA is in contravention of judicial orders and is contrary to the objectives of the Sports Code

Reiterating its previous points, compliance with model election guidelines is a crucial aspect touched upon by the court decision. The adherence to the Sports Code and relevant precedence regarding the fraudulent Archery Association elections were made to give context to a strict compliance requirement for NSFs during the process of conducting elections.

4) Only NSFs for Olympic disciplines should be members of the IOA with voting rights.

The exclusion of State Olympic Associations (SOA) and Non-Olympic NFA's from the IOA is a direction meted out by this decision to ensure the qualitative approach towards the governance of the IOA. One of the qualitative approaches is to avoid an unfavourable vote bank resulting from the presence of 27 NSF that represent Non-Olympic Sports. Moreover, SOAs also do not represent any particular sport and do not come within the ambit of "an IOA that is a confederation of NSF's dealing with Olympic Sports."

5) Age and tenure limits should be applied to all members of the Executive Committee ('EC') and General Assembly of IOA and not only to President, Secretary and Treasurer

Without undermining the importance of the other 12 clauses within this judgment, guideline number 5 holds an important relevance for all sports administrators who wish to circumvent rules and attain lifetime membership of NSFs. Both the Sports Code and the Supreme Court in the BCCI v. State of Bihar reiterated the need for an upper age limit of 70 years for an EC member. It is with this guiding light that the Delhi HC also focuses on ensuring fresh talent overpowers continual dominance by one power-hungry party in an NSF.

The justification provided by the court relates to the need for successive generations to avoid the intersection of power struggles, money-minded figures and incompetent administration with sports. The hunger and commitment with which young athletes aim to change the sporting landscape in India will be lost if administrators are allowed to continuously serve 4-year terms in NSFs. This is crucial for the continual development and avoidance of any stagnation of the minor growth that Indian sports have seen over the past decade. The conclusion of this particular point is that there can be a maximum of 3 terms for any Office Bearer and EC Member.

6) EC‟s size should be reasonable and not unwieldy.

The court hauled up the IOA for not following the advice of the IOC which had recommended a drastic change to limit its General Body to 115 members and EC members to 19. The Delhi HC noted the need for a streamlined body that adequately represented NSF representing Olympic sports, an equivalent number of sportspersons of eminence from each Olympic discipline largely dependent upon the medals won and other NSFs.

The main direction was to reduce the number of General Body members to 90 members i.e. thrice the number of NSFs representing Olympic sports. The EC strength was directed to be 15 members comprising 7 Office Bearers and 8 elected sportspersons.

7) There cannot be any restrictive, undemocratic clause, regarding elections to any post

The Delhi HC took cognisance of Clause 11.1.3 of the IOA Constitution and rendered it illegal and 'monopolistic' in nature. The reason behind this is that it bars new individuals from contesting for the posts of President and Secretary General. The common trend noticed amongst many NSFs and even the IOA is that only so-called experience individuals stood for elections and were given the right of way to stand for important posts such as President.

8) IOA Constitution permits a person to hold offices for 20 years without undergoing a cooling-off period, it must be in accordance with the law of the land, i.e., not more than three tenures along with cooling-off period(s).

'Twelve years in office is when the final whistle blows.' Whether the court has taken direct or indirect reference to Mr Praful Patel, the essential motive behind the statement lies in ensuring power-hungry administrators are in check. The striking down of a 20-year in-office period is a notable decision for many a reason but more so for ensuring that the spirit of Indian sports continues to thrive with individuals who are driven to make a genuine change by virtue of their authority.

9) IOA must have independent Ethics, Athletes, Election and Arbitration Commissions, and Ombudsman, devoid of any control, direct or indirect, of the IOA

In compliance with the IOC charter, there is a requirement for independent commissions that look over election violations of the IOA. Taking precedence from the landmark case concerning the BCCI, the court specifically stated that the Commissions so formed must be modelled on the guidelines laid down in the case. The ideals of the IOC charter must be adhered to specifically with regard to having meaningful Ethics, Elections and Arbitration Commissions.

10) Appointment of 25% prominent sportspersons of outstanding merit with voting rights in General Assembly and EC is mandatory in terms of clause 3.20 of 2001 Guidelines and para 9.3 (xii) of the Sports Code

Clause 3.20 of the Sports Code is another provision that has seemingly been avoided by certain sports federations. This avoidance has been done despite a 2017 Supreme Court order mandating a 25% representation of prominent sportspersons in the management of NSFs.

The clause is important as it entails the presence of at least 1/4th eminent sportspersons along with voting rights in an NSF that is crucial to the holistic functioning of any NSF. By avoiding the implementation of this clause, representation of females, athletes from minority communities and rural backgrounds all go amiss along with the presence of a one-track administrative set-up.

11) A person against whom criminal charges have been framed should not be permitted to be a member either of the EC or the General Assembly

The petitioner highlighted the notable flaw in the administrative set-up of the IOA that allowed an individual who has been charge-sheeted for an offence which could entail imprisonment of more than two years to be a member of the IOA. The key submission was that such individuals must be barred from any sports activities under the IOA's ambit unless they had been specifically discharged from a court of law.

The court emphasised the need to protect the goodwill and integrity of administrative bodies and thereby laid down the rule of barring members from the IOA or NSF if they had been chargesheeted in criminal proceedings which involved imprisonment of 2 years.

12) Persons seeking successive re-election for the same post must secure a two-thirds majority

The Delhi HC reiterated a 1975 Government Circular that emphasised the need and requirement of certain prerequisites for re-election. A major point was the procedure to consider valid re-election by an individual who has previously served a particular post. In this regard, even if an individual has won an election but has not attained a 2/3rd majority, he or she cannot be considered for a second term and will be deemed to have lost the re-election.

13) The Sports Code must be made applicable to the IOA and to all NSFs

In its final point for deliberation, the court recognised the time given by the central government to the IOA in order for it to comply with the Sports Code. With a specific emphasis on the lack of compliance for 47 years, the court stated that 'this should end now'.

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