Home >> Blog >> The Curious Case of Sarita Devi
24 Feb 2015

The Curious Case of Sarita Devi

In recent years, Indian boxing has witnessed a series of controversial events, starting with the suspension of the erstwhile governing body, Indian Amateur Boxing Federation (IAB) . When the new governing body i.e. Boxing India (BI) was formed, there arose disagreements over its recognition by the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) . This was followed by another setback in the form of suspension of former world champion, Laishram Sarita Devi, a 2016 Rio Olympic medal hope for India, following her emotional outburst and refusal to accept the Bronze Medal at the 17th Asian Games held at Incheon in 2014 .

This article attempts to analyze the International Amateur Boxing Association (AIBA) Statutes, its Competition Rules and other Rules and Byelaws applied/applicable in this case and also in other similar cases to examine whether the Indian pugilist and the Indian contingent faltered in handling Sarita Devi’s case, thereby making the situation needlessly murkier and more difficult not only for Sarita Devi but also for the entire nation.

During the 17th Asian Games held in Incheon, South Korea during September-October 2014, Sarita Devi represented India in the lightweight category of women’s boxing . In her semi-final bout, she felt that her opponent and home favourite Jina Park was being favoured by the match officials and was eventually declared winner 3-0 unanimously . Most people watching the match opined that Sarita had clearly got the better of her Korean opponent but the judges thought otherwise . Sarita Devi lodged a protest, which was rejected on certain technical grounds. Later, during the medal ceremony, Sarita Devi could not control her emotions and kept crying throughout the ceremony. She not only refused to accept her Bronze Medal but also created a scene at the podium by handing over the medal to the Korean boxer. This unsporting behavior did not go down well with AIBA and the Asian Games Authority, which acted swiftly by provisionally suspending her almost immediately . Though the pugilist gave an unconditional written apology which was apparently accepted by the AIBA, the matter was later referred to the Judicial Committee of AIBA, which handed Sarita Devi a one year ban and imposed a penalty of CHF 1000 on charges of violation of the spirit of fair play during the medal ceremony .
AIBA also imposed a two year ban on Coach B. I. Fernandez. Sarita Devi’s husband Thoiba Singh, who had got into a scuffle with match officials at the venue, was barred from entering the venue of AIBA events. A one year ban was imposed on her coach Lenin Meitei. Further, Fernandez was fined CHF 2000 and Meitei CHF 1000. However, senior Coach G.S. Sandhu escaped from all charges .

Established as a regulator of the sport of boxing worldwide, AIBA is empowered not only to organize and manage world boxing but also to develop and enforce various technical & competition rules etc. to ensure smooth and consistent functioning of AIBA-approved boxing events. Article 4 of the AIBA statute empowers AIBA to ensure that all boxing competitions are held in accordance with the Technical & Competition Rules framed to govern events, competitions or tournaments organized or hosted by AIBA, its confederation or any National Federation . Article 6 obligates all National Federations, Confederations, AIBA Subsidiaries and Boxers to comply with the provisions of the statute, the Code of Ethics and the Disciplinary Code . It is Article 64, to be read with Article 69 of the AIBA statute, which empowers the judicial bodies of AIBA to implement the provisions of Code of Ethics & Disciplinary Code in case of violation of provisions of its statute , thus enabling sanctions against violators under Code 9 of the AIBA Disciplinary Code .
The aforementioned provisions of the Statute, Rules and Codes governing the game of boxing are self-explanatory and they dismiss all speculations concerning the authority of AIBA to impose a ban on Sarita Devi for the Asiad incident as Article 10 of the Constitution of Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) expressly provides that all competitions and events organized by OCA are to be conducted under the concerned “International Federations” (IF’s) Technical Rules. The Constitution of the OCA further provides that in the event there is no IF then the competition is conducted under the Rules of the relevant Asian Federation (AF), subject to the supervision and authority of the OCA .
In light of these governing provisions there is no doubt that the international body has complete authority to exercise control over Sarita’s bout and also over the decisions of the technical committee to reject Sarita Devi’s protests on technical grounds. Thus it leaves no room for any dissenting opinion on the jurisdiction of AIBA in imposing the ban on the Indian boxer as Article 10 of the Constitution of OCA and Articles 4, 6, 64 and 69 of the AIBA Statute read with Codes 3 and 9 of the AIBA Disciplinary Code clearly substantiate that AIBA’s decision to ban Sarita Devi was taken to protect and safeguard the interests of amateur boxing in the world and adhere to existing laws governing the sport and its administration.

Though the matter was placed before the judicial body of AIBA, there was speculation that if the Commission took strict action against the boxer, the boxer may face a fine upto CHF 20000 and face upto five years of suspension. In all likelihood, the point of apprehension for the boxing star was that if the provisional suspension is not revoked by AIBA, she would be denied participation in the preparatory camp for the Women’s World Boxing Championship . As the sports bodies in India responsible for facilitating participation of Indian athletes in international platforms chose to steer clear of the issue, it was apparent that the fate of the suspended boxer was in the hands of the AIBA, which seemed reluctant to show leniency towards the Indian boxing star even though the Regulator does enjoy a degree of discretion in such matters.
It was during this impasse that a PIL was filed before the Hon’ble High Court of Delhi , challenging AIBA’s decision to suspend Sarita Devi. The PIL sought a direction from the Ministry of Sports to take due cognizance of the rules and regulations framed by the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) situated in Lausanne, Switzerland, for settling the dispute over Sarita Devi’s suspension . However, the Hon’ble Court refused to interfere in the matter, citing lack of jurisdiction as the domestic governing body Boxing India had, in its response to the PIL, refuted any possibility of appeal before the CAS .

In this case, the stand taken by Boxing India has been criticized by the boxer and also the public at large. The submission made before the Hon’ble High Court in the plea challenging the suspension of Sarita Devi that no appeal lies against the decision of AIBA is misleading because Rule 61 of the Olympic Charter, which stands out as the constitutional framework of the Olympic Movement and is equally binding on the conduct of the Asian Games and Olympic Council of Asia, makes a reference to the Court of Arbitration for Sports . This therefore calls into question the stand of the national federation towards protecting the interests of its member athletes- especially because there are several precedents where players have been provided relief by CAS against the orders of international federations. A classic example is that of Swedish wrestler Ara Abrahamian. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Ara had lost his semifinal in the 84kg group to Italy’s Andrea Minguzzi but refused to accept the third place by stepping down from the podium. Consequently, the International Olympic Committee decided to ban him from the Olympics . However, the CAS backed Abrahamian’s view of corruption by the judges and nullified the ban imposed by the International Wrestling Federation . Such a settled position of law could have brought relief to Sarita Devi as well- provided the National Federation had shown more inclination to support her. In this case, although the suspended boxer was extended huge moral support by the nation at large, there was no official support from the National Federation for her to file an appeal against the suspension order.

As things stand, it is highly doubtful that the Indian Federation will support the boxer to appeal her suspension. The fact that the byelaws and statutes governing the sport of boxing at the international level prohibit recourse to ordinary courts of law means that although the matter is still pending before the Indian Judiciary, this route is unlikely to yield the boxer much relief. The domestic judicial system can be approached only on fundamental grounds or on conduct against the principles of natural justice. Therefore, it is still unclear what legal remedies are truly available to aggrieved sportspersons. On the one hand, l’affaire Sarita Devi shows up BI in poor light for its decision to not stand up for one of its athletes. On the other, the incident serves to reinforce the dominance of international governing bodies over national bodies.
It is fairly evident that the case was mishandled from the very beginning- the original protest itself was not lodged as per the Rules. Subsequently, avenues to explore various options of appeal against the suspension do not seem to have been adequately considered. Not many Indian Athletes are technically competent to understand the nuances of tricky technical rules; however the incident raises a big question mark over the large contingent of officials travelling with the athletes. Surely, IOA and the various sports federations must ensure that accompanying officials are made aware of the rules of the competition and equipped with adequate information and the necessary authority to protect the interest of athletes, coaches, support staff and federations so that they can stand by the athletes and do their best to protect their valid interests instead of leaving them at the mercy of International Federations and perhaps God.

Share this:

Leave a Reply

Your Email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *