Manika Batra vs TTFI: Court stays rule on mandatory national camp attendance, orders inquiry on match-fixing allegations

File pic: Manika Batra celebrates her victory during the women's singles gold medal table tennis match against Singapore's Mengyu Yu at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. YE AUNG THU/AFP via Getty Images

The Delhi High Court, on Thursday, temporarily stayed the Table Tennis Federation of India's (TTFI) rule on mandatory national camp attendance for international tournament selection. They did so acting on Manika Batra's plea and the central government's stand on the matter. The Centre was also directed to conduct an inquiry into the match-fixing allegations made by Manika within four weeks and submit its report to the Court.

Manika, India's highest-ranked female table tennis player, had filed a writ petition against the TTFI after she was left out of the squad for the Asian Championships on grounds of not attending the national camp. The TTFI had framed the rules regarding national camp on August 4 this year which made attendance throughout the entire duration compulsory to be considered for selection.

What transpired in court

In its previous hearing on September 20, the court had sought the Centre's stand on the case. On Thursday, the Centre in its representation stated that "merit has to be the sole criteria" for selection and pointed out that there is "nothing in the Sports Code" which allows a federation to bar a player based on national camp attendance.

Taking into account the Centre's submission, the court observed that the action and timing of the August 4 rules (on mandatory national camps) did not inspire confidence and stayed the notification until the next date of hearing. The matter has been listed for October 28.

In its submission to the court, TTFI said that it will not have any objections to Manika's personal staff accompanying her to future competitions.

A Central government inquiry panel will look into the match-fixing charges raised by Manika and if found necessary, the functioning of the TTFI too.

"We questioned the TTFI going against its own rules that state that players have to attend the entire duration of the camp to be eligible for selection," Akshay Amritranshu, legal counsel for Manika, told ESPN, "It appears to be a rule of convenience. We are not looking at today's decision as a victory or loss, but rather as a wider message that the court has sent out -that it's the athlete, not the federation, that lies at the core of any sport."

What the decision means

For now, it's a vindication of Manika's stand to not be denied international tournament selection on the basis of national camp attendance. It implies that the TTFI cannot leave her out of future events, like it did with the Asian Championships starting in Doha on September 28.

What worked to Manika's favour, sports activist and lawyer Rahul Mehra points out, was the Centre's stand on her case. Today's stand by the court is different from its stand in another high-profile sports case in 2016. Then, the court had dismissed two-time Olympic medalist Sushil Kumar's plea seeking a trial against quota holder Narsingh Yadav ahead of the Rio Games. The court observed that the Sports Code gives full autonomy and flexibility to federations with regard to the selection process, except when discretion is shown to be exercised in an arbitrary, capricious or perverse manner.

"I wouldn't look for broader implications of this decision because I think this is an aberration. Had it not been for the Ministry's view on the matter, nothing of this sort could have ever happened. As far as the Central government inquiry panel is concerned, I'm not counting on it coming up with something too damning or drastic."

"For now," Mehra says, "I'm just happy for Manika. It's brave that she's fought her way to earn some justice."

Where does this leave TTFI

Thursday's decision puts TTFI in a far from desirable position. The players who were part of the mandatory national camp in Sonepat, some joining midway through, have been miffedover the poor facilities. Two players - G Sathiyan and Harmeet Desai, even flew back from Europe to be part of the camp over apprehensions of being dropped from the squad. "There was no coach, no facilities and no foreign sparring partners. This is not how a national camp should work," rued one of the players.

Further, soon after Manika went to court, TTFI reconstituted its inquiry panel within 10 days of first setting it up. The original panel formed on September 11 was headed by TTFI vice president Chiranjib Chaudhari and had a total of five members - three of whom were the body's executive committee members. The panel was tasked by TTFI to look into Manika's allegations against itself and national coach Soumyadeep Roy. The fresh panel created on September 20, comprised just three members with Retired Justice Kailash Gambhir as chairman. Law expert Parth Goswami and TTFI CEO Dhanraj Chaudhary were named as the other two members. Goswami was the only member retained from the earlier panel. Admitting to a lapse of judgement on the federation's part, a senior functionary told ESPN, "We realized that having a panel of TTFI members hearing allegations against TTFI may not be a fair idea."

The court expressed its anguish at this hurried chop and change by TTFI. "They are overreaching the court. I will issue a notice of contempt," Justice Rekha Palli said, "I pass an order and you appoint a new person? This is shocking."

The story behind the case

After her personal coach Sanmay Paranjape wasn't allowed Field of Play (FOP) access during the Tokyo Olympics, Manika turned down national coach Roy's approach to be ted in her corner during her first-round singles match and played all her matches without a coach by her side. She lost in the third round, the farthest any Indian female singles TT player had ever traveled in an Olympics draw.

TTFI issued her a show-cause notice on refusing Roy's assistance in response to which Manika stated that she felt it was better to have "no coach at all" than to be "demoralized" by the presence of a coach who had pressured her four months ago to "fix a match in favor of his student," Sutirtha, whom he coaches at his private academy in Kolkata so that the latter could qualify for the Olympics. She went on to state that she had not objected to his presence during her mixed doubles matches with Sharath Kamal but was well within her rights to take a call for her singles matches. Manika mentioned a "history of pressure tactics from the same coach" and being coerced into signing a letter in February 2020 recommending his name for the position of national coach. Manika claimed to have promptly reported the match-throwing request to a TTFI official and also maintained that she's in possession of evidence to corroborate her accusation.

Manika decided to move court after she was omitted from the squad for next weeks' Asian Championships in Doha. This despite being the highest-ranked female player in the country and having won the WTT Contender mixed doubles title with Sathiyan only a month ago.

"What worries me," Mehra says, "is that there has been a serious allegation of match fixing attempted by a national coach and there's radio silence. If it's a bogus allegation by Manika, then you need to tell the world that, if it's otherwise, we should have acted a while ago. The incident happened at least six months back and Manika claims to have raised a red flag right then. Here's an iconic player who's put a face to table tennis, a lot like what Saina Nehwal did for badminton, and she's been treated shabbily by the federation."