Glimmer of hope for banned Rajasthan Royals cricketers
On 25 July, an additional sessions judge in Delhi discharged 42 individuals accused of having been involved in a systematic racket to bet on, and fix, cricket matches during the sixth edition of the IPL. The list of those acquitted included three cricketers who had participated in that season's IPL: Sreesanth, Ajit Chandila and Ankeet Chavan. The trio has now been exonerated of all criminal charges levied against them, including those under the draconian Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, 1999 [MCOCA]. Their prospects of returning to cricket, while unclear, are certainly enhanced by the judgment.
Even in 2013, when the Delhi Police first charged the three cricketers under the MCOCA, its intentions appeared extraordinary. The MCOCA is a special law enacted to counter the dangers of serious organised crime. To think that a cricketer, even one who might have taken money to throw matches, could be involved actively in a criminal syndicate that included, among others, notable underworld dons Dawood Ibrahim and Chota Shakeel, was fanciful, if not incongruous. But that, in substance, was the primary claim of the Delhi Police. Now, more than two years after these allegations surfaced, Judge Neena Bansal Krishna's judgment has not only lifted the charges against the cricketers, but has also brought to light a void that prevents the Indian state from effectively punishing those guilty of match and spot fixing.
In all, Judge Krishna's ruling makes three telling points. First, even assuming the three cricketers were involved in spot-fixing, there was no evidence on show to establish their nexus with bookies and brutes, as was alleged. Second, the offence of spot fixing - and, for that matter, match fixing - is not specifically punishable under any Indian penal law. Third, it was impossible to conclude based on available evidence that the three cricketers had, in fact, taken money in exchange for performing any specific feat on the cricket field. Each of these findings is instructive.
Though the allegations against the three cricketers are distinct on facts, a common thread runs through all of them: a woeful lack of corroborative testimony, which ultimately crippled the prosecution's claims. In Chandila's case, the state relied almost entirely on a confessional statement by an individual, Sunil Bhatia, who was purportedly a henchman with links to a number of gangsters involved in the business of fixing cricket matches.
Bhatia had claimed Chandila had been gifted money with specific instructions to underperform, at least, on two separate occasions. Both these times, not only did Chandila fail to flounder to the satisfaction of the bookies, but he also returned the sums allegedly paid to him. According to Judge Krishna's judgment, the prosecution had produced very little evidence to show that Chandila had actually received, and had later returned, these sums of money from the bookies. Their only proof was Bhatia's statement, which, extraordinary as it was, was later retracted by him. What's more, there was no evidence offered showing any direct link between Chandila and Dawood and Shakeel, the alleged masterminds of the criminal syndicate.
Chavan's case was based on similarly tenuous ground. The prosecution had claimed he had received INR 60 lakhs to perform poorly in a match involving his team, Rajasthan Royals, and Mumbai Indians on May 15, 2013. But, according to Judge Krishna, there was no direct evidence that was produced, to show that Chavan actually received this sum of money. Additionally, she ruled, the claims made by his team, the Rajasthan Royals, that they felt cheated by Chavan's actions were incapable of being considered as any proof that he truly underperformed against Mumbai Indians. The entire case against Chavan, therefore, the court held, was conjectural, and completely unsupported by any corroboration.
In the court's opinion, the allegations against Sreesanth were also equally unfounded. The prosecution's case against Sreesanth was built on a series of intercepted phone calls between the cricketer and an individual, P Jiju Janardhan, and between Janardhan and various alleged bookies. According to the police, Janardhan was a close friend of Sreesanth and had convinced him to accept money in return for conceding 14 runs in a specific over. But, the court held, none of the evidence that the prosecution had presented pointed towards Sreesanth's guilt.
The only fact that was even remotely incriminating, according to Judge Krishna, was a conversation between Janardhan and a bookie, Chandresh Patel. Here, Janardhan tells Patel: "[Sreesanth] is a little stubborn about this. He is playing after a long time and he is risking time … maine usko samjha diya [I've explained to him,] but he did not want to take risk." This conversation, according to Judge Krishna, showed, if anything, that Sreesanth had refused to partake in any form of spot fixing. What's more, none of the conversations between Janardhan and Sreesanth, according to the court, established any direct link between the pair and Dawood and Shakeel.
In spite of these acquittals, the path back to active cricket for Chandila, Chavan and Sreesanth is far from assured. The bans imposed against the trio by the BCCI represent actions independent of criminal prosecution. They are sanctions that flow from the board's own internal rules and regulations, including the IPL's Anti-Corruption Code. Unlike criminal law, the standard of proof required to establish wrongdoing under these bylaws is far less onerous. The BCCI would not be required to show beyond all reasonable doubt that the cricketers had indulged in prohibited acts, but would merely have to prove that a preponderance of probabilities points towards such illegality.
A reading of Judge Krishna's judgment appears to suggest that even such minimal evidence, demonstrating any potential offence, might be absent in these cases. The cricketers, therefore, might be in a strong position to approach the BCCI with new petitions to have their bans overturned. Though the BCCI has stood by its original decision, its secretary Anurag Thakur has now confirmed that if a request is made by any of the three cricketers, the BCCI would be willing to consider his case afresh.
Such a review would no doubt be conducted under the various internal rules and regulations that bind the board. The board, unlike the criminal court, would merely have to find that a preponderance of probabilities points towards a violation of its Anti Corruption Code. But any decision by the board upholding the life bans is unlikely to be final. Given that the Supreme Court, in January, confirmed that the decisions of the BCCI might be subject to the jurisdiction of the high courts under Article 226 of the Constitution, the cricketers could even conceivably challenge their bans as tantamount to a violation of their civil rights. However, any such process is unlikely to be swift.
Though the Delhi court was unable to find any evidence that could have established beyond all reasonable doubt that these three cricketers indulged in spot fixing, the court also thought it necessary to point out that, in any event, it might have been difficult to sanction the trio under the criminal law. This is because both spot and match fixing are not specifically delineated as offences under any legislation. What's more, according to Judge Krishna, such acts would also not fall within any other general offence, such as cheating, which required a specific transfer of property interests between the accused and the victim, in this case, the spectators. Therefore, it's arguable that the Delhi police was entirely misplaced in its decision to charge these cricketers of any offence, given that their acts, even if proven, were simply not punishable under Indian penal law.
The legalisation of sports betting is often recommended as a potential panacea to the menace of match fixing. The real problems, though, as the failed prosecution of these three cricketers shows us, is a reliance on the criminal law to punish cases of cheating in sport. Even if spot and match fixing were to be specifically criminalised, to burden an already flailing criminal justice system to solve a muddle that was created by cricket's own maladministration appears to be imprudent.
What cricket needs, on the contrary, is a more organised and accountable domestic regulation. Perhaps, the Lodha Committee's recommendations, when they eventually arrive, will allow cricket the opportunity to clean its own house, and, in the process, to establish a stronger mechanism to counter instances not only of corruption and conflicts of interest, but also offences of match and spot fixing, which strike at the core of the sport's integrity.
Suhrith Parthasarathy is a lawyer and writer from Chennai, India