The independent inquiry committee looking into allegations of sexual misconduct against the BCCI CEO Rahul Johri has been criticised for using language that will "dissuade and discourage people from coming forward". That's the view of leading women's right lawyers contacted by ESPNcricinfo after Aditya Verma, who sought to depose before the committee, said he felt the first response he received from the three-member panel was trying to "scare away complainants".
Verma, the whistleblower whose original litigation resulted in the Lodha reforms, had earlier written a letter to the BCCI's Committee of Administrators (CoA), accusing it of "hushing up" a previous complaint of alleged sexual harassment against Johri from a BCCI employee. The CoA has never acknowledged such a complaint. Now, Verma aside, former Mumbai captain Shishir Hattangadi has also offered to help out with a fresh complaint of alleged sexual misconduct that pertains to a time when Johri was the board CEO.
Responding to the messages received from Verma and Hattangadi, the committee said in an email: "At the outset we expect from you to demonstrate your bona fides and locus standi to put forth your statement, material before the committee." ESPNcricinfo has seen this email, which goes on to ask of the complainants: "Are you friend/guardian, close relative, husband of the alleged sexually harassed lady or woman, employee of BCCI or a visitor to the premises office or in some way associated with the affairs of BCCI? How are you connected with the subject matter?"
In his response to that email, Verma has objected to both the language used and the concept of locus standi (as defined by the Cambridge dictionary, locus standi is the right or ability to bring a legal action to a court of law or to appear in a court). ESPNcricinfo has seen Verma's response, in which he has also pointed out that a member of the independent committee, Veena Gowda, had been excluded from the mail sent by the committee. Gowda is also an external member of internal complaints committees at the BCCI and other corporations under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. Moreover, the committee has failed to maintain confidentiality in communication by marking both Verma and Hattangadi on the same email.
"This committee needs to appreciate the fact that the principle of locus standi does not stand the test of public interest," Verma wrote, referring to earlier Supreme Court rulings that have found the BCCI to be "discharging public functions".
"In the case of BCCI, which is a body that performs some public functions, the organisation cannot hide behind the veil of locus standi, especially in the case where their top functionary is accused of sexual harassment or worse. An attempt by the committee to thwart a member of the public from bringing to its notice information that may be relevant flies in the face of the judgments of the Hon'ble Supreme Court."
Verma went on to write: "The message that your email carries seems to be one to scare away complainants rather than to make it conducive for them to complain about being harassed. It lacks the basic sensitivity required to deal with such situations."
This is a sentiment that finds resonance with prominent women's rights lawyers. Vrinda Grover, lawyer, researcher and human and women's rights activist, told ESPNcricinfo: "The communication of the committee should encourage people to come forward because the probe is against a very powerful, high-profile man. The tone and tonality should not dissuade or frighten the person putting the statement forward. The way this [email] is crafted, the presumption is that I am a motivated person if I am giving a statement out. The presumption should be otherwise, because I am not the one you are inquiring into.
"The committee is completely right in asking the person to present a statement and/or material evidence that is relevant, but to ask a person to first demonstrate their bona fides (as per the Cambridge dictionary, bona fides refers to the abilities and experience that make someone suitable for a particular job or activity, or proof of these abilities and experience) is quite unwarranted. Under any proceeding, whether it's an inquiry or a trial, the witness must be relevant, but to ask a witness to prove their bona fides is in my view counter-productive. That will dissuade and discourage people from coming forward and the objective of the committee will be lost.
"I would go to the extent of saying that they [the committee] should be asking that person, 'Would you want us to provide you confidentiality? Do you apprehend any retaliation? Do you need any support?' That is how you encourage witnesses.
"Also for a committee examining a complaint of sexual harassment, it is imperative that all communications and proceedings of the committee are sensitive and respectful. For instance, it's a bit baffling why the email insists on making a distinction between a lady and a woman. Also, why does the email specifically ask if the person is the husband, when it has already asked the person to clarify whether they are a family member or relative. Surely that would include a husband too? It's very crucial for all communications of the committee to demonstrate gender sensitivity, respect and impartiality."
Abha Singh, a former civil servant and a lawyer in the High Court of Judicature in Bombay, told ESPNcricinfo: "Such types of emails by an official committee are uncalled for. An inquiry committee should themselves exhort a person to provide information and leads, which may help unravel the hidden evidence. If a person has some incriminating information against the delinquent, it is the duty of the committee to call him for a statement and to interrogate him, in case they find there is something amiss or if they feel that more evidence or clarifications are necessary.
"In short, the disposition of the committee should be to welcome informers and those who possess incriminating evidence. To send such discouraging emails would not be conducive to a complete and in-depth probe. They are a regrettable aberration on part of the committee."
Gowda aside, the three-member independent committee includes Rakesh Sharma, former judge at Allahabad High Court, and Barkha Singh, former chairperson of Delhi Commission for women.
Today is the last date for people - within or outside BCCI - to reach out to the inquiry committee on the e-mail address provided (email@example.com). Over the next two days, the committee will study the material it receives and then call people it "considers necessary to appear and depose". It is understood that if the committee seeks more time, the CoA will be willing to extend the time frame to complete the probe.