Why India Must Not Fail Santhi Soundarajan
Perhaps an Indian rakhi can stir a response for the honour of India, which was deprived by the colonial notion of fixed genders.
It was when I was in my 10th standard that Santhi burst into my awareness through the newspapers. Remember the athlete, whose medals were taken away at the Doha Asian Games in 2006? Yes. The name of that girl, is Santhi. Her full name is Santhi Soundarajan. This news interested me, who because of my own gender identity crisis then, was undergoing some kind of a personal trauma myself. She too has been stripped of her medal at Doha and subsequently the 11 medals she had already won for her nation, because she was not considered female by some non-Indian authorities in Doha. I felt a strong sense of identity with her. I know instinctively that she has been wronged.
But even in my wildest of the dreams I never thought I would end up challenging the gender testing policies of ‘International Association for Athletic Federation’ (IAAF) which in turn have been approved by International Olympic Committee (IOC).
On 2012, I found myself organising a parade on the occasion of Polymath Alan Turing’s Centenary Celebrations. The great formulator of ‘Turing Test’ for artificial intelligence was a gay and was compelled to commit suicide for his sexual preference. So we celebrated his birth centenary as gender queer pride parade in Madurai, my home town. And it would turn out that that parade would become Asia’s first gender-queers pride parade. And here I featured Santhi’s story as an incomplete struggle for justice. She is a victim of our system, and the feminists of the day allowed this injustice to happen to her in the full limelight of the media.
This led to another development. A friend of mine in the media put me in touch with Santhi herself.
I still remember my first conversation with her. Stammering because of excitement I told her over the phone in a choking voice “akka, (elder sister) I am your first fan, I love you so much, I want to support you and I want you to stand up for justice.” I could not have phoned either in the most inappropriate or the most appropriate time – depending upon how you look at it. She comes from a scheduled caste Tamil Hindu family. She has been the hope of her family to come out of poverty. Now that hope has been demolished suddenly and she has been thrown into ridicule and humiliation. The winner of 12 medals for India, was working then in brick kiln. Already some people had contacted her, promised her help and had disappeared as fast as they had appeared. So she gave me a polite almost unconcerned ‘thank you’. I could feel the resignation in her voice.
But there has been one difference with my call. I had called her akka and this was the first time some stranger has called her by that name. That did something in her she would later tell me. I felt the system-imposed fatalism in her voice. And I said again, “akka! it’s not only about what you have undergone but it’s also about ensuring no other sportswoman undergoes what you underwent. So we must fight to get your medal back.”
Seldom do I know that with these words I would enter into a battle with a web of power elitism and vested interests entrenched in the system. Already South Africa has as a nation stood by Caster Semenya, when the very same IAAF tried to subject her to humiliation and strip her off the medal. She not only got back the medal because South Africa stood by her but she would go on to win a gold medal in 2016. But we as a nation have failed Santhi and we never cared.
But what horrific humiliations Santhi was subjected to by IAAF even as Indian officials were mute spectators was something I never imagined in the least. When I met her at her Kathakuruchi village in Pudukottai district, she was holding my hands and she narrated me what happened in Doha:
Gopi, I was kept nude for more than half a day for that physical examination, about which I had not an iota of an idea. I do not know for what I was getting tested. I did not even know that it was a gender test. As the team of male doctors came in, I searched pathetically for the Indian doctor who had accompanied us. He was nowhere to be seen. These male doctors, alien to my gender, alien to my language, alien to my nationality, asked me questions I did not even understand as I stood before them naked. Then they gestured me to urinate in front of them…
She broke down before me.
I know what humiliation is, that too for people like us. But I was never prepared for this. Here is a woman who had won medals for India, coming from such a humble background. Her house had no electricity. There was no running water facilities. The surroundings were unhygienic. Even her winning moments had been seen by her parents on the television sets of wealthier neighbours. And with a single pair of borrowed shoes she had won 12 medals for India. Yet when she underwent this humiliation, nay almost a rape, in the very world stage, not a single soul in the entire Indian contingent then in Doha raised even a low decibel voice.
When Santhi was finally stripped of her medal, the Mother India was stripped off her honour at Doha, I felt. Perhaps the silence is understandable too. After all when Draupadi was dishonoured in the court of Kauravas, the entire court kept silence. If you cannot believe the epic, it was relived at Doha.
Santhi revealed her greatness to me even in that time of total desperation. ‘I want the medals back not for me but for this nation,’ she told, ‘And sympathy is the last thing I need. I do not need it!’ Deep inside her Olympic gold medal dream lay shattered into zillion pieces by the sheer ineptitude and indifference of the officials of the very country for which she ran. “You will realise your dreams akka.” I told her, “You will continue to run through the girls you shall coach. The flame shall never die." She gave a dry laugh. “Cannot you see the family condition for yourself Gopi? How can I spend my time in coaching?”
Yes. Unless the government wills to get back the medals and recognises her passion to make Indian girls get medals, how can she, who in utter poverty, working in brick kiln, do anything at all in the field of athletics again?
Santhi shall be my cause, I resolved then and there.
But I do not know whom to contact. Already in 2014, at the Annual Hindu Spiritual and Service Fair, Bharatiya Janata Party leader Vanathi Srinivasan had surprised all by launching my book on LGBTQIA issues. That gave me a ray of hope. I contacted the BJP leader to take up the cause with the central government. She took a very personal interest and collected Rs 50,000 and handed it over to Santhi. She also fixed an appointment to meet the then Sports Minister Sarbananda Sonawal, Transport Minister Pon Radhakrishnan and also Santhi’s co-athlete, Olympian and present Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore to help her to get a permanent job as an athletic coach and to restore her 800m silver medal from the 2006 Doha Asian Games. Pon Radhakrishnan, also took the pain of writing personally to Sonowal to release the cash award to Santhi.
The response from the ministry, and not from the minister, to the request for the release of prize money and a permanent job under sports quota dealt a massive blow to Santhi’s receding hopes. Santhi was curtly informed through a letter that since the medal has not been restored to her, the ministry cannot give Rs 10 lakh cash award for the medal. Also, the ministry does not provide or recommend jobs in central/state government offices. Despite the wishes of the political goodwill that has come now, still the power of the entrenched vested interests in the system was immense.
Slowly things started dawning on me. The public humiliation as well as stripping of medal was done during the reign of Lalit Bhanot, who is a confidante of former Indian Olympic Association (IOC) chairman Suresh Kalmadi. The duo had been convicted in the 2010 Commonwealth Scam and had gone to Tihar. However, even after the power change in 2014, Bhanot continues his influential presence in the world of sports. He is the vice-president of ‘Asian Athletics Association’. The shameful incident happened during Congress tenure where Kalmadi was the chairperson IOC for more than a decade.
In 2009, in wake of Caster Semenya case and with the prospect of facing the inevitable criticism of inaction, Bhanot told BBC with rhetorical flourish:
Why should not Soundararajan get her medal back? If they give the medal to Semenya, we can think of fighting (Santhi’s case) with the international authorities.
But Santhi’s own experience of Bhanot was not something that proactive or even empathetic. In 2006, immediately after the return from Doha, at the residence of C K Valson, an official close to Bhanot, that Santhi was asked to sign a few papers. Santhi recalls how it was Bhanot who insisted on her signing the papers, which were in English, a language she did not understand. Then Bhanot talked to Santhi. The only words that Santhi understood would always be etched bitterly in her memory. “You cannot do sports anymore.” When she asked why, she was simply told, “It's been confirmed, you cannot compete in sports.” No papers was handed over to Santhi herself.
When I asked Santhi for her gender test reports, she said she haven’t even seen them. I told her to file RTI, to get the reports, the communications and relevant information. So, after a decade, in 2016 she filed the RTI petition to Sports Authority of India (SAI), Athletics Federation of India (AFI), Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. What we received were all contradicting each other but they were consistent in one thing: they were all negative. The AFI’s RTI response says that they did not bar Santhi from doing athletics, while other authorities – IOA, SAI, the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports – have all responded by saying that the matter did not pertain to them.
It could have been a comical scene from ‘Yes Minister’ but for the immense tragedy involved in Santhi’s case. Already she had attempted suicide. Time was running out for them.
Even the NCSC commission initially did not act on her complaint. Incidentally, then it was headed by Mr Punia, a Congress member of Parliament. At the corridors of bureaucratic power we were humiliated repeatedly. Insensitive dark moments ate into our vitals when questions were hurled by top bureaucrats like ‘Santhi, Who? A man or woman?’ etc. Standing there alone powerless and humiliated before the bureaucratic power web of Delhi, I understood one thing. Even with change of power, the need for systemic reform is very urgently needed.
We have failed Santhi!
Meanwhile, Advocate Sathyachandran, who had read our interviews in various local newspapers, contacted us and filed a case for Santhi in Madras High Court, to get her a job. On 29 July 2015, the Madras High Court has given the state government to consider Santhi’s plea. Justice D Hariparanthaman directed the Secretary of the Youth Welfare and Sports Development to “consider her claim for the post of coach by granting requisite relaxation as a special case”.
As a final attempt, we approached the state government on September 2016. State Sports Minister Mafoi K Pandiyarajan had given an appointment. His personal secretary Mr Ramesh gave a patient two hours hearing to the entire sordid episode. He was visibly moved. Then a miracle happened. On 20 December 2016 Pandiyarajan offered Santhi a permanent job as an athletic coach.
In the case of Caster Semanya the Prime Minister of her nation stood by her. The International Committee, was forced to sit back and swallow a jagged pill. ‘Is every female athlete who surpasses expectations going to be questioned in such a manner?’ was the question South Africa raised. The IAAF was forced to issue an apology, and the nation is richer by a gold medal in 2016 Rio Olympics. More importantly, the land of Mahatma Gandhi has a lesson now to learn from the land of Nelson Mandela.
In 2009, Santhi raised her voice in support of Caster Semenya. She told The Time magazine:
Semenya should not let them take away her medal, or allow one test to determine her fate. She is a woman and that’s it, full stop, a gender test cannot take away from you who you are. Who decides what I am.
Later in 2016 when Santhi asked me to start a twitter account for her, Caster surprised us by following Santhi’s twitter handle and by sending a message of love, gratitude and support. Meanwhile, in 2014, the same fate of Santhi was repeated. This time it was within India. Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, 19, had been banned since 2014 summer after failing a hormone test. In a historical verdict on July 2015, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has suspended the IAAF's "hyperandrogenism" gender test rules for two years and termed the gender test ‘unscientific’.
So the battle continues. Santhi’s fight is neither for sympathy nor for herself. It is for the nation. It is for the human dignity. The fight will have the ultimate victory when Santhi will have the medals she won returned to India. On August 2016 during the auspicious day of Raksha Bandhan, Santhi sent a rakhi to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Praising Modi for ushering ‘in an era of openness, of righteousness, debates and discussions’ she addressed him as her ‘elder brother’. She ended her letter by telling Modi that she would soon get a reassurance from him ‘that she is not ignored. Or forgotten. And that justice will be served’. Prime Minister promptly responded to her rakhi and addressed her as ‘Dear Sister’.
Today, with Modi government’s renewed efforts to cleanse the system of tainted personalities in bodies like IOA, restoring the medals to India which it lost through the indifference of the previous regime and through a pseudo-scientific gender test seems to become a real possibility. Perhaps an Indian rakhi can stir a response for the honour of India, which was deprived by the colonial notion of fixed genders.
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