Barely had Ajit Prakash Shah taken charge as the Board of Control for Cricket in India's first ombudsman on December 14, 2015 when his email got flooded by a slew of complaints. The soft-spoken retired judge of the Supreme Court had a clear brief—sort out all complaints related to conflict of interest in Indian cricket. He received the highest number of complaints from a person called Neeraj Gunde.
An engineer turned entrepreneur, Gunde calls himself a “cricket activist”. He claims he is an old friend of BJP leader Subramanian Swamy and knows former BCCI president N. Srinivasan. “I have been following this BCCI story [regarding Srinivasan] and the PIL filed by Aditya Verma of Cricket Association of Bihar. I have known Srinivasan for long. Dr Swamy and I have been working together on many other PILs. We have been friends for over four decades,” he said. Gunde has filed complaints against former BCCI presidents Sharad Pawar and Inderjit Singh Bindra, former Indian Premier League commissioner Lalit Modi, BCCI secretary Anurag Thakur, former India skipper and current Cricket Association of Bengal president Sourav Ganguly, off spinner Harbhajan Singh, BCCI media manager Nishant Arora, national selector Vikram Rathour, junior selector Rakesh Parikh and many others.
Shah has been swift in acting on the complaints, seeking responses and sending each directive and response back to complainants. He disposed of the complaints against Pawar and Bindra as they were related to matters dating to 2007-08. Shah is looking only into complaints related to the current administrators and conflicts of interest. Thakur, Ganguly and Harbhajan have responded to his queries.
Thakur has been accused of having a business partnership with Rathour. Gunde sent documents to establish that Thakur was director in companies that had Rathour's family members as directors. Ganguly has been alleged to be in a business partnership with Sanjeev Goenka of RPG Group. Both are co-owners of the Indian Super League football team Atletico de Kolkata. Goenka owns the IPL team Rising Pune Super Giants.
Harbhajan allegedly owns a sports apparel company which provides kits to six state teams. He responded saying that he had given the kits free. Gunde had alleged that Lalit Modi had an MoU with his brother wherein he promised to give up 50 per cent of his share in three IPL teams in return for support against his industrialist father. Ombudsman has responded saying the matter was being investigated by the Enforcement Directorate.
Shah has been getting complaints from state associations as well. K.C. Kajaria, former president of National Cricket Club in Kolkata, wanted a clarification on Shah's jurisdiction on matters related to a state association. Shah has asked the BCCI about this.
Gunde, who lives in Chembur near Mumbai, has often been a helpful “source” for media houses. He dismissed the allegation that he was a proxy for Srinivasan. “Is Srinivasan in BCCI today? Has he been held guilty by any court of law? Has he been convicted ever? How am I a proxy then? I have never denied my friendship with him or Dr Swamy,” he told THE WEEK.
Shah has responded to Gunde on ten complaints. Gunde has sought further clarifications on the responses and says he will go to court if he is not “satisfied by the ombudsman's final order”. Despite the setbacks he suffered of late, it seems Srinivasan's fight against the BCCI is nowhere near an end.
Interview/ Former Supreme Court judge Ajit Prakash Shah, ombudsman, BCCI
I have received 27 complaints in three months
Could you describe your interaction with BCCI president Shashank Manohar, when he approached you to take up the role of ombudsman?
He requested me to be the ombudsman, and I gave my consent. The idea of an ombudsman in a sports body is, in my understanding, the first-of-its-kind in India. In that sense, it is an important and unusual responsibility. And, as it is cricket, the most popular sport in the country, this responsibility becomes more onerous.
How did you start this new innings?
As ombudsman, I believe following principles of natural justice and due process is crucial. Transparency and speedy resolution of complaints, too, are important. I have received 27 complaints in less than three months.
Are you going by the definitions of conflict of interest outlined by the BCCI or the Lodha Committee?
The understanding of conflict of interest is contextual. In the BCCI's case, conflict of interest has been defined by way of rules, which is the guiding factor for the ombudsman. The Lodha Committee has provided examples of what may constitute conflict of interest.
How clear are administrators, players and other stakeholders about what constitutes conflict of interest?
There is much misunderstanding.... Sometimes the rules are misinterpreted by those who approach the ombudsman. In disposing of these applications, I explain why the complaint does not hold good.
Even the potential of a conflict of interest arising is a big issue, which most people fail to understand. Your comments.
Sometimes conflict of interest is not obvious, and there may be a potential for it. In this regard, some queries have been raised with the BCCI, and I am awaiting a response.
You said you get a lot of unnecessary complaints. Could you explain?
For example, I received a two-line email asking, 'Can I complain to you about injustice [in a particular cricket association]?' How can one respond to an email like this? Similarly, I received an email commenting on what that person believed were poor selections to the national team, and wanted them dropped!
Is there any screening process? Take the case of cricket activist Neeraj Gunde, who has filed a dozen complaints. Do such patterns look suspicious or agenda-driven to you?
There is no screening process; each complaint is scrutinised by the ombudsman. I do not wish to comment on complainants.
Is it mandatory for officials and players to respond to complaints? There has been a case of you seeking response from the BCCI president, but he is yet to respond.
No one has refused to cooperate with the ombudsman. Some queries may be pending, but the BCCI president has fully cooperated.
How do you deal with matters that may be related to ongoing litigation? For instance, the case involving Cricket Association of Bihar.
I do not wish to comment on the CAB matter. If a complaint pertains to an ongoing litigation, it must be determined whether the issues in the two matters are the same. If so, the ombudsman may not be able to address the matter.