The Business of Developing Para badminton in India

In the last one decade, the Badminton World Federation (BWF) has succeeded in bringing Para badminton to the Paralympic Games. Despite having an impressive list of focus areas for development, there are questions yet to be answered with regards to their requisite investment within these areas to make the Para badminton more accessible for everyone.

Despite an impressive media campaign to keep reminding the public about Para badminton’s debut at Tokyo2020, BWF has in recent years failed to address complaints related to failing governance behaviors inside its member countries. Between August 20, 2020 and March 31, 2021, I exchanged multiple emails with John Shearer, Senior Development Manager, BWF. In these emails*, I raised issues related to player’s rights and governance problems inside Indian Para badminton (Key phrases I used in the emails: abuse of power, favoritism, manipulation of vulnerable players to ensure high medal counts). Shearer’s responses made clear of the position that world bodies like BWF take for disability sporting rights.

As the world body for badminton and Para badminton, the BWF does take any governance related issues seriously. However, where a complaint is related to issues at a national level, it is generally the BWF’s position to maintain a level of impartiality and not to become directly involved in matters pertaining to issues at a national level.

– John Shearer’s response to me in one of the emails, March 30, 2021.

Despite the millions of dollars in revenue badminton generates, not one sport sponsor is seeking accountability from the disability rights perspective (BWF’s Para badminton corporate partners). In its run up to Tokyo2020, BWF has run its media strategy to use disabled bodies to project its commitment towards inclusion. However, in its behavior, the world body continues to violate disability rights by turning away from reports of governance failures inside its member countries.

In this article, I unpack how it became possible for an Indian player with a minimal to nil playing record (inside India) to become the country’s rising star for Para badminton debut at the Tokyo2020 Paralympic Games. Through her case, I explain how India’s Para badminton spaces are unsafe and toxic for players with disabilities. Having failed to educate the player and her parents about the toxic culture that they are embedded inside, I further analyzed the available information to identify that: players inside Indian Para badminton community largely know they are navigating the process through corrupt and unfair means. For as long as the system continues to work for them, the players seem to maintain silence. I have watched this happen since Rio2016. As a global citizen who cheers for international players outside India, I realized that what is being projected as rapid development of the sport in India, is in fact, placing Para badminton players from other countries at a severe disadvantage.

Since 2018, the meteoric rise of Palak Kohli as India’s youngest Paralympic entrant raises many questions about the way the sport is developing here. For example, despite the pandemic circumstances, Kohli has managed to stock up points just sufficient enough to get her an entry into Tokyo2020 for doubles while being paired with a veteran player Parul Parmar in the SL3 SU5 Women’s Doubles. If one can notice her qualification for the Games, it is important to note that a doubles qualification guarantees her access to compete in the SU5 matches at Tokyo2020 and Parmar’s SL3 singles event is not a listed event at the Paralympics this year. Additionally, Kohli has also qualified to play Mixed Doubles while partnering with India’s top SL3 player Pramod Bhagat. While the Indian media continues to regurgitate the news that Khanna puts out as ‘inspiration porn’, it is important to ask,

What is the system that para badminton players have to navigate inside India to be able to play at Open events and BWF events internationally? Is that system transparent and accountable to the law of the land?

-Questions to ask about Indian Para badminton

Palak Kohli’s entry into Tokyo2020 is a classic case of how under age players enter the BWF system from countries like India while not taking the standard pathways that other players internationally have to traverse through. And for players like Kohli, the price to pay is they must continue to promote the agenda of individual coaches like Gaurav Khanna who work to operate a parallel system that is not accountable to their country’s Government. I particularly point at media created and published by BWF over the last one year. In these posts, Kohli is seen repeatedly promoting her coach in a highly rehearsed manner. It is interesting to also note that, despite being a new player on the block, Kohli has received precedence in being promoted in BWF posts over other veteran players from India like Pramod Bhagat, the current reigning world no.1 in SL3 Men’s Singles. While using Kohli’s media for social media posts, BWF was aware of my communications to Shearer in which I was reporting against Khanna’s unsafe sport management practices that was making it hard for players to access Para badminton in India.

Having analyzed the social media content of other Para badminton players and their visibility in BWF media, I contend that this was possible because Khanna manages to promote Kohli with the BWF media team. I say this with confidence because Khanna enjoys a direct access inside BWF that has always placed him at an advantage point when it came to pushing the “India” agenda. I recognized this problem when communicating with BWF’s Shyami Sabron several months ago. Before I could hear back from Sabron, I had Khanna calling me to ask why I was sending my questions about Indian Para badminton to BWF.

Why am I using Palak Kohli as the example to explain the business of developing Para badminton in India?

A few weeks ago, during a ClubHouse session where I was asked to speak on India’s Sports Code, Toshan Patil, Co-Founder & Director, Meraki Connect joined the session and particularly asked me a question about – Indian Para badminton players and why I publicly say they violate others’ rightful access to the sport (not verbatim). I had to tell Patil that we could discuss it at a later time as the ClubHouse topic was the sports code**. Patil never reached out to me in writing.

Patil, this write up is for Indians like you. It gives you an insight into what you must learn about sport governance before jumping in to uplift Para sport players in India. What you may be unaware of: A few days before you joining that session, Kohli joined another ClubHouse room and was arguing with me in other sessions while continuing to keep me blocked on her Twitter. Kohli is a player with disability who is deeply conditioned to believe that Khanna is her savior and God. I have had multiple failed conversations with her and recognize what a vulnerable position she continues to remain in (My heart goes out to her but I guess when a robust system is in place, these unsafe spaces will cease to exist). So I hope this and other content I have placed in the public domain will help you educate yourself on how to help Para badminton players through safer means beyond standard sport marketing strategies.

Before you read about Kohli, you must look at this post by a Belgian Para badminton player.

Man Kei-To (P78533) is currently ranked #9 in Women’s Singles WH1

Palak Kohli’s carefully edited Wikipedia page says,

Kohli only para badminton athlete from the country to qualify for both singles and women’s doubles for Tokyo Paralympics 2021

– Last edited entry as of 20 June 2021, at 16:43 (UTC)

Until a couple of years ago, Palak was not a known name in the Para badminton circuit in India. On 12 August 2020, Kohli turned 18 – (she shared this with me in a private conversation when I told her I was not willing to speak to an under age athlete without their parental/guardian being a witness). Prior to 2018, there are no publicly verifiable records of Kohli competing in junior’s category for Para badminton in India.

Infact, India does not have an active junior/sub-junior circuit for Para badminton despite the sport being around in the country for over 25 years.

As of 2019, the last time ‘nationals’ were conducted in India, Kohli is listed as having competed in the Junior’s category (scroll to the end of the linked pdf). Yet, you will also find her mention alongside Pramod Bhagat in the Mixed Doubles SL3-SU5 at the same event. During this event, they lost to a pair Tarun-Jyoti from Haryana (21-18; 24-22). It is unclear how Kohli’s participation was classified at this event.

Image of Kohli at Juniors matches during 2019 Nationals
Kohli on right along with other junior Para badminton players at the 2019 Nationals.

Can a Para badminton player compete both in girls and women’s categories during one national tournament?

– Kohli was both a junior and senior player at the last ‘nationals’ that were conducted in India.

While it can be argued that a player can compete in both categories (girl’s and women’s), it is critical to note that within disability sport spaces (especially developing countries), access to the sport is highly restricted and limited. Multiple factors like poor governance and sport management challenges place the athlete/player is a highly vulnerable and marginalized space. Allowing this practice as an approved competition rule places new entrants into the sport at a perpetual disadvantage. It also defeats the guidelines provided under Article 30 of the UNCRPD which many countries continue to ignore while designing sport policies for its citizens with disabilities. If a player is declaring their capability to compete in the adults division, it is fair to assume that they are superior in their sporting ability. Allowing them to re-enter the junior’s circuit at convenience is unfair to new players entering the sport who choose to compete in their age categories.

Are all players with disabilities who are asking for access being allowed to compete at both levels in India? How has this been possible only for Kohli?

– Kohli competed in girl’s and women’s divisions at 2019 Nationals

Following is the screenshot of doubles event in which Kohli paired with Parul Parmar, a veteran player from India during the 2019 ‘nationals’ tournament. Please make a note that this event is missing some other major names from India in women’s doubles. Additionally, note that the first round had seven ‘bye’ entries. At the same tournament, Kohli competed both in Girls and Women’s categories.

Screenshot of Women's Doubles
Screenshot of the Women’s Double event at India’s last nationals where Kohli breezed through the competition

Two documents are popularly circulated within the India Para badminton player community as the ‘national rankings’ for the sport. Both these files show no mention of any federation’s logo. They do they list any other basic details like the list of officials or the ranking rules that were followed at the tournament where the rankings were declared.

In their Race to Tokyo Doubles ranking, Kohli and Parmar stocked up 1330 points by participating in nine international tournaments. The 2019 Nationals in India were conducted 15 March – 17 March. There is no public evidence available that this event was announced as per the requirements of India’s sports code. Yet, in less than three weeks’ time, Kohli was able to travel to many international BWF events back to back. It remains to be answered how this was possible for a select few players while the national rankings and other guidelines from India’s badminton body are not public and verifiable. Indian Para badminton players’ access to file paperwork with BWF for its events is controlled by Khanna. In 2020, I remember a player telling me,

I don’t know how to navigate the BWF system. So I am dependent on sir (Khanna). And he said just step back this time, I know when to send you.

Khanna’s response to a player when they wanted to apply to compete at a BWF event in 2019.

Starting 2 April (Dubai 2019), including the Uganda International 2019 (where Kohli and Parmar stocked up 560 points), Kohli was able to participate in seven events during 2019 as an under age player. It will be interesting for you to note the participation of players at the Uganda International 2019. I am yet to find another player from all of India for whom this access was possible just after entering the sport less than two years ago.

Screenshot of Kohli and Palak's points
Screenshot of Kohli-Parmar’s points in the Race to Tokyo Doubles Ranking Document

Additionally, the Bhagat-Kohli duo have gained access to compete in Mixed Doubles at Tokyo 2020. Refer to the Race to Tokyo Doubles ranking document on BWF’s website and you will be amazed to see that this duo have only played one mixed doubles event together in 2019. Yet, they occupy a spot at the Paralympics that could have been available to another pair that played more than just one qualifying tournament.

For many Para badminton players, the qualification guidelines are highly confusing. When players with disabilities interact with such a set up that is designed to restrict access to a limited few, their vulnerabilities are further exploited by coaches like Khanna who know the tricks of the trade.

Unlike in Indian wheelchair tennis, Para badminton players in India don’t have a registered status with India’s badminton national body, Badminton Association of India (BAI). So it is difficult to verify what procedures were followed to facilitate Kohli’s access to represent India on multiple occasions while her placement in the system has been unclear from the start.

Seven Para badminton players competing at Tokyo2020 are from India. They are products of a system that is unilaterally controlled by one person who has backdoor access to BWF and its plans to grow the sport selectively. Over the years, complaints about Khanna have fallen through cracks because of India’s obsession for medal winner.

To this date, there is no verifiable system (that is compliant with the National Sports Development Code of India, 2011) through which Indian Para badminton players qualify to play in the international circuit. To ensure equitable access to all Indians (all age groups), the country’s sports code lists a grassroots to nationals pathway. Despite not following such a pathway, in recent years, Para badminton has enjoyed unstinted support from the Indian government (in the form of post-event prize monies and patronage from the Sports Authority of India). BAI to this date maintains silence on how exactly Para badminton is governed in the country. In exception to the page that can be viewed in the screenshot below, there is no other information available in the public domain on topics like Minutes of Meeting when coaches are appointed, how the nationals are planned or how players are chosen to represent India at the Open events or at BWF events internationally.

Screenshot of BAI’s webpage that contains all information about Para badminton (Date of Screenshot: 3 July 2021)

National rankings in India are not publicly listed on BAI’s website. Para badminton players in India do not have a registered player status with the country’s badminton body.

– Facts verifiable by viewing BAI’s website and filing RTIs with BAI

This in turn leaves them to be at the mercy of Khanna and his parallel system that is active in India through a private Whatsapp group which is managed by veteran players like R. Badri Narayanan (as reported by active players from India). From a conversation in 2019, I remember Badri agreeing with me that the entire paperwork and process followed to send players to international events is managed by Khanna based on his arbitrary plans that prioritize medals and prize money over equitable access to sport for all players. In the words of veteran players like Badri, the lopsided set up, manipulating and controlling players with disabilities is better that being fully ignored by the country. After being asked to leave Deaf sport spaces in India because of the toxic culture he was creating, Khanna stepped into the Para badminton spaces in 2015-2016 (Information that is widely known in India’s disability sport spaces). Khanna is known within the community to instruct BAI’s appointed Chairman (Prabhakar Rao) for Para badminton on an as needed basis (for generating official paperwork so as to maintain compliance on paper). It remains to be seen if the same Chairman will be able to travel to Tokyo despite his lack of technical expertise to manage or govern the sport as an able administrator.

The Story So Far

The Para badminton community in India is home to veteran players like Parul Parmar, Girish Sharma, Mark Dharmai, and Anand Kumar. The community is in no shortage of illustrious stories of players with disabilities who have been independently navigating the international competition circuits depending on personal fundraisers and donations from their communities for years now.

Despite impressive records of representing India for several years, journalistic reporting, media presence and voices of the likes of Parmar and Bhagat are largely missing from the Indian Para badminton spaces. Within India Para badminton space, many players acknowledge that, Bhagat for years have been coerced by Khanna to promote his name as ‘the coach’ who has trained him. But for many of us who have watched Bhagat play his game on the court, one thing is clear – he is one of the several players who ‘adapt’ the sport through their own style of playing. Other Para badminton players choosing to stay anonymous mention Bhagat’s coach from Odisha, Coach Das as the real reason behind Bhagat’s prowess as a player. Further, many para badminton players also note that while they know Khanna’s coercive tactics of controlling players can be classified as abuse, little reform is possible in the lopsided set up in India. Internationally, among the Para badminton community, there is a strong dislike towards the conduct that Indian Para badminton players present during tournaments. There are reports of incidents at international tournaments, where Khanna had instructed the large Indian team on how to lose particular matches to ensure that Indians ended up playing against one another and that would lead to a huge medal haul.

To further explain how vulnerable players are forced to take positions that support Khanna in his ambitions, following is the sample of a video which shows Pramod Bhagat and Sukant Kadam, another Para badminton player from India ‘appeal’ for a Dronacharya for Khanna. I will let the video speak for itself. One cannot source content like this within non-disabled sporting spaces in India. At least not in badminton. That is why disability sport spaces cannot have the same rules and safeguards that are applied to non-disabled players.

Sukant Kadam and Pramod Bhagat speaking in video about their ‘Coach Khanna”

In conversations with para badminton players from different regions in the country, I identified that the sport is not really governed by BAI. I back this claim by directing you to the federation’s constitution (Last updated on 11th September 2017 at a Special General Body Meeting of the federation in Cochin, Kerala). The entire document does not show a single mention of the term ‘Para badminton’ or badminton for players with disabilities. BAI’s constitution however lists rules for coaches’ qualifications to be a national team coach (Rule 26: The Association shall every quadrennial year appoint a National Coach preferably a Diploma holder in Badminton and with rich experience and proven credentials). The SAI NSSC, Bangalore offers a Diploma in Sports Coaching (Badminton). There is no record of Khanna ever having obtained a coaching credential to coach Para badminton players.

All efforts to seek information from MYAS/SAI/PCI/BAI about Khanna’s educational qualifications to be named a coach who was eligible for the Dronacharya Award 2020 have failed. Despite illustrious claims in the media about Khanna’s contribution to the sport over two decades, not a single document could be sourced from BAI, PCI, SAI or MYAS that endorsed Khanna’s eligibility to coach or his assignment as a coach for the national team. Additionally, the following was BAI’s response to my request for information about their involvement in the Indian Para badminton scene.

Screenshot of BAI's response to questions about Indian para badminton
BAI’s response to RTI request about their governance of Para badminton in India (September 2019).

UnSafe Sports

Indian Para badminton grew at a rapid speed over the last four years thanks to the ingenious tactics that Khanna has employed to keep every fame-hungry cog of the system fed.

The Indian Government’s approach of developing sport in India largely lacks a scientific approach. The committees convened for policy decisions inside Indian sports rarely have a sport specific researcher who can inform the committee through empirical data and scientific approaches.

BAI is responsible to govern and manage access to badminton for all Indian citizens. The body has never been held accountable by the BWF for failing to follow internationally accepted sport governance standards. Toxic behaviors from Khanna form a long list: coercing players to stay inside the limits he sets for them, forcing players to post positive social media content about him, insisting that players pose for photographs with him where he holds up the medals, expecting all players to pose happily while pointing at his ‘prized catch’ of victory. Multiple players complain about how they find these behaviors of Khanna highly demeaning and ridiculous. As a researcher, I am yet to evidence similar images from other Dronacharyas and national coaches of international repute from India.

Indian Para badminton players dressed in white and black attire posing for a group photo while their coach Khanna is holding up their medals in a bunch standing in the center of the photograph.
Image of Khanna holding medals at an international event in Ireland
Image of Khanna holding medals up in a bunch and disabled players are seen saluting towards him (and the medals)
Image of Khanna holding medals up in a bunch and Para badminton players are seen saluting towards him (and the medals)
Players are dressed in yellow and red athletic attire. The group is posing in front of a giant blue poster of the Brazil International competition.
Image of Khanna holding the medals of Para badminton players in a bunch at a Spanish International event

Image of Khanna holding disabled players' medals while the players salute on scene at an event in Sharjah. Players are dressed in navy blue attire and posing in front of a bright red poster of the Sharjah event
Image of Khanna holding disabled players’ medals while the players salute on scene at an event in Sharjah

As another team of players from India embark on the Paralympic journey, I implore you as a reader to ask yourself these questions:

  • How many other para badminton players exist in India?
  • Do they have access to a democratic system to represent their country at the Paralympic stage?
  • Have they been able to compete in a district to national pathway of competition?
  • Where are the national rankings listed publicly?
  • Can one person function in multiple roles for a sport (coach, manager, facilitate sponsorships and employment opportunities)?

By now to anyone who chooses to enter Para badminton spaces in India, it is evident that Khanna enjoys a backdoor access to BWF. For any player who wants to advance in the sport, the expectations are clearly set. It is either his way or the highway. However I ask the international players who have been cheated off their opportunities to equitably access competition spaces because of Khanna’s politics –

How will BWF explain this unfair advantage that Indian players are enjoying? Is this the path that players must continue to navigate?

*While the confidentiality clause of emails exchanges with world bodies like BWF prevent me from publishing those emails publicly, I can share them with researchers and players who are interested in understanding BWF’s position taking when complaints are raised about corruption and unsafe practices inside a member country.

**Prior to Patil showing up in the ClubHouse session, Kohli’s father and another anonymous account on Twitter was arguing with me about Kohli’s merits to qualify for the Tokyo Paralympics.