Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat, and Sakshi Malik at the protest site demanding the arrest of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI). [source: Getty Images]
The year was 2016, and champion athlete, Sakshi Malik, had just made the country proud by becoming the first female wrestler to win an Olympic medal for India in Rio. A roaring success for a traditional Indian sport, her achievement was celebrated all over the country by young and old alike, all cheering on the incredible feat and strength of this then-23-year-old who brought home what had till then felt like an out-of-reach treasure. It was a monumental moment for the country and all our female athletes indeed.
Now cut to 7 years later today, when the same Sakshi Malik has put away her wrestling uniform and training material to sit in with a group of India’s most celebrated wrestlers at Jantar Mantar in Delhi, to silently protest the abhorring conditions that young female wrestlers are experiencing at the hands of the authorities in charge of their welfare.
Sakshi Malik in tears at Jantar Mantar. [source: ET]
Several wrestlers in India have taken to the streets to express their dissent towards the shameful acts of intimidation and sexual harassment by the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief, Brij Bhushan Singh, against young female wrestlers in the country. The protests have been marked by sit-ins, hunger strikes, and demonstrations, with athletes from across the country coming together to make their voices heard. And the wrestling community is showing no signs of slowing down till rightful action is taken.
The allegations of sexual harassment by Singh first surfaced in December 2020 when a female wrestler accused him of pressuring her to perform sexual favours in exchange for a place on the national team. After her accusation, many more female wrestlers came forward with similar stories of harassment and intimidation by Singh. Unsurprisingly, these allegations have shaken the spirit of the wrestling community in India, with many demanding that Singh be removed from his position immediately. They allege that the WFI has turned a blind eye to the acts of sexual harassment repeatedly perpetrated by those in leadership positions; and that the only way to hold chief Brij Bhushan Singh accountable is through sustained pressure from the wrestling community. Even with mounting pressure to disband, the athletes stand firm on their decision to continue with the protest for as long as it takes to see visible, bureaucratic and democratic changes within the federation and its policies.
Indian Olympic Association President and Rajya Sabha MP PT Usha meeting with wrestlers Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik and others amid their ongoing protest. [source: Ayush Sharma/ANI Photo]
Over the last few weeks, the protests began to gain momentum as more and more media outlets covered the outrage of the athletes, although it has all been conducted peacefully. However, misreporting is rampant in our country and several stories were squashed or spiced up in order to present the protesting wrestlers in poor light. Renowned athlete PT Usha, who was a part of the committee set up to investigate the sexual harassment allegations was asked for her opinions on the matter. However, her comments were misquoted in the interview. “The players should not have protested on the streets. They should have at least waited for the report of the committee. What they have done is not good for the game and the country. It is a negative approach,” is what her words were reported to be, which she has since clarified as being incorrect. After the sentiments of several wrestlers were hurt by this representation of words, PT Usha herself visited Jantar Mantar to assure the protesting wrestlers of her undulating support and solidarity in the matter, saying that she is first and foremost an athlete and an administrator second. And to comfort the wrestlers with the knowledge that she understands their plight and will fight for truth to prevail.
While we are seeing sympathy for the athletes within the community and citizens, it is heard however, that the police continue to mistreat or disrespect those who have been sitting at the protest site for weeks now. Refusing placement of beds at the venue, late-night scuffles amounting to physical abuse, and lack of female police constables in the vicinity allowing for apparent drunken rough handedness by the police with female wrestlers in the wee hours are only some of the reported stories of harassment that have come to light.
Inspite of all the challenges and severe crisis of humanitarian behaviour at the protest site, the wrestlers are determined to bring about change in the sport of wrestling, and they are not backing down until their demands are met. They argue that the safety and dignity of female wrestlers must be protected, and that no athlete should be subjected to harassment and intimidation in exchange for a spot on the national team.
While the government has set up a committee to investigate the allegations of harassment and malfeasance in the WFI and has promised financial support to wrestlers who have been impacted by the pandemic, several wrestlers remain sceptical about the government’s commitment to reforming the sport. The wrestlers argue that previous committees and representatives have tried (and failed) to address similar issues which require change at the foundational level of how sport organisations are established and operated in India.
The protests have also raised broader questions about the culture of sport in the country and the need for greater accountability and transparency, particularly when it comes to the voice of the athletes themselves. The wrestling community is calling for greater representation in governance, with athletes being actively included in the decision-making process. After all, it is not irrational to expect the people playing the sport to have a say in the hows and whats of the functions, systems and resolutions made on their behalf for their beloved sport.
WFI chief Brij Bhushan Singh says he is ready to take a lie-detector narco test over allegations of sexual harassment if Olympic medallist Bajrang Punia and World Championship medallist Vinesh Phogat also undergo the same test. [source: PTI file]
The wrestlers had demanded an arrest of Singh with May 21st as the deadline, with many of them willing to return their wins and medals if the same was not carried out. The day has come and passed and any action is yet to be taken. It now remains to be seen how the government, investigative community and the sporting authority will rise to the occasion to support the champions who strive to bring India its honour on international grounds everyday.
Updates as of 29th May:
In a terribly disturbing turn of events, the peaceful protests being held by the wrestling community have been turned into what are being claimed as riots by the police. On 28 May, 2023, when the new Parliament building was to be inaugurated, the wrestlers protesting at Jantar Mantar began a silent march towards the inauguration site. However, soon after they began their walk, the police descended upon the destination and began to drag and detain the protesters in a seemingly violent manner. Photos and videos that have surfaced show scuffles and manhandling of the protesters as ugly tussles broke out on the streets of the capital. It is heart-breaking to see photos of the very same athletes who once were cheered and celebrated as they ran victory laps proudly carrying the Indian flag in a stadium after a big win, being pinned down, pulled and dragged away for simply trying to make their voices heard against someone whose mistreatment has been alleged to be widely seen across the sector of wrestling in India. “On the one hand, parliament is being inaugurated, and on the other hand democracy is being murdered. So, this is absolutely intolerable,” said Sakshi Malik, India’s first female Olympic medal winner in wrestling.
Wrestlers Vinesh Phogat and Sangeeta Phogat with others being detained by the security personnel [source: Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma | The Hindu]
Within only a few hours of this gross display of injustice, the police have filed an FIR against the protesters for disturbing the peace, and have called the peaceful march and events that followed as acts of rioting.
“Delhi Police takes seven days to file an FIR against Brij Bhushan for sexual harassment but did not take even seven hours to file an FIR against us for carrying out a peaceful protest. Has the country slipped into a dictatorship? The entire world is watching how the government is treating its players. A new history is being written,” tweeted Vinesh Phogat.
Sakshi Malik celebrates as she is cheered on by the crowds after her win at the Rio Olympics in 2016 [source: JSW sports]
It is a shame to see how champions of Indian sports are being treated in a country that values sportsmanship so highly. Prime Minister Modi is under heavy criticism for his lack of comments or action given that he has claimed (several times) to be a staunch supporter of women’s rights in the country. While the accused, Brij Bhushan Singh attended the inauguration ceremony at the new Parliament building, the tents and other facilities set up for protesters at Jantar Mantar were swiftly removed while police detained the wrestlers during their march. The contrast of reality is becoming rampantly clear, with the wrestlers’ protest likely to come to an unjust and unexpected end. But what does this say about the future of Indian democracy and freedom of speech?
In contrast, Sakshi Malik and Vinesh Phogat, India’s champion wrestlers being detained during the protest [source: PTI photos]
Neha Paranjpe a branding professional by day, and a writer by night. She built her career in marketing, always searching for creative outlets to balance her love for art, literature, and all things beautiful. Always known to be over-emotional, she now considers it her superpower and uses it to her advantage by writing expressive and heartfelt stories about personal experiences. You might often find her scribbling ideas and penning down thoughts in a little notebook she carries everywhere. Give her a cup of strongly brewed coffee, a breezy, sunny day and a good book, and it won’t take much more to make her happy.
You can read more stories by Neha on her Medium profile here – https://neha-paranjpe.medium.com/