A nation’s collective shame. Indian wrestlers, including Olympic medal winners, are on the pavement three months after they were promised action against the Wrestling Federation of India Chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh over allegations of sexual harassment and intimidation.
Not only have the #MeToo charges been treated lightly, the resistance to any proceedings against the alleged offender leads to some serious questions; Singh is a member of parliament belonging to the ruling BJP. Desperate, athletes finally knocked on the doors of the Supreme Court, which has issued a notice to the Delhi police saying the complaints are ‘serious.’
Sakshi Malik, the first Indian female wrestler to win an Olympic medal, tells Gulf News, “From the 21st, we have filed a complaint seeking to get an FIR registered, it has been days, and still there is no FIR, so we have moved the Supreme Court. This time we will not back down as the sports ministry knows everything, and there is nothing new to be discussed. They have to first find a solution.”
Wrestlers under pressure to call off protest
The petition claims inordinate delay in the registration of the FIR by the Delhi police — the force is controlled by the Home Ministry — despite charges also falling under the extremely serious Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) against the WFI chief. A history-sheeter (person with criminal record), Singh has been accused of harassing seven wrestlers, one of them is a minor.
There is more. The 66-year-old politician — a Lok Sabha MP from Uttar Pradesh — has a criminal record, including previous charges of murder and dacoity. In 2021, a video of him slapping an athlete went public, but he blustered through just as he seems to be doing now.
If international champions who are household names have to protest and sleep on the footpath just to get an FIR registered, then the plight of ordinary women taking on the powerful in the country can only be imagined.
The wrestlers who allege that they and their families are facing fresh threats from WFI officials were persuaded to call off their protests in January by Sports Minister Anurag Thakur, and a six-member oversight committee led by boxer Mary Kom was formed. It has failed at the first hurdle, there has been no transparency, and its findings have not been made public by the government. NDTV quotes news agency PTI has having learnt that the committee gives Singh a 5-1 clean chit.
Disheartening if it is true since former athletes who are aware of the insidious system of sports fiefdoms are part of the committee and were expected to fight for their peers. The protesting wrestlers have also accused at least one member of leaking ‘sensitive matters’ while none of their demands, they say, have been met.
It is tragic that despite keeping their protest apolitical earlier, the wrestlers have been forced to ask for support from one and all. Those denigrating their changed stance have missed the wood for the trees. It is not a reflection on the athletes but a spotlight on the plight of non-cricketing sports which get us Olympic glory but are treated with disdain. Those on the pavement are the same people the politicians leech onto when they win medals to leverage a pie of the limelight.
A few days earlier, the prime minister spoke about transforming India into a sporting nation, instead while his party MP is sheltered, elite wrestlers are forced to train on the streets. Olympic bronze medallist Bajrang Punia didn’t miss the irony of asking, “When players win medals, you stand with them. When they are on the road, you are silent.”
The government, women ministers and the National Commission for Women are conspicuous in their lack of support.
For the politicians, our athletes are but a means to an end. The sports ministry asking the Indian Olympic Association to run the daily affairs of the wrestling federation convinces no one. Whose patronage allows Brij Bhushan not to be the fall guy? Is this special treatment or just the new normal where punishment is selective? Delhi police are known to file FIRs with alacrity.
The Indian sports arena can put anyone who isn’t tough on the mat. Success comes despite a system infested with politicians running federations for a power game and financial grab.
Champions have been sidelined or asked to move away by preening politicians at their felicitations. “It is about our safety and if we international medal-winning female wrestlers are not safe, then who is safe?” asks Commonwealth and Asian Games gold medallist Vinesh Phogat whose family was the subject of the Bollywood movie Dangal.
An opponent of a different kind
Food for worrying thought. If international champions who are household names have to protest and sleep on the footpath just to get an FIR registered, then the plight of ordinary women taking on the powerful in the country can only be imagined. From podium to pavement, this is the tale of Indian sports where an opponent is not always the one who is faced.
Should our wrestlers protest, or should they perform? This could have been a turning point if the bout was not being played unfairly.
When #MeToo rocked the American gymnastics team, including its star Simone Biles, there was an uproar, and the team doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to life in prison for sexual misconduct. Back home, everything is being done to save the alleged culprit, and that is the real face of slogans like beti bachao.