Indian wrestlers say sex abuse protest is now threatening prospects of Olympic qualification
India’s top wrestlers protesting against the chief of the country’s wrestling association, who is accused of sexual harassment, said their ongoing demonstration is likely to threaten their qualification for the Olympics and other upcoming sporting events.
Wrestlers Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia, and Sakhshi Malik have been taking part in a sit-in at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar – the designated site for protests in the capital – since 23 April.
They have accused Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, a lawmaker from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), of sexual harassment and have demanded police action against him.
On Tuesday – the day that marks a month of their protest – Phogat penned an op-ed for national daily the Indian Express in which she said the athletes will continue protesting against Mr Singh “until he is arrested” and he steps down from his post that he has been in charge of since 2011.
She said the wrestlers are fighting a “bigger battle” despite the hurdle the protest has put their careers in.
“The Asian Games is around the corner and the qualifying cycle for the Olympics is beginning and though we have to represent India and win medals, at the moment this is a bigger battle,” she said in the op-ed.
“Because if we wind up our protest without getting justice, then women who face sexual harassment will stay silent and suffer.”
Phogat is a Commonwealth and Asian Games medallist, while Punia and Malik are Olympians.
The wrestlers resumed their protest last month, after they had called off a three-day stir in January following talks with India’s federal sports minister Anurag Thakur.
The government formed an oversight committee that promised to look into the allegations.
While the committee submitted its report last month, the wrestlers have demanded the contents of the report be made public.
They said they had been forced to resume their protest in the face of government inaction.
“Frankly, when we decided to speak up in January about the sexual harassment women wrestlers faced and the mismanagement in the federation, we believed our voices would matter,” Phogat wrote.
“And for a short time, we believed it did. An Oversight Committee was set up by the Sports Ministry to probe the allegations but we know now that it was an eyewash.”
Also last month, the wrestlers had moved the Supreme Court after they said they had approached Delhi’s police to file a formal complaint on the sexual harassment allegations made by seven athletes, including a minor, but the police had failed to do so.
The police force subsequently filed two First Information Reports (FIRs) last month – the first step to any police action taken on a complaint – but only after the top court stepped in.
Phogat said the last month has been “torture”.
“...as of today, one month since we started the protest, there is no justice in sight. For the complainants talking again and again about being sexually harassed has been like torture,” she wrote.
She said that, like several other women, she too had to suffer harassment at the hands of Mr Singh.
“Like many other girls, I had to suffer silently all these years because of this man and I had no option,” she said.
“Why Brij Bhushan, A Member of Parliament, is being protected is anyone’s guess.”
Mr Singh has been elected to India’s parliament from the northern Uttar Pradesh state six times, five of which were from the BJP.
After weeks of brazening it out, on Sunday, Mr Singh – who has categorically denied any wrongdoing – said he would be “ready to undergo narco test, polygraph test or lie-detector test”, but only on condition that Phogat and Punia “also undergo these tests with me”.
The wrestlers responded by saying they, including the athletes who accused Mr Singh, were ready to undergo the test on live television.
In the last month, members of India’s opposition parties lent their voices to the protest, visiting the wrestlers at Jantar Mantar, in a bid to gain political leverage from the protest.
#WATCH | #Congress leader #SachinPilot arrives at Jantar Mantar in #Delhi to meet the #wrestlers who are protesting against #WFI president #BrijBhushanSharanSingh
— Hindustan Times (@htTweets) May 19, 2023
No minister from the ruling BJP, however, has met the wrestlers.
Earlier this month, Mr Thakur urged them to call off their protest.
“The government has accepted all demands, the Supreme Court has given its direction, and the police is carrying out their investigation,” he was quoted as saying by the Deccan Herald newspaper.
“I urge the wrestlers to call off their dharna and cooperate in conducting a fair and impartial probe. We will ensure that there is justice.”
A day before that, federal minister Meenakshi Lekhi claimed the protest’s credibility was lost as opposition leaders had visited them.
“Politicisation of wrestlers protesting with discredited people sitting there has an impact on it. The matter is in court, action is underway, and with these discredited people joining in what more can be said about it,” she was quoted as saying by the Indian Express.
The ongoing wrestlers’ protest has also brought criticism for the BJP from observers and opposition parties, especially as one of the ruling party’s flagship programmes remains “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” (Save daughters, educate daughters).
Former Indian track athlete PT Usha, the chief of the Indian Olympic Association, also faced backlash last month after claiming the wrestlers tarnished the image of the country.
“Those protesting are renowned wrestlers who brought laurels to the country. They have an equal responsibility of safeguarding the interest of our sports, sportspersons and also the image of our country,” she said.
Wrestler Malik tweeted in Hindi that the wrestlers will observe a candlelight vigil to Delhi’s iconic India Gate on Tuesday evening to mark a month of their protest.