The Indian Olympic Association has formed a seven-member panel, which includes boxers Mary Kom and Yogeshwar Singh, to look into the sexual harassment allegations against Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president and BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. The decision came after a group of wrestlers held two rounds of talks with Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur, which followed a three-day sit-in that began on January 18 at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi.
The government has also set up an oversight committee to run the WFI, which will additionally look into the allegations against the body and its chief. The committee is expected to submit its report within four weeks, though no time frame has been set for the IOA probe panel.
On January 19, IOA president P.T. Usha requested athletes to come forward and voice their concerns. Olympic medallists Bajrang Punia, Sakshi Malik and Ravi Dahiya as well as World Cup medallists Vinesh Phogat and Deepak Punia submitted a written complaint to Usha against Singh and accused him of sexual and mental harassment as well as misuse of funds.
According to them, many young wrestlers had complained about Singh’s harassment and the future of wrestling was at stake. The wrestlers had refused to call off the protest until Singh was removed and an inquiry was launched.
The letter from the athletes detailed the mental harassment that Vinesh Phogat faced after she failed to win a medal at the Tokyo Olympics. Vinesh is the cousin of renowned wrestler Babita Phogat (The film Dangal was made on the Phogat sisters, Geeta and Babita, and their father Mahavir Phogat, who is a wrestling legend himself). The Phogat family was at the forefront of the protest at Jantar Mantar.
In their letter, the complainants asked the IOA to fire Singh, disband the WFI and set up a new committee to run the federation. Singh, a five-time BJP MP, is a sitting Member of Parliament from Kaiserganj, Uttar Pradesh. He rubbished the charges and refused to step down, saying that he was “elected by the people”. However, Singh then proceeded to step down on Friday night, reportedly on the instructions of the Sports Ministry and in response to mounting criticism against him.
WFI rejects charges
A WFI official said that Singh had not resigned but only stepped aside for the inquiry. In its letter to the Sports Ministry, the WFI blamed vested interests for the protests and termed the charges as malafide, malicious and unfounded. The WFI said that since it was an elected body, there was no scope for mismanagement or arbitrariness as alleged. The WFI had enhanced the image of the sport, nationally and internationally, it said.
The WFI said the athletes’ complaints were part of a deeper conspiracy as elections to the WFI management were due later this year. It also pointed out that all the protesters were from Haryana and that there was a hidden agenda to malign the present management.
The WFI letter also said that the body had constituted a “sexual harassment committee” to look into the complaints of abuse. The protestors, however, pointed out that the panel consisted of only one woman. The WFI committee’s lone female member was Olympic medallist Sakshi Malik. Ironically, Malik was one of those who had submitted the complaint to the IOA against the WFI president. Malik had joined the protests at Jantar Mantar as well.