Turmoil at WFI threatens country’s Olympic prospects

Thanks to Brij Bhushan Singh’s continuing sway over the WFI, India’s wrestling medals hang in the balance just months short of the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Published : Jan 04, 2024 13:18 IST - 6 MINS READ

Wrestlers’ ProtestChander Shekhar Luthra
Wrestler Sakshi Malik during a press conference after Sanjay Singh, an associate of BJP MP and former chief of Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, became the new President of WFI, in New Delhi, on December 21, 2023.

Wrestler Sakshi Malik during a press conference after Sanjay Singh, an associate of BJP MP and former chief of Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, became the new President of WFI, in New Delhi, on December 21, 2023. | Photo Credit: VIJAY VERMA

Brij Bhushan’s supporters believed he had swung it at the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) offices after results were announced at the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) elections.

Participants lifted their hands and let out ecstatic cries as soon as it became evident that Sanjay Singh, Brij Bhushan’s close confidant and business partner, had won the presidency. Outside the IOA premises, the group seemed in full control after a show-of-strength head count.

Any reserve was abandoned in the excitement of victory. They now publicly declared to the world that their “Netaji”, accused of sexual harassment by India’s internationally renowned and medal-winning women wrestlers, had returned.

Clearly, the result was anticipated. In a matter of minutes, blatant posters with the words “dabdaba hai, dabdaba rahega (we are in power, we will stay in power)” appeared out of nowhere. It was apparent that the BJP MP would continue to oversee the day-to-day operations of the wrestling body even after being removed from office.

With his right-hand man Sanjay Singh having won 13 of the 15 seats in the WFI elections, and as men drunk with power and decked in garlands surrounded Brij Bhushan, he had every reason to believe that despite being framed in the Delhi Police charge sheet, he would continue to remain “unaffected” by protests or by the law of the land.

Also Read | Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh: The bahubali neta

But there was an anti-climax. The newly elected WFI office-bearers who immediately ran to Brij Bhushan’s government residence had made a gross misjudgement. The pictures of Brij Bhushan being garlanded, along with him announcing the tournament schedule and waving V-signs to the cameras, did not go down well in public sentiment.

Wrestler Sakshi Malik immediately announced her retirement. Bajrang Punia returned his Padma Shri award a day later. Multiple World Championship medallist Vinesh Phogat returned her Khel Ratna and Arjuna Awards.

Expecting a public backlash, BJP president J.P. Nadda summoned Brij Bhushan, who, in turn, was forced to announce his “retirement” from wrestling. The government stepped in, and Sanjay Singh’s panel was suspended within three days of being elected.

Does this signify that the Netaji Era of Indian wrestling is over?

Not likely.

Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh with the newly-elected president of the Wrestling Federation of India Sanjay Singh at the former’s residence in New Delhi on December 21, 2023.

Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh with the newly-elected president of the Wrestling Federation of India Sanjay Singh at the former’s residence in New Delhi on December 21, 2023. | Photo Credit: Manvender Vashist Lav

To understand why, look at the WFI election voting pattern. The only wrestler who competed, the former gold medallist at the Commonwealth Games, Anita Sheoran, was defeated 40-7 by Brij Bhushan’s hand-picked candidate.

Clearly, not even the extensive FIRs or declarations made to the magistrate by the women who claimed that Netaji had sexually harassed them swayed the 40 members who voted for the Brij Bhushan faction.

All these members belong to a closed, comfortable club, where Brij Bhushan is the “Big Boss”. Netaji had requested them for their vote, and they complied.

Also Read | Lifting the gauntlet

One could say that Brij Bhushan’s empire would have collapsed if Anita had taken over as WFI chief. The optics would have been excellent. But how could a female chief be allowed into this “all-male club”?

Why and how does a five-time MP like Brij Bhushan cling to his position despite the public humiliation and serious accusations of sexual harassment?

One pointer to his power is that even after weeks of protest by many prominent wrestlers, the Sports Ministry-appointed (January 23, 2023) six-member enquiry committee’s report, headed by MC Mary Kom, has never been made public for reasons best known to the government only. Even the assurance given by the Sports Minister Anurag Thakur to agitating wrestlers almost a year ago that “a woman administrator would be elected to the top post” fell flat in the face of Brij Bhushan’s power. Not only this, after the election, it was announced that the under-15 and under-20 nationals would be held in Nandini Nagar, Brij Bhushan’s Gonda constituency.

This is what Brij Bhushan’s dominance is all about. He attended the inauguration of the new Parliament building on the very day when the protesting women wrestlers (including only women’s Olympic medallist Sakshi Malik) were forcibly dragged away by the same Delhi Police who did not have the courage to even file an FIR against Brij Bhushan. (It is another matter that the same Delhi police submitted on September 16 in Delhi’s Rouse Avenue Court “that the OC had never exonerated the sitting Member of Parliament from charges of sexual harassment”.)

However, the naked show of power did not go down well with the Sports Ministry. Even as WFI’s new body was suspended on charges of “behaving with blatant disregard for the established legal and procedural norms”, the Ministry wrote to the IOA to put together an ad-hoc committee to oversee and manage all WFI operations, including athlete selection.

IOA also formed a panel to run WFI affairs under the Bhupinder Singh Bajwa-led ad-hoc committee. The Wushu Association of India (WAI) president Bajwa, assisted by former hockey Olympian MM Somaya and former women shuttler Manjusha Kanwar, announced January 9, 2024, as the new date for national camps.

The ad-hoc panel announced that national camps for men and women would begin in Sonepat and Patiala, respectively, on February 9 after the conclusion of the Nationals on February 5. This was expected to give the wrestlers time to prepare for the Asian Olympics qualifying and World qualifying tournaments.

However, all is far from well. The suspension by the Sports Ministry means “nothing” for the WFI. The IOA’s three-member ad-hoc committee, which was entrusted with running the WFI’s day-to-day operations, has been flatly rejected by the Sanjay Singh-led panel.

The panel has even rejected the ministry’s suspension of its newly formed Executive Committee (EC) and decided to conduct the senior nationals at dates and venues of its choice. It has even threatened to stop WFI member state associations from sending entries to the ad-hoc committee’s nationals in Jaipur, to be held from February 2 to 5.

Sanjay Singh has also sent letters to the IOC and United World Wrestling (UWW), the sport’s global governing body, complaining about “government interference”.

With the state wrestling federations under the control of Brij Bhushan aides, it seems unlikely that his “chosen candidate” can be defeated even in future elections.

Also Read | Geetanjali Shree writes: The wrestlers’ cause is everybody’s cause

But, with less than seven months left for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games, it is the future of Indian wrestling that remains shrouded in confusion and uncertainty.

The sport’s authorities are now engaged in negotiations about the senior national team and the upcoming training camps. As a result, for no fault of theirs, young wrestlers who hope to establish themselves internationally are faced with immeasurable collateral damage. The sport that has brought medals to India at the last four Olympics (2008 Beijing, 2012 London, 2016 Rio, and 2021 Tokyo) is facing an existential crisis with the WFI suspended.

The government must now find ways within the laid-down “Sports Code” to ensure that “neutral and unbiased” officials are elected to the WFI posts. The only way forward might be to reserve one of the top posts for a female representative, as well as reserve seats for meritorious former wrestlers.

Chander Shekhar Luthra is the former Sports Editor of DNA, a sports commentator, and a frequent guest on television sports shows.

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