Before Bollywood films like Dangal (2016) brought women wrestlers to the public eye, wrestling was primarily seen as a male sport with a few female wrestlers gracing the sidelines. In the last decade or so, however, women wrestlers have been winning championships, locally and internationally—Dangal merely gave them the spotlight they had long been denied. In recent years, they have been feted not just as athletes but also as stars. But if their recent allegations of sexual misconduct against people in power at the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) are any indication, their celebrity has not saved them from exploitation.
On the bitterly cold morning of January 18, several top wrestlers including Olympic medallist Sakshi Malik and 2022 Commonwealth Games gold medallist Vinesh Phogat protested at Delhi’s Jantar Matar against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the president of the WFI, accusing him of sexual misdemeanour and of being “autocratic”. They raised issues of financial irregularity in the WFI, saying they would not put up with the way Singh, a BJP MP from Uttar Pradesh’s Kaiserganj, was running the organisation.
Interestingly, the women wrestlers were joined by World Wrestling Championship medallist Bajrang Punia, and Mahavir Phogat, coach and father of wrestlers Geeta and Babita Phogat. Wrestlers Sarita Mor, Sangeeta Phogat, Satyawart Malik, Jitender Kinha, and Sumit Malik were also present. They demanded the dissolution of the WFI and its reconstitution with a sportsperson at its head. The protest went on until January 20: it was called off after Union Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports Anurag Thakur promised the wrestlers that an oversight committee would be formed to investigate the matter.
“It has taken a lot of courage for us to come together and protest,” the wrestlers wrote in a letter to former athlete P.T. Usha, who is the head of Indian Olympic Association (IOA), and a Rajya Sabha member since 2022. The letter said that Singh had sexually harassed several young wrestlers and that on account of the mental torture she faced Vinesh Phogat felt suicidal after failing to bring home an Olympic medal. Speaking at the dharna, Vinesh said she knew “at least 10 to 20 girls” who had been sexually harassed at wrestling camps. Their identities have not been revealed as that might endanger their lives, she added.
In its defence, the WFI has claimed that the protesting athletes have a “hidden agenda”. Singh and his supporters have tried to give the protests a political colour by alleging that the wrestlers, all from Haryana, have the support of Haryana Congress leader Deepender Singh Hooda. However, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar came out in defence of the athletes. “The safety of our women athletes is very important and we take it seriously. We will not let their morale down. All the issues raised by the athletes will be taken seriously,” he said.
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Taking cognisance of the allegations, Anurag Thakur initially announced that a five-member oversight committee, headed by boxing legend M.C. Mary Kom, will investigate the charges against Singh and manage the day-to-day affairs of the WFI until the committee submits its report. Other members of the committee include Khel Ratna awardee Yogeshwar Dutt; executive council member, IOA, Trupti Murgunde; member, Mission Olympic Cell, Radhica Sreeman; and ex-Executive Director (teams), Sports Authority of India (SAI), Rajesh Rajagopalan. The constitution of the committee did not go down well with the protesters: Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Puniya, and Sakshi Malik, who spearheaded the protest, said they were not consulted before the formation of the committee.
So, on January 31, the Sports Ministry added Babita Phogat to the committee. Significantly, Kom was nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the BJP in 2016 and Yogeshwar Dutt joined the BJP in 2019. Dutt has publicly come out in support of Singh. Meanwhile, Singh, who stepped down temporarily as president of the WFI, denied all charges and declared himself “ready to be hanged” if even one female wrestler could establish the sexual harassment claim against him.
While complaints of sexual harassment are common in the Indian sports fraternity, investigations into them are often inadequate after initial responses. In May 2022, a prominent sports coach, P. Nagarajan, was accused of sexual harassment by a national-level runner in Chennai. The 19-year-old claimed that Nagarajan touched female athletes inappropriately while giving them physiotherapy and helping them with stretches. Two months after she filed her complaint, seven more athletes made similar allegations. Nagarajan now faces charges under the Indian Penal Code and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act.
The Indian women’s Under-17 football team’s assistant coach, Alex Ambrose, was accused of sexually abusing a young athlete in June 2022 when the team was training in Norway. Ambrose, who served as the head of scouting for the All India Football Federation (AIFF), was suspended and expelled from the camp. The 40-year-old former India striker sent the AIFF a legal notice while denying any misconduct.
After a rider reported sexual harassment during a training trip to Slovenia, India’s head cycling coach, R.K. Sharma, was punished with termination of contract even as the SAI opened an investigation into the issue. A few days after the initial complaint, Sharma was accused of harassing three other cyclists.
Most of these cases have dragged on for years with no resolution in sight. Several times, the accused are let off with minor punishments ranging from transfers to meagre cuts in pay or pension.
A former SAI executive director who spoke to Frontline on condition of anonymity said that many girls who come from rural and impoverished backgrounds are coerced by senior officials into giving sexual favours on the basis of false promises. For these young female athletes, the stakes are high—a fact which probably ensures their silence.
Norris Pritam, a senior sports journalist who has covered six Olympic Games, told Frontline that while sexual harassment was quite prevalent in the world of sports, only a few cases got publicised.
“Only a minuscule section [of such incidents] gets reported because of fear of superiors, family pressure, and societal issues. I have met many women who have left promising careers because of sexual harassment,” he said.
Indian sports federations are still male-dominated, said Pritam. Even when the federations receive such complaints, they “mishandle them” and “nothing much comes out of the investigations and committees that are formed”. However, Pritam believes that the recent protest will at least encourage men and women to speak out. “It will also send out a message to officials and coaches, who should be alarmed,” he said.
““It has taken a lot of courage for us to come together and protest,” the wrestlers wrote in a letter to the head of Indian Olympic Association, P.T. Usha.”
K.P. Mohan, former sports editor of The Hindu, pointed out that over the decades sports activities have changed from being a hobby or passion to become a full-fledged industry involving money, sponsors, and advertisers, because of which they have come under political influence. Historically, too, the heads of sports federations in India have been either politicians or have strong ties with politics.
“Politicians who aren’t genuinely interested in a particular sport start heading it because it is a powerful position to be in. Muscle power has replaced genuine love for sports in recent times,” he said.
Vinesh was outspoken in her allegations at the press conference the protesters addressed: “This exploitation is happening every day. Why does the [training] camp happen in Lucknow? The reason it’s happening over there is because he [Singh] has a house there and so it’s easy to exploit the girls. They trouble us too much. They get into our personal lives and relationships. They want to know everything.”
No matter where the case ends, the wrestlers have spoken up fearlessly against powerful opponents and that in itself is a good start.
- On January 18, several top Indian wrestlers protested at Delhi’s Jantar Matar against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the president of the WFI, accusing him of sexual misdemeanour and of being “autocratic”.
- While complaints of sexual harassment are common in the Indian sports fraternity, investigations into them are often inadequate after initial responses.
- No matter where the case ends, the wrestlers have spoken up fearlessly against powerful opponents.