Geetanjali Shree writes: The wrestlers’ cause is everybody’s cause

The wrestlers’ protest shows that those in positions of power have lost none of their sense of utter impunity.

Published : May 01, 2023 18:14 IST - 5 MINS READ

Wrestlers Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat, and Sakshi Malik speak with the media during their protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on April 30.

Wrestlers Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat, and Sakshi Malik speak with the media during their protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on April 30. | Photo Credit: PTI

As a creative writer, I need solitude to work. However, it becomes impossible to stay away when something so unjust occurs. Our ace wrestlers have been forced to take to the streets after being denied simple justice. As proud professionals, they understand that their hard work has taken them to the top of their sport and will keep them there. With each lost day of work, they risk losing their coveted position. This is precisely the risk they have taken by protesting on the streets. In fact, the act of protesting itself puts them in danger of losing what they have worked so hard to achieve.

Can we be so callous as to not understand that something dire must be at the root of their potentially suicidal actions? This “something” must be worth more than all the glory the sport can bring them. The wrestlers have put everything on the line. No one can pretend not to know that a noble impulse has occasioned their heroic action, and that fame and material gain cannot come at the cost of self-respect and dignity.

These wrestlers have made us proud, and we have basked in their reflected glory. Do we feel any gratitude for the laurels they have brought us?

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But gratitude is the least of the reasons why we must stand with them. Momentous issues are at stake in their fight. At stake is the dignity of every woman in this country. At stake is that basic requirement of harmonic social existence, the rule of law. At stake is our freedom to pursue our passions and ambitions without fear of unwarranted interference and degrading molestation. At stake is basic human decency. And our human mettle, our individual and social conscience.

But, then, all this has been at stake for frustratingly far too long. This is not the first instance of circumstantially credible allegations of female athletes being subjected by sports officials to the ignominy of sexual advances and worse. Nor is this the first instance of our police refusing to register an FIR so as to protect the powerful. The rule of law, not unoften, has been used as an instrument of thwarting the rule of law.

The wrestlers’ stir brings nothing new to light. But what it brings to light is no less frightening for not being new. When the stir was set afoot early this year by the country’s most illustrious wrestlers, no one expected it to usher in a new dawn but even confirmed sceptics thought that it could result in focussing attention on the problem and lead to some redressal. It was hard to believe that these champions could be treated with such disdain.

The wrestlers’ stir shows that the wielders of power have lost none of their sense of utter impunity. It also shows, by the same token, the vulnerability of the rest of the society. Power must never be allowed to get so brazen. Nor those sans power—not just those distinguished in various fields—be ever rendered so vulnerable.

There is no civic life if the commonest of commoners cannot live with dignity and without fear. Justice is not justice if it is not available as a matter of course, if it is contingent on agitation and knocking at the Supreme Court’s door.

The wrestlers’ cause, if only we understand it, is everyone’s cause. How much more self-diminution shall we accept? Even worms turn when trodden upon. The longer the impunity of power continues, the heavier will be the odds against defeating it.

Now that the wrestlers’ FIRs have been registered for fear of the Supreme Court, the legal process may start taking its course. That process must not be short-circuited or otherwise manipulated. That is known to happen.

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Finally, a simple human plea. We are speaking of the molestation of women. Patriarchal societies have a systemic “gaze” that often fails to recognize acts of molestation, unless it is an extreme and violent rape of visibly monstrous proportions.  During the outrage over the brutal rape and killing of Nirbhaya, I was asked by a very agitated male relative how I, a woman, was sitting so calmly while he, a male, was raving in rage and demanding the perpetrators be hanged. I replied—and I know all sensitive persons would agree—that Nirbhaya was the extreme and ugly-most outcome of a male society’s gaze and attitude vis-a-vis women; that demeaning gaze and attitude needs to be “hanged”.

We are surrounded by that gaze and its rampant nature makes many behave as if it is innocuous. What is the hue and cry about, they ask? The man was only friendly, flirty, or just did an innocent buddy “pat”, they say. They will not understand that one indecent look violates a woman and is part of the dirtiest way a woman is regarded, robbing her of her dignity and personhood.

Think of this and of the average make-up of our men, no matter powerful or powerless, when you think, prima facie, of whether the female wrestlers complaining of abuse are telling the truth or lying. Of course, you will not forget what all in the bargain they have put on the line.

Geetanjali Shree is a Hindi-language novelist and short story writer based in New Delhi. She won the International Booker Prize in 2022 for the novel Tomb of Sand (translated by Daisy Rockwell).

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