On the wrestler’s mat, it is agility and quick thinking that produces the next move to overpower an opponent. That, and the ability to stay rooted. It is for this reason that sportspeople usually say it is not easy to unsettle wrestlers.
For the women who have raised their voices against an opponent who appears to have the entire might of the ruling establishment behind him, staying their ground over the last few months has been very difficult. Their resilience speaks of their mental discipline. Their motives have been questioned from the moment they took to the streets to draw attention to the sexual harassment they have been subjected to by Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the president of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI). Tremendous pressure has been exerted to make them withdraw the protest. But they have held on, drawing on inner reserves of strength and the little public support they got.
In the process, the double talk of the BJP-led government at the Centre has been exposed. First, the government did not take cognisance when the issue was flagged by the wrestlers; second, it delayed the inquiry process; third, it set up an oversight committee that did not inspire confidence; fourth, it delayed the registration of an FIR until the Supreme Court intervened; and finally, it has maintained a studious silence on a party MP accused of grave charges.
It is now six months since the wrestlers launched their protest in New Delhi. At least six adult wrestlers and one minor filed a complaint against Singh with the Delhi Police, which was later converted into two FIRs. The WFI assistant secretary Vinod Tomar too was accused of abetting, criminal intimidation, outraging a woman’s modesty, and sexual harassment.
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The charges against Singh were grave, ranging from stalking to sexual molestation, sexual assault with criminal intent, and sexual harassment. Section 10 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, was invoked, making it a cognisable offence, punishable with five to seven years’ imprisonment. In such cases, the police usually arrest the accused after an FIR is registered.
The Delhi Police did not file an FIR until the Supreme Court’s intervention; and it did not follow up the FIR with an arrest. Thus, Singh has been allowed to traipse around the country, collecting seers and supporters around him, and even threatening that “we will force the government to change” the POCSO law. He held public rallies and meetings and even received support from the chairman of the Shri Ram Janmbhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust.
Family under pressure
Meanwhile, the family of the minor wrestler told the media that they were under pressure to withdraw their complaint. That is exactly what happened. On June 15, a charge sheet was filed, and on June 16, the Delhi Police moved to cancel the FIR under the POCSO Act. Frontline contacted the minor’s family, but they declined to comment.
The first information reports
The accused is a powerful man. Singh is also a six-time BJP Member of Parliament from Kaiserganj in Eastern Uttar Pradesh. He belongs to the same caste group as Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.
Fairly early into the protest, both the khaps (caste panchayats common in the Jat community) and the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, the joint platform of farmers’ unions, declared support for the wrestlers. In May, it was decided that protests would be held across the country demanding Singh’s arrest. Farmers began converging at Jantar Mantar in batches. The Centre was under a lot of pressure. The Karnataka elections were then around the corner. But so were the UP local body polls, and the BJP decided it could not afford to dump its Kaiserganj MP.
The protest site at Jantar Mantar was dismantled on May 28, the day when, not very far away, the Prime Minister was inaugurating the new Parliament building. A mahapanchayat had been called at Jantar Mantar by various khaps and was supported by various women’s groups. They were going to demand that Singh be arrested. The police prevented the mahapanchayat from being held, sealing entry points into Delhi and apprehending protesters as they neared Jantar Mantar.
The wrestlers were manhandled, bundled into police vans, and taken to different police stations. Their arrests evoked widespread outrage, and several members of the sports community condemned the police overreach.
Angry with the manhandling and the arrests, the wrestlers declared they would immerse their medals in the Ganges at Haridwar. Frontline spoke to some family members of the wrestlers, who said that even they had been unaware of this impetuous decision. Things, however, changed in Haridwar. Members of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, whose president Naresh Tikait had declared support for the grapplers, dissuaded them from throwing away their medals.
- For the wrestlers who raised their voices against an opponent who appears to have the might of the ruling establishment behind him, staying their ground over the last few months has been very difficult.
- The Delhi Police did not file an FIR against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh until the Supreme Court’s intervention; and it did not follow up the FIR with an arrest.
- Jagmati Sangwan, a Bhim awardee and an international volleyball player for India, said, “The intent is not to deliver justice but to drag the issue so much that people lose faith in the system.”
- Large-scale support for the protest has been lacking from the wider sporting community but there are some who have spoken up.
A long-awaited meeting
Finally, on June 5, the wrestlers were called for a meeting with Home Minister Amit Shah. The meeting went on past midnight. The next day, Sakshi Malik’s husband, Satyawart Kadian, who was part of the delegation, told the media that the meeting was “inconclusive”, and that they were not satisfied with the outcome. The wrestlers also met Anurag Thakur, the I&B and Sports Minister, who assured them of a “fair probe”.
After the meetings, the wrestlers agreed to suspend their protests until June 15. The government accepted their demand to withdraw the police cases registered against them after the May 28 episode. Anurag Thakur promised police protection to the complainants and also assured them that Singh or his associates would not be allowed to participate in the WFI elections scheduled to be held on July 11.
“90 per cent of the wrestling community was aware that Singh was involved in sexual harassment.”Satyawart KadianWrestler
On June 15, just before the deadline expired, Delhi Police filed a charge sheet against Singh, but made no arrests. And, of course, by now the POCSO charge had been eliminated.
Singh has still not resigned from his post, but an ad hoc committee set up in May by the Indian Olympic Association runs the everyday affairs of the federation. There are many who are sceptical of any major reform within the federation. “Brij Bhushan will ensure that someone close to him is elected as WFI chief. His family members occupy various positions in the federation,” said a wrestler, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Jagmati Sangwan, a Bhim awardee and an international volleyball player for India, pointed out that this was an opportunity for the Modi government to prove its Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao,Beti Khilao (educate, protect, and encourage girls in sports) slogan by appointing a woman wrestler to the top post. “The intent is not to deliver justice but to drag the issue so much that people lose faith in the system,” Sangwan told Frontline.
On the front line
Sangwan has been at the forefront of the protests. She said harassment of women who want to make a career in sports is nothing new, and referred to the tragic Ruchika Girhotra case, when S.P.S. Rathore, an Inspector General of Haryana, was accused of molesting the teenage tennis player in 1990. A complaint was filed and an inquiry initiated but no FIR was registered. Instead, Girhotra’s family faced threats. In 1993, unable to bear the harassment, Ruchika took her life. It was only in 1999, with the persistent efforts of women’s organisations like the All India Democratic Women’s Association and Ruchika’s neighbours, the Prakash family, that a FIR was registered and that too only after an order from the Punjab and Haryana High Court. The similarity between Girhotra’s case and the present one are striking. Women’s organisations held a Mahila Panchayat in Delhi in June, demanding that court proceedings be initiated and monitored, since the accused is a powerful man with influence.
The BJP and its supporters, meanwhile, have tried to divert attention from Singh by claiming that the wrestlers’ protest was spearheaded by the Congress. On June 17, however, Sakshi Malik and her husband Satyawart Kadian made a video in which they refuted the claim that the Congress had instigated their protest. Kadian said the permission to conduct their first agitation in January was sought by BJP members Babita Phogat and Tirath Rana. Phogat, a decorated wrestler, contested and lost on the BJP ticket in the 2019 Haryana Assembly election, and Rana is a BJP district president. Phogat denied writing the letter, although she was very much present in the January protests along with Malik, Bajrang Punia, and Vinesh Phogat. In the video, Kadian said that 90 per cent of the wrestling community was aware that Singh was involved in serial sexual harassment and exploitation. He said their protest was against the WFI chief and not against the government.
Large-scale support for the protest has been lacking from the wider sporting community. However, there are some who have spoken up, including Neeraj Chopra, Abhinav Bindra, Kapil Dev, Irfan Pathan, Harbhajan Singh, Virender Sehwag, Anil Kumble, Sunil Chhetri, Sania Mirza, and Nikhat Zareen.
The wrestlers have realised by now that the road to justice is not going to be easy but they are determined to continue their fight.