January 4, 2024
NEW DELHI – Nearly a year after India’s top wrestlers Sakshi Malik, Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat rallied at Jantar Mantar demanding the arrest of then-Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh after accusing him of sexual misconduct against female grapplers, hundreds of young grapplers on Wednesday assembled at the same location protesting the loss of one crucial year of their careers, a situation for which they blamed the trio of Sakshi, Bajrang and Vinesh.
Hundreds of upcoming wrestlers from different parts of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Delhi joined in the protest, shouting slogans against the three top wrestlers, as the police was completely caught off guard and found it challenging to manage the crowd.
Carrying banners that read, “UWW save our wrestling from these 3 wrestlers,” around 300 junior wrestlers came from Arya Samaj Akhara in Chhaprauli, Baghpat while many others joined in from the Virender Wrestling Academy in Narela. There were many on the way as the top grapplers are now facing the heat from their own community, accusing them of ruining their careers.
The protestors also defaced the placards bearing images of the three star grapplers and later trampled those.
Since January 2023, national camps and competitions have been on hold as the WFI has been suspended twice and an ad-hoc panel has been running the sport. The protesting junior wrestlers demanded that the suspended WFI be restored after disbanding the ad-hoc panel which has been appointed to run the sport by the sports ministry.
“They (Bajrang, Vinesh) have no respect for the national awards, and left them on the roads. And now after winning all the laurels, they are spoiling the careers of the junior wrestlers,” said one of the coaches from Uttar Pradesh.
“The protest is for the lakhs of young careers that are at stake due to tantrums of the three top wrestlers. There have been no competitions even at the district level or state level, leave aside national competitions for the past year, how are they (Sakshi, Bajrang and Vinesh) going to compensate for the loss?” asked the coach.
There have also been reports of protesting junior wrestlers and coaches threatening to return their Arjuna awards if the suspended WFI is not restored within 10 days.
Soon after the election of new office-bearers led by Sanjay Singh, a close confidante of Brij Bhushan, the WFI announced hosting the Under 15 and Under 20 Nationals in Gonda, UP but the ministry suspended the body, leading to cancellation of the proposed tournament.
Vivek Malik from the Arya Samaj Akhara questioned the suspension of the newly-elected WFI after they had announced their intention of holding the age group national championships before December 31.
“The newly-elected body had rightly decided to hold the national championships; it was for the welfare of the wrestlers. What’s the point in suspending a democratically-elected body? It was elected on the instructions of the court but wasn’t allowed to function smoothly even for three days,” he said while demanding the reinstatement of the body.
Sakshi tones down; Vinesh, Bajrang maintains silence
Amid the protests from the young grapplers, 2016 Rio Olympics bronze medallist Sakshi Malik on Wednesday said that she had no issues with the newly-elected WFI, sans Brij Bhushan’s close aide Sanjay Singh. Sakshi had announced her retirement from the sport on December 21 in protest against the election of Singh as the new WFI president.
“We don’t have any issues with the new federation except one man, Sanjay Singh. We don’t have any issue if the new body comes back without Sanjay Singh. We do not have any issue with the ad-hoc committee as well,” Malik told reporters.
“The government is like parents for us and I would request them to make wrestling safe for the upcoming wrestlers. You have seen how Sanjay Singh has been behaving. I don’t want Sanjay Singh’s interference in the federation,” she added.
“I can only make a request. If the ministry says he won’t come back it will be better. Everybody saw the kind of power abuse by Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh after the WFI elections. He announced junior nationals at his home without much deliberation.”
Sakshi further said that she is worried about her family’s safety, alleging that her mother has been receiving threatening phone calls. “For the past 2-3 days, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh’s goons have been active. My mother is getting threatening phone calls. Our safety is the government’s responsibility.”
Dismissing claims of the three top wrestlers trying to grab the opportunities from the junior wrestlers, Sakshi said that she’s now retired and expects the wrestler, who replaces her in the 62kg category goes on to win a gold at Paris Olympics.
“We knew Brij Bhushan is influential, but we had no idea he would be this powerful. Now, his propaganda is to make allegations that we have been grabbing young wrestlers’ opportunities. However, now that I have retired, I want young girls to win and fulfil my dream,” she said.