January 27, 2023
BENGALURU – An unprecedented public protest by top Indian wrestlers alleging sexual harassment and assault by officials has roiled one of India’s most popular sports.
New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar – a heritage astronomical observatory and official civil rights protest site usually thronged by farmers and activists – was the site of uncommon scenes from Jan 18 to 20, as dozens of India’s top wrestlers in tracksuits and wearing medals protested against continual harassment that has lasted for years.
Some of India’s best-known men and women wrestlers, as well as hundreds of their supporters, have accused Mr Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the president of the country’s wrestling federation, of sexual harassment, and demanded his sacking.
Ms Vinesh Phogat, 28, a 2018 Commonwealth and Asian Games champion, said that Mr Singh and other officials had sexually harassed women athletes for many years. “I know about 10 to 20 girls who have been exploited in the national camp over the past 10 years,” she said in tears.
The protest was reportedly sparked by phone calls that Ms Phogat received from young women wrestlers who were afraid to attend a training camp in Lucknow, where the federation chief lives.
The wrestlers also accused Mr Singh of running the federation “like a tyrant” for 12 years, embezzling sports funds, taking bribes to recruit officials, and mentally harassing athletes. They said they would boycott all competitions until he was removed.
Ms Phogat posted on social media a letter they had sent on Jan 20 to the Indian Olympic Association. In it, the wrestlers wrote: “We fear for our lives.”
Mr Singh flatly denied all the allegations to the media, saying: “Even if one wrestler comes forward and says that she has been sexually harassed, that day I can be hanged.”
Meanwhile, the federation’s official Twitter account shared videos of Mr Singh inaugurating gyms and attending training camps, and a widely ridiculed video of two young wrestlers defending the federation in a rehearsed speech they delivered in unison.
— Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) (@wfi_wrestling) January 20, 2023
In a Jan 20 letter to the sports ministry, the wrestling federation described the allegations as “malicious and unfounded” and said the athletes had “acted more in personal interest or under undue pressure or under any bigger conspiracy to malign and defame the present management”.
Mr Singh is also an MP from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. He is a political heavyweight in three districts in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, from where he has been elected to Parliament six times. He still faces several other pending criminal charges, including of robbery and attempted murder.
On Jan 20, the Indian Olympic Association said it had formed a seven-member committee to probe the allegations. The committee is headed by Ms M.C. Mary Kom, an Indian boxing icon, and includes Olympic medallist Yogeshwar Dutt.
The sports ministry also promised on Jan 20 to form a committee to investigate the charges, after which protesting athletes called off their demonstration.
The next day, the ministry suspended a senior federation official and said that Mr Singh would step aside until the government-appointed committee completed its investigation.
The five-member government committee is also to be headed by Ms Mary Kom and includes Mr Dutt. It is supposed to submit its report in a month, and run the wrestling federation in the interim period.
With the government cancelling all wrestling events, and some ministers accusing the teary wrestlers of having “personal hidden agendas”, the #MeToo battle is bound to get more pitched.
The protesting wrestlers said they were unhappy with the composition of the committee, with some of them tweeting: “It is very sad that we were not even consulted before the formation of this committee.”
The scandal has raised questions about the effectiveness of formal grievance redress processes within Indian sports. One of the most vocal protesters, 2016 Olympic medallist Sakshi Malik, is a member of the wrestling federation’s sexual harassment committee, a sign of the body’s powerlessness, sports observers said.
Ms Sharda Ugra, a senior sports journalist, said: “There is no proper structure to protect our athletes. The government committee is a joke, it’s a red herring, it’s a smokescreen.”
Wrestling in India has a long tradition going back several centuries. It is the only sport in which the country has won at least one medal in each of the past four Olympic Games.