“This is a protest to save the future of the sport and the future of women wrestlers.” These were the words of Olympic medallist and wrestler Bajrang Punia as some of the biggest names in Indian wrestling sat on a protest at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar on Wednesday, January 18, and accused Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) President and 6-time BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh and coaches at the federation of sexual assault and demanded his resignation along with the resignation of the accused coaches and trainers and for the Wrestling Federation of India to be disbanded. They have also demanded that their training centre be moved to Delhi away from Singh’s vicinity in Lucknow.
“Some of the coaches appointed at national camps have been sexually harassing women wrestlers for many years now and the President is very much involved in it.”Vinesh Phogat
Brij Bhushan Singh is a BJP MP from Kaiserganj in Uttar Pradesh and has held the post of the Wrestling Federation of India’s (WFI) President since 2011. Singh is also one of the accused in the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. As per his election affidavit for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, he is facing charges of dacoity, attempt to murder, and rioting.
The wrestlers who were present at the protest included Vinesh Phogat who became the first Indian woman wrestler to win gold in both Commonwealth and Asian Games; Olympic and commonwealth medallist Sakshi Malik, Bajrang Punia, Anshu Malik, among others. Addressing the media on behalf of the women, Vinesh Phogat said that women wrestlers have been sexually harassed at national camps by coaches and also the WFI president. “Some of the coaches appointed at national camps have been sexually harassing women wrestlers for many years now and the President is very much involved in it,” said Vinesh.
“Our protest is against the federation and the way it has been functioning without keeping the best interests of wrestlers in mind. This has nothing to do with politics of any sort.”Bajrang Punia
As soon as the allegations were made public, voices from the other end grew that it was an attempt to malign the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. “Our protest is against the federation and the way it has been functioning without keeping the best interests of wrestlers in mind. This has nothing to do with politics of any sort,” said Bajrang in response to the same.
Brij Bhushan Singh however has publicly denied all accusations and has hit back at Vinesh Phogat, calling it an attempt to malign him. “Even if one wrestler comes forward and says that she has been sexually harassed, that day I can be hanged”, were his words. He also added that 97% of players are with the WFI. “I’m hurt by the sexual harassment allegations. There was pressure created on some wrestlers to sit on dharna”, Singh said.
Singh even went on to question the women wrestlers who are protesting against him. “The age for delivering the best performance in wrestling is between 22 and 28 years. These wrestlers who are protesting can’t win an Olympic medal. This is turning into anger and that is why they are protesting”, he said. FII tried reaching out to him and the Wrestling Federation for comments but received no response.
“At the recent Junior World Championship in Bulgaria, the WFI President was staying at the same hotel as the team, and he specifically chose to take a room on the same floor where the women wrestlers were put up. I have been told by many of the women who participated in the tournament that the door to his room would always be open, which would make the women wrestlers uncomfortable going in and out of their own rooms. They would only go out during training as a result. What needs to be noted is that we have a rule in place that says that the president of a federation cannot stay in the same hotel as the players, but like most other rules, it is completely disregarded.”Anshu Malik
Speaking in detail about the sexual harassment allegations Vinesh said that women wrestlers have been sexually harassed at national camps for over 10 years, but they did not have the privilege or the platform to speak up against the federation. “I know at least 10-20 girls in the national camp who have come and told me their stories”, Vinesh said tearing up.
She also added that many wrestlers who came from marginalised backgrounds faced the worst of the harassment and were intimidated and threatened from coming forward. “I have the privilege that many of the women who have faced the worst treatment by the board don’t. I don’t mind if they stop me from wrestling. Wrestling is my livelihood, and they are taking it away. My only option is to die, so might as well die fighting”, she added.
Wrestler Anshu Malik pointed out the blatant disregard that the members of the wrestling federation had when it came to following the rules, especially during tournaments involving women wrestlers, specifically narrating an incident at the World Championship. “At the recent Junior World Championship in Bulgaria, the WFI President was staying at the same hotel as the team, and he specifically chose to take a room on the same floor where the women wrestlers were put up. I have been told by many of the women who participated in the tournament that the door to his room would always be open, which would make the women wrestlers uncomfortable going in and out of their own rooms. They would only go out during training as a result. What needs to be noted is that we have a rule in place that says that the president of a federation cannot stay in the same hotel as the players, but like most other rules, it is completely disregarded,” Anshu added.
The players also unanimously spoke about the fact that since Brij Bhushan Singh became president the training camps have been held in Lucknow because he has a house there. “They want to get into our personal lives and our relationships. They want to know everything that is happening in our life,” Vinesh said.
Sakshi Malik, Vinesh Phogat, and Bajrang Punia also added that apart from the sexual harassment the younger wrestlers have also faced unnecessary bans from the federation, stopping them from participating in competitions. “Anyone who dares to speak up is harassed and tortured by the federation,” says Bajrang. “Tournaments are scheduled unevenly with hardly any breaks, and they are made mandatory. Many younger wrestlers who do not have the resources cannot travel every month. When they don’t, the federation straight away bans them,” added Sakshi.
The incidents have once again brought to the forefront the debate of sexual harassment in the workplace, especially when it comes to sports. For sportspersons- in this case the wrestlers- the akhada is their workplace, and laws against the prevention of sexual harassment seem to fall short of acknowledging the same. As per a report by The Quint Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) assistant secretary Vinod Tomar confirmed that till date, no Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) has been formed within the organisation to look into complaints of sexual harassment. The WFI constitution mentions the provision of forming a committee, but that has not been followed yet. The WFI has called for an emergency meeting on 22 January following the allegations against the top officials as well as the federation.
Very often the laws related to sexual harassment in the workplace remain limited to an elite and traditional understanding of workspaces, which for most athletes and sports persons does not exist. Wherever they play, they train, it becomes their workplace. How does one ensure that the law is applied unilaterally? Maimoona Mollah of the All India Democratic Women’s Association says that only when the law applies to all traditional or non-traditional workplaces is when change can happen at the grassroots. “We have to give our women more space, in all professions, in all departments, in all fields. We talk about women’s participation everywhere, but if this is how we behave with the women who participate, it just gives more fuel to the people who want to believe that women should stay at home,” says Maimoona.
As the protest entered its 2nd day, the presence of people and national media at Jantar Mantar increased as overnight the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports demanded an explanation from the Wrestling Federation of India. The Ministry has sought a reply on the allegations by the wrestlers within 72 hours. Olympian wrestler Babita Phogat, who is a member of the BJP and part of the Haryana government also visited Jantar Mantar and assured her peers of justice. “I’m a wrestler first and I am also in the government, and I will make sure that action is taken. In my career, I have also heard instances of abuse. The voices that are being raised are important,” added Babita.
In the afternoon of December 19, Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat, and a few other wrestlers met with the sports ministry but said that the government had not given any satisfactory response. “We haven’t got any satisfactory response from the government. We will make sure that Brij Bhushan Singh resigns and is jailed. We will also file an FIR if the need arises, as we have adequate proof,” Vinesh said. The Delhi Commission for Women, a local body that looks after women’s issues, has also issued a notice to the sports ministry and asked the Delhi police to file a case.
The allegations and the protest, like most other #MeToo protests also showed a harsh side of the society which refuses to believe women and survivors when they speak up against their perpetrators. Social media was flooded with many calling out the women wrestlers and their allegations as “fake” and “publicity stunt”, and as we visited Jantar Mantar, many were heard questioning the credibility of the wrestlers, quipping that they “should focus on the game instead”. “The allegations we have made are true and it is sad that many are questioning the same,” said Vinesh as they were joined by both young and old wrestlers at Jantar Mantar.
Instances of sexual harassment and predatory behaviour have unraveled themselves time and again in the field of sports and are often brushed under the carpet. The allegations against WFI chief come months after the coach of the country’s national cycling team was sacked following sexual harassment charges. Furthermore, according to data between 2010 and 2020, the Sports Authority of India recorded 45 complaints of sexual harassment, most of which were against the coaches. So, while the sports federations may deny the complaints of harassment the data points otherwise.
In India, gender bias, and power hierarchy in sports have existed and have been talked about in length for years. While things are on the mend, the situation still is far from ideal, especially for athletes and sportspersons who come from marginalised backgrounds with limited financial resources. Often when complaints are made at the sporting bodies, they are suppressed to maintain the status quo until the matter blows out. In cases where action is taken, they hardly account for anything when compared to the crime that was perpetrated. There exists an attempt to normalise a skewed power dynamic. Anyone who tries to question it faces wrath.
“Like we fight to win for our country at the tournaments we will also fight for our rights,” were the words of Bajrang Punia. As the protest enters its 3rd day at the National Capital, the country awaits to see whether its champion wrestlers get the justice that they deserve.
FII has reached out to Wrestling Federation of India for comments, this story will be updated as and when we receive a response.
This piece was published before the wrestlers called off the protest. As per the latest update, the Sports Ministry has suspended WFI assistant secretary, Vinod Tomar. The ministry also suspended all activities of the Wrestling Federation of India and an oversight committee has been appointed by the Centre that will take over the day-to-day activities.