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Al Jazeera
Al Jazeera

Why are top Indian wrestlers protesting on the streets?

Sakshi Malik, centre, who won a bronze at 2016 Summer Olympics, speaks with social activist Medha Patkar, right, during the protest in New Delhi against WFI president Brijbhushan Sharan Singh and other officials [File: AP Photo]

Top Indian wrestlers have been protesting on the streets of New Delhi for the last 10 days over the lack of action against the head of the country’s wrestling federation, Brijbhushan Sharan Singh, whom they accuse of sexual harassment.

Singh, who is also a parliamentarian from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been accused of harassing several female athletes but has denied all the allegations.

The protesting athletes have demanded an “immediate arrest” and sought the intervention of the Supreme Court, which directed the police to register a case against 66-year-old Singh.

Late on Wednesday night, the athletes camping at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar protest site – a stone’s throw from parliament – alleged that police assaulted them.

“The area is filled with water [due to rains] and there was no place to sleep, so we thought of bringing folding cots. As we were bringing the beds, a male police officer manhandled and abused us,” a sobbing wrestler Vinesh Phogat told reporters.

“The way they have made us suffer, I would not want any athlete to win a medal for the country,” she said.

Photos and videos shared on social media late on Wednesday night showed the police detaining a female journalist, barricading the site and deploying more officers.

New Delhi police denied allegations that its officers assaulted the protesting athletes.

Indian wrestlers Vinesh Phogat, left, and Sangita Phogat practice wrestle as they participate in a protest against WFI president Brijbhushan Sharan Singh and other officials in New Delhi [File: AP Photo]

Why are the wrestlers protesting?

Wrestlers, led by Olympic bronze medal winners Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia, first took to the streets of New Delhi in protest on January 18. They accused Singh and several coaches of the sport’s governing body of sexually harassing female athletes.

Commonwealth Games women’s gold winner Vinesh Phogat said coaches and the president of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) have sexually harassed multiple women.

“Women wrestlers have been sexually harassed at national camps by coaches and also the WFI president,” the 28-year-old athlete said in January.

“I know at least 10 to 20 girls in the national camp who have come and told me their stories,” she told reporters.

Following government assurance that an oversight committee would look into the allegations, the wrestlers called off the initial protests on January 20. The sports also ministry stripped the WFI top brass of all administrative powers.

But Malik, who was India’s first female wrestler to win an Olympic medal, said withdrawing the January protest was a “mistake.”

“The report by the oversight committee was not made public and we have reasons to believe the culprits got a clean chit,” said Malik, who won the women’s 58kg freestyle bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The demonstrations resumed last month following what the protesters say was government inaction. In a letter to the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) chief, PT Usha, the wrestlers wrote that Phogat was “mentally harassed and tortured” by Singh after she missed out on an Olympic medal in Tokyo in 2021, which led her to almost contemplate suicide.

The letter also alleged financial misappropriation on the part of the WFI with Singh at its helm.

Who is the main accused?

Singh has been heading the WFI since 2011 and is a six-time member of parliament from Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP party.

In January, Singh dismissed the allegations as a political ploy to usurp his position and told media he was “ready to be hanged” if even any female wrestler proved the sexual harassment charge.

He has accused the wrestlers of being toys in the hands of the opposition.

He also cancelled a news conference meant to reveal a “conspiracy” against him and sent out his son to speak to journalists instead.

How have the authorities responded?

The government promised to complete the inquiry into the allegations within four weeks. The inquiry report was completed in April but the findings were not made public.

The protests resumed last week as the police had not a filed formal case against Singh or carried out an inquiry against him.

The Supreme Court had pressed the police for an explanation for not registering the case against Singh, terming the allegations “serious”.

New Delhi Police this week informed the top court they will register a case against Singh.

Bajrang Punia, Indian wrestler who won a Bronze medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and others perform stretch exercises at the protest site in New Delhi [File: AP Photo]

Indian Sports Minister Anurag Thakur, who promised to investigate the allegations, has been criticised by the athletes for “trying to suppress” the issue by forming an inquiry committee which took no action against Singh.

The government of Prime Minister Modi, which ran a campaign to boost female empowerment, has also been criticised for keeping quiet on the issue.

Who has supported the athletes?

The wrestlers have received support from other sports’ leading Indian athletes as well as leaders of the country’s main opposition party.

The leader of India’s opposition Congress party, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, demanded an investigation into the allegations.

“Our players are the pride of the country. They bring laurels to the country by their performance at the world level. The players have made serious allegations of exploitation against the Wrestling Federation and its president and their voices should be heard,” she tweeted.

Tennis star Sania Mirza said the saga was “too difficult to watch” for her “as an athlete but more as a woman” and said she hoped “justice is served.. sooner rather than later”.

Boxing champion Nikhat Zareen said: “It breaks my heart to see our Olympic & World medallists in this state”.

Abhinav Bindra, who won a shooting gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, said the incident highlighted “the crucial need for a proper safeguarding mechanism that can prevent harassment and ensure justice for those affected”.

India’s cricket stars, however, have remained conspicuously silent on the issue.

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