Why are top Indian wrestlers protesting in the street?

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By Webdesk

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

Singh has been accused of harassing several female athletes but has denied all allegations.

The protesting athletes have demanded an “immediate arrest” and sought the intervention of the Supreme Court, which has ordered the police to register a case against Singh.

Late Wednesday night, the athletes camped out at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar protest site – a stone’s throw from the parliament – claimed that police had attacked them.

“The area is full of water [due to rains] and there was no place to sleep, so we thought to bring folding beds. When we brought the beds, a male police officer beat and abused us,” a sobbing wrestler Vinesh Phogat told reporters.

“The way they made us suffer, I wouldn’t want an athlete to win a medal for the country,” she said.

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

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

India is struggling with sexual abuse
Indian wrestlers Vinesh Phogat, left, and Sangita Phogat practice wrestling as they take part 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 winners Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia, took to the streets of New Delhi for the first time on January 18 to protest. They accused Singh and several coaches on the sport’s governing body of sexually harassing female athletes.

Commonwealth Games gold medalist Vinesh Phogat said coaches and the president of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) had sexually assaulted several women.

“Female wrestlers have been sexually harassed in national camps by coaches and also by 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 to tell me their stories,” she told reporters.

After the government assured that an oversight committee would investigate the allegations, the wrestlers ended the first protests on January 20. The Ministry of Sports also stripped the top of the WFI of all administrative powers.

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

“The report of the oversight committee has not been made public and we have reason to believe that the perpetrators have come clean,” said Malik, who won the bronze medal in the women’s 58 kg freestyle at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

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

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

Who is the prime suspect?

Singh has headed the WFI since 2011 and is a six-time MP from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

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 a female wrestler proved the sexual harassment allegation.

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

He also canceled a press conference designed to reveal a “conspiracy” against him and instead sent his son out to talk to reporters.

How have the authorities responded?

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

Protests resumed last week because the police had not formally filed a case against Singh or launched an investigation against him.

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

The New Delhi police this week informed the top court that they will file a case against Singh.

India is struggling with sexual abuse
Bajrang Punia, Indian wrestler who won a bronze medal in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and others doing stretches at the protest site in New Delhi [File: AP Photo]

India’s Sports Minister Anurag Thakur, who promised to investigate the allegations, has been criticized by the athletes for “trying to suppress” the issue by setting up a commission of inquiry which took no action against Singh.

Prime Minister Modi’s government, which has been campaigning to boost women’s empowerment, has also been criticized for covering up the issue.

Who supported the athletes?

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

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

“Our players are the pride of the country. They bring laurels to the country through their world-class achievements. The players have leveled serious exploitation allegations against the Wrestling Federation and its president and their voices must be heard,” she tweeted.

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

Boxing champion Nikhat Zareen said, “It breaks my heart to see our Olympic and world medalists 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 protection mechanism that can prevent harassment and ensure justice for those affected”.

However, India’s cricket stars have remained remarkably silent on the matter.

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