By VoN Sports Team
It was a open and chilling depiction of the rot that has afflicted India sports for a long, long time, and it was out on the streets for the entire world to see. Olympic and World championship medallist Indian wrestlers landed at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi to protest not only the high handedness of Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief President Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, but they also alleged that they were subjected to sexual harassment from the BJP MP and former mafia don.
Among those present at the three-day protest dharna were Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia, who have Olympic bronzes, Vinesh Phogat, a Commonwealth Games gold medallist, and other athletes. They started their sit-in on January 18.
Singh has, of course, denied all allegations against him and said the athletes have no evidence to support them. The athletes say they know of five or six players who have been victims of harassment.
Vinesh Phogat alleged that the president had sexually exploited and harassed women wrestlers over a period of years.
Vinesh, who has been at loggerheads with the WFI since the Tokyo Olympics, made a startling revelation and also confirmed that it was not her, but one of her colleagues who was exploited.
Union Sports Minister Anurag Thakur called the wrestlers over to his place and held two long meetings. At the end, Thakur asked Singh to move away from his post for a while, while investigations are held into the allegations. The IOA, headed by PT Usha, has formed an investigative body with MC Mary Kom, former multiple time world champion boxer as its head.
Of course the entire episode will be investigated, but it is a known fact in Indian sports that well-known and often respected administrators in different disciplines have always exploited women athletes, not that even politicians have stayed away from such acts.
Several protests, from lesser known athletes, have failed to germinate. They have been, time and again, crushed under administrative boots, denied due placed in teams and even their reputations and job prospects have been destroyed. This is not new.
One has to be thankful for these famous wrestlers to bring to the open the dark and ugly underbelly of Indian sports administration.
Veteran Indian wrestler Vinesh Phogat, on January 18, alleged that WFI President Brij Bhushan has been involved since many years in sexually exploiting women wrestlers. Vinesh further claimed that several coaches at the national camp in Lucknow have also exploited women wrestlers.
Vinesh revealed that while she was never harassed or exploited, one of the victims of harassment was actually present at the dharna. She was not named. The 28-year-old also claimed that she had received death threats from officials close to President Brij Bhushan after she shared issues around wrestling in India with PM Narendra Modi after the Tokyo Olympics.
Bajrang Punia termed President Brij Bhushan a ‘dictator’ and also claimed that the WFI has been run in an arbitrary manner. Some of the notable Indian wrestlers and Olympic as well as CWG medal winners were present at the dharna.
Sakshi Malik, Sarita Mor, Sangeeta Phogat, Anshu Malik, Sonam Malik, Satyawart Malik, Jitendra Kinha, Amit Dhankar, and Sumit Malik were among the 30 wrestlers present at the protest besides Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia.
Vinesh highlighted harassment and misbehaviour with female wrestlers. “Coaches are harassing women, and some coaches who are favourites of the federation misbehave with women coaches as well. They sexually harass girls. The WFI president has sexually harassed so many girls,” she revealed. Vinesh even disclosed that the president called her “Khota Sikka” post her Tokyo Olympics campaign. The organization tortured her mentally, and as a result, she even got suicidal thoughts.
A bit about Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh
Singh, 66, has been the president of the WFI since 2011. He was elected for a third consecutive term in February 2019. He is a politician, currently with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and is serving as a Member of Parliament from Kaiserganj.
In 2012 he became the president of the wrestling body for the first time by defeating Congress MP Deepender Hooda. He has also called the wrestlers sitting on dharna at Jantar Mantar as puppets of Deepender Hooda. In support of his point, the official of the wrestling association cited the statements of the wrestlers sitting on the dharna, in which there was only a demand for the resignation of Brij Bhushan, but later the demand for the dissolution of the entire wrestling federation, including all the state wrestling associations, was included.
In his defence Singh he called allegations fake. “There is no truth in any of the allegations. Why should I quit? Even if one woman wrestler comes and proves the sexual harassment charge, I am ready to be hanged. There is an industrialist behind it (conspiracy),” the 66-year-old WFI President said at a media interaction.
“There can be an investigation by the CBI or police. There is no dictatorship. These same wrestlers had met me a week back and did not say anything.”
Answering Vinesh’s death threat claims, he said, “Why didn’t Vinesh talk to me or approach the police at that time? Why did she not meet the PM or the sports minister? Why is she saying this now?”
The WFI chief said that the new policies around competition in National Championships are causing trouble to the wrestlers and that is the reason behind the protest. “Different states host Nationals and all want the country’s best athletes to compete. None of these wrestlers has competed in the Nationals. We have made it clear that only those athletes who compete and win at the National Championship will be selected for the National camp.
Brij Bhushan has also been quoted as saying that some of the wrestlers were pressured to sit on dharna. “97 percent of players are with the WFI. I am hurt by the sexual harassment allegations. Not a single player can bring such charges against me or the chief coach. Some wrestlers were pressured to sit on a dharna.”
He also responded to Vinesh’s claims against the coaches in a conversation with the ANI. “A few days ago, in a meeting, Vinesh (Phogat) demanded that the chief coach be changed. A coach can’t be changed on the whims and fancies of one player. We have to think about players from other states as well. They should have come with names of the coaches, who they claimed are involved in sexual harassment.”
The reaction from the sports ministry
The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports (MYAS) stated that they have taken cognisance of the events and have asked the WFI to issue an explanation within 72 hours.
The MYAS statement as quoted by Quint mentioned, “Since the matter pertains to the well-being of athletes, the Ministry has taken a very serious view of the matter. The Ministry has further stated that if WFI fails to furnish the reply within the next 72 hours, the Ministry will proceed to initiate action against the federation in terms of the provisions of the National Sports Development Code, 2011.”
The Ministry of Sports on January 22 suspended Vinod Tomar, assistant secretary of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI).
Protests called off
Wrestlers called-off the protests after Brij Bhusan Sharan Singh stepped aside as the President for a month. Bajrang stated that the union Sports Minister has listened to their demands and has assured that there will be a proper investigation As a result, they were calling-off the protests.
THE LOBBY STORY
Haryana lobby has become weak in the last ten years
According to a senior official of the WFI, the Haryana lobby has been very strong in the Indian Wrestling Association. Earlier Haryana used to dominate most of the posts related to the team support staff from inside the Wrestling Federation of India. But in the last 10 years during the tenure of Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, this dominance of the Haryana lobby has ended. He said, in an attempt to regain this supremacy, the case of wrestlers protesting at Jantar Mantar has become ‘Haryana vs All India’. To strengthen his point, he cited Haryana’s wrestlers being at the forefront in this whole matter and Deepender Hooda standing vociferously in their support
In a startling revelation, a crying Vinesh Phogat alleged that Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh has been sexually exploiting women wrestlers for many years, a charge rejected outright by the sports administrator. The 28-year-old though clarified that she herself never faced such exploitation but claimed that “one victim” was present at the ‘dharna’ they began at Jantar Mantar. So disturbed was Vinesh that she along with Bajrang Punia had even met Union home minister Amit Shah to flag their issues about three months back. Rio Olympic medallist Sakshi Malik, world championship medallist Sarita Mor, Sangeeta Phogat, Anshu Malik, Sonam Malik, Satyawart Malik, Jitender Kinha, Amit Dhankar and CWG medallist Sumit Malik were among 30 wrestlers who assembled at the famous protest site.
On day 2 of the protest, three-time CWG medallist and BJP leader Babita Phogat came with a “message” from the government in the afternoon and assured the grapplers that their demands will be met after elite wrestlers insisted that WFI be disbanded. The wrestlers’ late-night meeting with Union sports minister Anurag Thakur remained inconclusive as they refused to back down from their demand. The marathon meeting began around 10pm on Thursday. The wrestlers left Thakur’s house at 1:45am.
Politicians also reacted sharply with Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar asserted “we will not let their morale to break”. Congress leaders also came out strongly in support of the players, with former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda saying “it is a matter of great misfortune and shame that our players, the pride of the country, have to protest on the streets today”.
It was a high-voltage day. Taking cognisance of allegations of sexual harassment, the Indian Olympic Association, led by PT Usha, formed a seven-member committee, headed by MC Mary Kom, to probe the charges. The panel was constituted even as the wrestlers’ sit-in protest entered the third day which also saw them meet union sports minister Anurag Thakur for a second round of talks in less than 24 hours.
Besides legendary boxer Mary Kom and wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt, the panel includes archer Dola Banerjee and Indian Weightlifting Federation president and IOA treasurer Sahdev Yadav.
Meanwhile, Beijing Olympics bronze medallist boxer and Congress leader Vijender Singh also visited the protest site at Jantar Mantar, showing solidarity with the wrestlers.
In a late-night development, the wrestlers, including Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia, Sakshi Malik and Ravi Dahiya, decided to end their protest after a breakthrough was achieved during a marathon second round of talks with Anurag Thakur. Thakur said an oversight committee will be formed that will investigate the allegations. The committee, members of which will be named on Saturday, will also oversee the day-to-day affairs of the federation. Making the announcement, Thakur said the committee will submit its report in one month’s time.