Explained: Why Indias champion wrestlers are up in arms against WFI

Explained: Why India's champion wrestlers are up in arms against WFI

The gloves are off as leading Olympian and World Champion wrestlers decided to enter the ring to fight and staged a dharna for two days at Jantar Mantar in Delhi, raising serious allegations about sexual harassment by the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president, a BJP MP, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, and by coaches appointed at national training camps.

According to the wrestlers, the president and the coaches had been “sexually harassing women wrestlers for years”. They also protested against the dictatorial attitude of the WFI president.

The wrestlers led by veteran wrestler 28-year old Vinesh Phogat, who was the first Indian woman wrestler to win gold in both Commonwealth and Asian Games, said they were being troubled by the coaches, who get into their personal lives and relationships.

Watch: Vinesh Phogat leads protest for action against WFI chief

According to Phogat, Singh is involved in sexual harassment. “I know at least 10-12 women wrestlers who have told me about the sexual exploitation they faced at the hands of the WFI president,” she said.

BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh hotly denied these charges and defended himself at a press conference saying there has been no incident of sexual harassment. “If such a thing has happened, then I will hang myself,” said the WFI president dramatically to the media.

Even as the sports ministry has taken a serious view of the matter and demanded an explanation from the WFI within 72 hours, the allegations have only once again exposed the dirty underbelly of Indian sport.

So, what is this entire incident about?

Vinesh Phogat, who has been at loggerheads with the WFI since the Tokyo Olympians early last year, set the ball rolling on Wednesday (January 18) at a dharna in Jantar Mantar when she accused the WFI president of sexually exploiting women wrestlers for many years. She also claimed that she had received death threats against her after she had complained about the problems wrestlers faced to Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the Tokyo Olympics.

The 30 odd women wrestlers participating in the dharna included Olympic as well as Commonwealth Games medal winners such as Sakshi Malik, Sarita Mor, Sangeeta Phogat, Anshu Malik, Sonam Malik, Satyawart Malik, Jitendra Kinha, Amit Dhankar, and Sumit Malik. Bajrang Punia was also part of the protest calling the WFI president a “dictator” and slammed the federation for being run in an arbitrary manner.

Why the women wrestlers are angry and protesting?

Vinesh Phogat said in a media interaction that at least 10-20 women wrestlers had told her their stories of the sexual exploitation they faced at the hands of the WFI president. However, she failed to take their names saying she would definitely reveal them if they get to meet the Indian PM and the home minister.

According to Phogat, she is being tortured every day and decided to muster up courage since they were not left with any option. ‘Ab paani sar se paar ho raha hai’ (the limit has been reached), she said.

Sakshee Mallik, Indian freestyle wrestler who brought home India’s first Olympic medal in wrestling, said that the players work very hard to bring medals for the country. But the federation does nothing but put them down. They introduce their own rules and regulations at whim and players are being harassed all the time, she said in a tweet.

Bajrang Punia said that the players will not compete in any international competition until the WFI President is removed. According to Punia, this is a fight to save Indian wrestling. “We have to think about the next generation of players as well,” he said, adding that it is a question of the entire wrestling fraternity.

Also read: WFI chief sexually exploited women wrestlers: Vinesh Phogat

Another ace wrestler Sarita Mor said in her tweet that players want self-respect. They work very hard to prepare themselves for major competitions like the Olympics. But if the Federation does not support them, they lose their morale. But now we will not bend and will fight for our rights, she said in Hindi in  her tweet.

WFI President Brij Bhushan Singh
The allegations are all fake, said WFI president Brij Bhushan Singh

What was WFI president Brij Bhushan’s defense?

Brij Bhushan Singh said all the allegations were fake and there is no truth in any of them. “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. (Later, the protesting wrestlers said at Jantar Mantar that they have proof about his sexual harassment of the players)

Singh, who is expected to resign at a WFI annual meet on January 22, asked for an investigation by the CBI or police. And alleged that these same wrestlers had met him a week back and never said anything.

The WFI chief felt that the new policies around competition in National Championships were the reasons for the protest. He said that none of these wrestlers had competed in the Nationals and the Federation had made it clear that only those athletes who compete and win at the National Championship will be selected for the National camp.

Stating that he is hurt by the sexual allegations, Brij Bhushan also told PTI that some of the wrestlers were pressured to sit at the dharna. “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 told the media.

What DCW said

Meanwhile, DCW chief Swati Maliwal also met the protesting wrestlers at the Jantar Mantar. Terming the allegations as a ‘very serious matter’, the DCW said it has taken suo moto cognisance of media reports about allegations of sexual harassment made against the president of WFI and some wrestling coaches. The panel has also asked police to register an FIR in the matter.

Pertinently, the DCW has also sought details of Internal Complaints Committee formed by the WFI. The panel also asked whether these complaints have been forwarded to the ICC and the Local Complaint Committee (LCC) as per Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.

What is the WFI’s reaction?

The WFI claims to be in the dark about the reasons for the protest. WFI Assistant Secretary, Vinod Tomar said they came to know from the letter to the WFI president that some wrestlers were sitting in protest. Tomar said that once the wrestlers formally approach the Federation, all the issues will be sorted out. The issue has not been raised formally with the Federation as yet, he said.

The sports ministry’s reaction to the allegations?

The sports ministry has sought an explanation from WFI and directed it to furnish a reply within the next 72 hours about the allegations that have been made.

In its communication to WFI, said media reports, the ministry has said that “since the matter pertains to the well-being of athletes,” they have taken a very serious view of the matter. If the 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, said the ministry.

Who supported them?

Congress leader and former Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda came out in support of players. In a statement, he said that “it is a matter of great misfortune and shame that our players, the pride of the country, have to protest on the streets today”.

At what stage is the protest?

The protestors as of Thursday evening are not satisfied with the government’s response and have decided to fight till their demands are met.

Some other sexual harassment cases in the world of sports 

In July 2022, India U-17 women’s football team assistant coach Alex Ambrose was sacked after allegations of sexual misconduct during their Europe tour surfaced. After the complaint was filed with the All India Football Federation (AIFF), Ambrose was brought back.

In July 2021, eight women athletes accused Tamil Nadu track and field coach P Nagarajan of abuse over several years. A 19-year-old athlete was the first one to level such charges against him.

One tragic case that needs to be remembered is that of 14-year-old tennis player Ruchika Girhotra. In 1990, she dared to raise her voice against the then president of tennis federation and IG Haryana Police, SPS Rathore accusing him of molesting her. The entire state machinery and many organisations rallied behind the accused and he was promoted as DGP Haryana. In an environment that turned hostile against her, Ruchika took her own life.

But her close friend’s family, the Anands, and women’s organisations, painstakingly followed that case at every level for 19 long years. Even then, the accused was merely jailed for six months and fined Rs 1,000.

Hopefully, the India’s champion women wrestlers will have better luck in the wake of the world-wide MeToo movement that made people sit up and realise what men in positions of power can do.

What did IOA say?

Indian Olympic Association’s (IOA) President PT Usha has promised a complete investigation to ensure justice for the wrestlers.

“As IOA President, I’ve been discussing the current matter of wrestlers with the members and for all of us the welfare and well being of the athletes is the top most priority of IOA. We request athletes to come forward and voice their concerns with us.

“We will ensure a complete investigation to ensure justice. We also have decided to form a special committee to deal with such situations that may arise in the future, for swifter action,” Usha tweeted.

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