Wrestlers mahapanchayats
Punia requested speakers at Sunday's event not to announce any major decision and urged khaps and farmers’ unions to stop holding isolated mahapanchayats | Pic: Twitter/ANI Digital

Wrestlers fear isolated mahapanchayats diluting struggle; only helping, say khaps

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Is the wrestlers’ protest now slipping out of the hold of the wrestlers themselves? With khap mahapanchayats being randomly called in different villages — one of them being at ace wrestler Vinesh Phogat’s village Balali in Haryana on Wednesday (June 7) — fellow champion Bajrang Punia certainly thinks so.

Punia voiced his concern at the Sarv Samaj Samarthan Panchayat called in Haryana’s Sonepat district on Sunday (June 4). It was the third panchayat in four days held over the issue.

At the same time, unverified reports of the wrestlers calling off their agitation demanding the arrest of Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh over sexual harassment charges are doing the rounds. Though the wrestlers have vigorously denied those reports, their joining their respective jobs with the railways and their meeting with Union Home Minister Amit Shah have kept fanning those rumours.

Punia’s appeal

Addressing the panchayat in Sonepat on Sunday, Punia appealed for a united fight led by the wrestlers themselves. He urged supporters to devise ways to strengthen the movement and not weaken it, which such isolated mahapanchayats may be doing. First, these may be diluting the protest and, second, these may be mistaken as wrestlers’ groups fighting for their own interests, in their respective regions, he pointed out.

Although farmers’ organisations and khap panchayats have stood by the protesting wrestlers since the beginning, their support has grown manifold after Delhi Police manhandled the latter on May 28.

Punia requested speakers at the event not to announce any major decision, saying the grapplers will call a mahapanchayat in three or four days. He urged various groups — khaps and farmers’ unions — to stop holding isolated mahapanchayats.

“The wrestlers will now take a call on convening a mahapanchayat, which will be led by them,” announced Punia. However, on Wednesday, Phogat missed the wrestlers’ meeting with Union Sports Minister Anurag Thakur to attend the mahapanchayat in Balali called by farmer leaders. Punia and Mailk met Thakur and placed five demands before the government.

Activist speaks

But how far are the wrestlers’ fears justified? Feminist activist Kavita Krishnan told The Federal that khaps and farmers’ unions coming out in support of the protesting wrestlers has only expanded the agitation.

Krishnan, who played a pivotal role in the movement to ensure justice for Nirbhaya, a 23-year-old student who was brutally gang-raped and assaulted in Delhi, leading to her death, in 2012, justified the central roles assumed by farmers’ unions and khaps by pointing out the asymmetric nature of the ongoing agitation.

She added that it is rare for a person accused of sexual harassment to get so much media coverage. “The accused is making statements and using the press almost daily. Therefore, it is important that the wrestlers get maximum support in their agitation,” argued Krishnan.

Commenting on how the protest might take shape in the next couple of days, she said the wrestlers will independently take those decisions. They may be supported by various groups, but the final decision to take the movement ahead must lie with the grapplers.

Also read: Wrestlers’ stir | Will consult everyone involved: Sakshi after Centre’s talks call

Immediate effect of appeal

Gaurav Tikait, son of Bharatiya Kisan Union chief Rakesh Tikait, told The Federal that the unions have collectively decided to let the wrestlers take the lead.

Acting on Punia’s plea to allow the wrestlers to convene a mahapanchayat, Tikait said the June 9 rally at Jantar Mantar has been postponed until the wrestlers give a new date.

“Wrestlers led by Punia may have felt that khaps and farmers’ organisations leading the protest may send a wrong message to people associated with the agitation. But, the khaps and other groups are only trying to rally behind the wrestlers. There is no attempt to carry on a parallel struggle against the government,” confirmed the young leader.

Adding heft to movement

Viewing the meeting between the wrestlers and Shah as the first major attempt to engage with the agitating grapplers, Pratap Nambardar from Phogat Khap said: “Khaps are only adding heft to the movement. Although the number on mahapanchayats organised by the khaps has increased since the police brutality on May 28, the khaps only want to act as a force multiplier. There is no attempt to initiate a parallel movement.”

Last Friday, a mahapanchayat in Haryana’s Kurukshetra gave the government a week’s time to initiate a dialogue on the wrestlers’ demand for the arrest of WFI chief and BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. Nambardar credited the mahapanchayat for its resolution and felt that it prompted the government to show urgency in dealing with the wrestlers’ grievance.

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