How delay in action against Brij Bhushan is scaring away grappler girls from Haryana’s akhadas

How delay in action against Brij Bhushan is scaring away grappler girls from Haryana’s akhadas

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The time is around 5 pm. As is usual for this time of the year, it is still scorching hot in Haryana’s Jhajjar district. Undeterred, a group of young girls are active stretching. Some are also helping others release the tension around muscles properly. Others are jumping around to prep up for the next few hours of rigorous training. A few minutes later, the girls — now sufficiently warmed...

The time is around 5 pm. As is usual for this time of the year, it is still scorching hot in Haryana’s Jhajjar district. Undeterred, a group of young girls are active stretching. Some are also helping others release the tension around muscles properly. Others are jumping around to prep up for the next few hours of rigorous training. A few minutes later, the girls — now sufficiently warmed up — look towards Ravinder Dahiya who runs the only residential wrestling academy for girls in Asuda, a village that falls in Jhajjar.

Famed for his stint at the National Institute of Sports, Patiala, about 40 aspiring female wrestlers aged between 12 and 16 years wait for Dahiya’s instructions to start their high-intensity sessions at Chotu Ram Akhada.

Their concentration and quick response to Dahiya’s instructions belies the storm within their minds. While the young sportspersons appear undeterred by the protest being led by India’s medal winning wrestlers against Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief and BJP parliamentarian Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, a detailed conversation on the subject unravels their inner turmoil, apprehensions and anxieties.

The young girls are quick to dispel the reports that the ongoing wrestlers’ agitation failed to bring aspiring female wrestlers from Haryana into its fold.

“Many female athletes have visited Delhi to side with the wrestlers and are also following the movement very closely. However, due to logistical and family issues a sizeable chunk couldn’t be seen at Jantar Mantar alongside the grapplers. This does not mean that the aspiring wrestlers are not supportive of the cause,” said Rohini Devi, a 14-year-old sportsperson.

Chotu Ram Akhada in Haryana’s Jhajjar district is a residential facility for aspiring female wrestlers.

While there is support, it is tempered with fear in several cases. Budding female athletes are scared that being seen to be siding with the wrestlers and taking on a regional bahubali (heavyweight) may have an impact on their careers. “The federation in a stern communique warned aspiring wrestlers of strict action if they associate with the ongoing stir,” said Rohini.

Wrestlers rejoin offices

The support continues even as three wrestlers, who are at the forefront of the protest — Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik — resumed their official commitments with Railways on June 5, a day after their meeting with Union Home Minister Amit Shah. The wrestlers have said their meeting with Shah remained inconclusive.

Also read | Just rejoined work, not ended protest, say Sakshi and Punia

The physical protests had drawn to a close on May 28 after a police crackdown on protesters. The wrestlers were evicted from Jantar Mantar by police after they tried to march to the new Parliament building which was being inaugurated the same day. Two days later, the wrestlers announced they would head to Haridwar and immerse their medals in the Ganga river. As the wrestlers reached Har Ki Pauri, farmer leader and Bharatiya Kisan Union chief Naresh Tikait intervened and prevented the protesting wrestlers from immersing their medals in Ganga River in Haridwar. Tikait secured a five-day period to resolve the situation.

Even as wrestlers have returned to work, they have categorically said that the movement will continue until their core demand of Brij Bhushan’s arrest is met. The wrestlers are demanding Bhushan’s arrest over allegations of sexual harassment. On June 4, Bajrang Punia announced that the fight must continue from one platform as segregated efforts of convening mahapanchayats by different groups will weaken the movement.

Fear, anxiety grip grapplers

Back in Jhajjar the anxiety over the uncertainty of the situation is palpable.

“There is concern among the aspiring female grapplers and their families. If wrestlers such as Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik can be brought to tears, do we even stand a chance if anything untoward were to happen to us,” Vanshika Hooda, a 12-year-old wrestler, who has already won many accolades at the state and national level, said as she sat outside the ring during a break from practice bout at the Chotu Ram Akhada.

Also read | Wrestlers accuse WFI chief of intimidation, stalking, sexual harassment in two FIRs

Pulling up her socks and tightening her shoe laces before resuming her practice, Hooda said, “I have a dream of winning at the Olympics. I am so focused on the dream that I try to shield myself from all extraneous factors. The practice sessions and the rigours of staying at the akhada are extremely demanding.”

Sensing that her friendly opponent for the friendly practice bout is still prepping up, Hooda continued the conversation with this reporter.

“Watching Olympic medallist Sakshi Malik and World Championships medallist Vinesh Phogat allowed me to nurture my dreams. I wasn’t worried about failures, I wanted to challenge myself to bring out the best in me. But now, my family is asking me to abandon the sport and seek an alternative career. Is it even possible at this stage? I have invested my formative years trying to learn the tricks of the trade. I am mentally not prepared to quit wrestling at this stage and make the switch. But what we are sure of is that we cannot continue being wrestlers if Brij Bhushan is not shunted out of the federation,” she said.

Echoing similar sentiments, eight-year-old Navya Sangwan, a die-hard fan of Vinesh Phogat, said: “I want to get that same respect that Vinesh didi got after she won medals for India. She has been my role model. I like the way she goes about her preparation unfazed by her opponents. She remains calm throughout even when she is facing very tough opponents. But the scenes of Vinesh weeping and begging for justice, made me feel sad too. I never imagined Vinesh didi could look so helpless.”

Suravi, a district champion, warming up for friendly practice bouts in Jhajjar.

“Although I am trying my best to remain calm and not let the events in Delhi have an impact on my training sessions, it has undoubtedly affected my game and my mental state. And now my parents have sternly asked me to give up wrestling. Is it fair? Should talents be crushed because of a few individuals who misuse their power?” she asks.

Sangwan fears if action doesn’t follow, many wrestling aspirants may have to leave the akhadas forever.

“We have no option. Safety and respect are paramount for female wrestlers. If the case against Brij Bhushan Singh is not taken to its logical end, many promising young wrestlers will quit the sport. This trend is already visible in akhadas across the state,” she added.

Sangwan said that the road for female wrestlers, which is already an arduous one, has been made more difficult.

“As women we fought the patriarchal boundaries that have been snuffing out Haryana’s daughters traditionally. Overcoming such challenges, we have excelled in the sport. But now, it seems that we have hit a dead end, with all roads appearing to be shut,” she added with a sigh.

Parental concerns

It isn’t just wrestlers who are scared of their enthusiasm for the sport becoming a casualty of the talks of sexual harassment. Parents too are concerned.

After the news of Brij Bhushan’s alleged conduct towards female wrestlers surfaced, parents admitted to being scared of sending their girls to akhadas.

Following the controversy, in non-residential akhadas, parents are making it a point to stay with their wards during the practice sessions. Even if the sessions last for hours, the parents stay put with their wards.

There are some who claim that enrolment in the akhadas has dipped since the senior wrestlers came out with their stories of sexual harassment.

Sangeeta Chaurasia, a 15-year-old wrestling aspirant who has been at the Chotu Ram Akhada since 2019, recounts: “Every year more than 50 girls enrol at the academy. Looking at the high rate of enrolment over the years, the owner decided to expand the facility and build additional rooms on the first floor. When the allegations came to light for the first time in January, the number of new applications fell marginally. As the government had set up a panel to look into the allegations, everyone expected quick results. But when the wrestlers hit the ground again in April, the tension swelled and anxious parents began withdrawing their wards. This is not only a body blow to their careers but also the sport.”

The fear is palpable all around now. With sit-ins yielding very little, the parents have realised that the wrestlers must ready themselves for a protracted battle. The victims have to fight a political heavyweight such as Brij Bhushan, who continues to enjoy the confidence and the support of BJP, which rules both Haryana, the state to which protesting wrestlers belong, and the Centre. BJP also rules Uttar Pradesh from where Brij Bhushan has been elected Member of Parliament for six times since 1991.

Sangeeta Chaurasia said that the years of sacrifice and countless injuries will go down the drain if one has to quit because powerful people are allowed to sexually abuse women and the victims are denied justice despite their protests.

Players say the sport of wrestling demands a unique level of discipline, work ethic, and will power. After having achieved a certain level of mental fortitude, wrestlers prepare themselves for bigger bouts. “With media reports detailing the sexual advances of Brij Bhushan and other coaches at the federation, my depression and anxiety started becoming more noticeable. I wasn’t able to focus on my practice sessions. The aspect of safety kept bothering me,” Chaurasia told The Federal.

“For a wrestler, focus is extremely important. Therefore, we consciously decided at an early age to discipline ourselves in terms of what we wear and how our hair should be. We opted to keep our hair short for the same reason,” she added.

“Our parents are worried about our security now. If wrestlers like Vinesh, Sakshi and Sangeeta are vulnerable, how can parents feel confident enough to send us to the national camps?” asks Chaurasia. Ill treatment meted out to the wrestlers will only push the future generations away from the game.

Even parents are distraught, sensing the careers they dreamed for their girls may never take off.

Yogendra Chaubey, an employee at a regional bank, breaks down as he begins to talk about how the current crisis is likely to impact his daughter Suman’s career.

Pointing to the many medals his 17-year-old daughter won at district and state championships, Chaubey recalled the many hardships she battled to pursue the sport. Narrating one such instance, he adds: “It was very hard for me to convince my wife who foresaw a career in academics for our daughter. My wife gave primacy to academics over sports as she believed that academics alone could serve as a passport to a better life. My daughter’s love for wrestling and my persistence prevailed over my wife’s wishes.”

A young grappler with her father at the akhada.

“I had to battle many odds to provide the right support and platform to my daughter. Although wrestling doesn’t require huge financial investment, we couldn’t even accrue the nominal amount for her training and diet. With scant resources, she began pursuing her dream. The journey wasn’t very easy to start with. She suffered multiple setbacks, but her determination and discipline eventually started to bring good outcomes. As her career was beginning to take off, the sport now is beset with the grave allegations of sexual harassment,” Chaubey told The Federal.

“The wrestlers stay away from home for long periods because of training. In the current situation, I am wondering whether my daughter is safe, and how long she can shield herself from such predators. With allegations of harassment and bullying going right up to the level of national camps, our children are not safe anymore,” he says.

As Chaubey carefully watches his daughter improve her performance at the endurance tests, he reiterates that the protest by wrestlers is a serious issue. The ruling dispensation should take a serious note of the issue and resolve it at the earliest. The investigation must be done thoroughly and impartially. Whoever is found guilty must be punished. This will set a good precedent for the sport and also will also motivate young wrestlers to take up the sport.”

Dealing with distractions

Explaining how Haryana has become synonymous with wrestling, coach Mukesh Kumar, who also runs a training centre for male wrestlers, says wrestling is a traditional sport in Haryana.

A child’s relationship with wrestling begins during infancy and strengthens from there on. During birthday celebrations, village coaches are invited and asked to bless the child so that they can be good wrestlers. The family and the village coaches play a big role in the wrestlers’ life.

Detailing how the allegations of sexual harassment is impacting the sport, Kumar said: “New trainees start enrolling after school exams. Looking at the high enrolment ratio, the owners of my akadha began constructing additional rooms. But this year it was very different. Not a single girl has joined. The academy has all old recruits. Twenty girls were supposed to join in April. In February, their parents had come from Bahadurgarh and adjoining areas to enquire about our centre. After their initial inquiry, they even paid a nominal amount for confirmation.”

A young wrestler preparing a dietary supplement ahead of the practice session.

“But when I called them last month, they said they didn’t want to send their girls as they fear something untoward might happen to them. When parents fear for safety, it is very hard to convince them. The allegations against Brij Bhushan and the ongoing investigation is being keenly watched by lakhs of parents and budding wrestlers across the state. This case will act as a litmus test for an entire generation of female wrestlers from Haryana,” Kumar said.

Whenever female wrestlers get medals in championships, there is a noticeable jump in the number of young girls enrolling in wrestling academies. But now that India’s ace wrestlers are on the streets protesting against an individual and an unresponsive system, centres across Haryana have seen a dip in new enrolment, observed the coach.

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