‘This is the culture’: The Indian wrestlers fighting sexual abuse
Top Indian wrestlers are risking their careers to take on the powerful federation chief and a wider culture of abuse.
New Delhi, India – Olympian wrestler Vinesh Phogat joins her palms together and mimics holding her niece as a newborn as she recounts the “trigger point” that made her decide to protest about the sexual harassment of female wresters in India.
“I started thinking about my brother’s [now 9-year-old] daughter who has started wrestling,” Phogat, 28, told Al Jazeera, at a sit-in in the Indian capital New Delhi.
“Somehow we managed to struggle, we fought and reached certain heights in this game. But to push her and other girls into this when we know how bad it is … I just couldn’t.”
It has been nearly three weeks since some of India’s top wrestlers – Olympians and world champions – resumed living on a footpath in central Delhi to demand the removal and arrest of the president of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, for allegedly sexually harassing female athletes for more than a decade.
Seven female wrestlers, including a minor, have filed police complaints against him; accusing him of stalking, touching them with sexual intent, making sexual remarks and “outraging their modesty”.
According to news reports, two wrestlers claim Singh touched their breasts and stomach on the pretext of checking their breathing on several occasions. He is alleged to have done it at a restaurant, at a tournament and at the WFI office.
The wrestlers want a thorough probe by the police that, they have said, is only possible if Singh – who is serving his sixth term as a member of parliament from the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and has been the WFI president since 2012 – is arrested.
Singh has denied all the allegations and has refused to quit.
“If they can prove even one charge, if they have a video, if I have called anyone, if they have proof, I am ready to be hanged,” he has said.
He has claimed that the protest is politically motivated and, without citing names, said that the wrestlers were being backed by an opposition politician and an industrialist.
The protests initially began on January 18, when about 30 top Indian wrestlers — male and female — began a sit-in in Delhi against Singh after complaints by wrestlers of sexual harassment. They doggedly kept their protest apolitical, not allowing any politician to even sit with them.
Three days later, they called off their protest after being given assurances given by the sports minister, Anurag Thakur, that an Oversight Commission had been set up to probe the allegations against the WFI chief. Thakur also said all WFI activities had been suspended and Singh had been asked to “step aside” until the probe was complete.
However, while the committee’s findings were submitted to the sport ministry, they have not been released and the wrestlers returned to the streets on April 23.
On April 25, the sport ministry said the “major findings” of the committee were that the WFI lacked an internal complaints committee, which is mandatory by law. The ministry did not address allegations against Singh and he has since resumed presiding over national wrestling tournaments.
The same day, the wrestlers petitioned the Supreme Court to force the authorities to register a First Information Report, which forms the basis of investigation. The police registered two FIRs three days later.
Prerna Singh, a lawyer who handles cases of sexual assault of minors, said the process laid down by law is clear and stringent.
“Immediate registration of FIR, arrest of the accused in cases of minors, followed by interrogation and filing of chargesheet. What the wrestlers are demanding is their right,” she told Al Jazeera.
Phogat, who won her third consecutive Commonwealth Games gold medal in 2022, has been leading the sit-in of about 20 to 25 people along with Tokyo Olympic bronze medallist Bajrang Punia and Rio Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik – at great risk to their careers.
All the protesting wrestlers have opted out of ranking series and tournaments and some have threatened to return their medals awarded by the state.
Phogat said protesters have been manhandled by the police – including on May 4, when police tried to physically stop them from bringing in folding cots to sleep on because the footpath and their mattresses were wet from heavy rain.
However, despite their dedication, they have taken on a powerful figure in Singh, who has longstanding and deep ties to the governing party.
‘We thought we had a simple demand’
Wrestling is arguably India’s most successful Olympic sport. In the 75 years since India’s independence, India has won 21 Olympic medals in individual sports, six of which were won by wrestlers.
Most wrestlers come from villages, many of them from poor families. And the bulk of them have been from Haryana, an agrarian and highly patriarchal region with high rates of female foeticide and honour killings.
Female athletes have long complained of sexual harassment in their sports, although they have been reluctant to speak out publicly.
“Many athletes have told me about being subjected to various kinds of exploitation, but they don’t want to come out in the open when they are in their prime,” sport lawyer and activist Saurabh Mishra told Al Jazeera.
“Seeking favours is not rare – financial, sexual,” Mishra added. “In my view, the biggest culprits are sports federation officials who are running their fiefdoms.”
Phogat said several sexual harassment cases were reported in the past, but that Singh succeeded in either making the charges disappear or made sure the complainant did not compete again.
Recently, Phogat said, she received a phone call from young female wrestlers from a state in east India.
“They had complained to the WFI in writing about sexual harassment by a coach. The coach was banned for 10 days, but returned in seven days as head coach. This is the culture [of the WFI]. When the head himself is like that, what action will he take against others?” she said.
The protesting wrestlers have refused to share the names of the women who have complained as details of incidents of sexual harassment that may be embarrassing for the survivors, nor will they let the girls come forward.
“The background, the villages we come from, people are not that educated there. And [the girls] have to live there. They can’t move to London or [Mumbai]. If their names are out, stepping out of the house can become very difficult,” Phogat said.
But the star wrestlers are shielding the victims and risking their own careers by taking on not just a powerful man but also by extension the government.
The BJP, usually quick to claim the success of Indian athletes as being a result of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sport schemes, has ignored the protests.
Singh is a longtime BJP heavyweight from Uttar Pradesh with considerable sway in India’s most populous state, which elects 80 of the 543 legislators.
Often referred to as “Bahubali” (strongman), Singh, many have said, draws immunity from his financial power, political clout and reputation.
Accused of being involved in the destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992, he has a criminal record dating back to the 1990s when he was jailed for aiding associates of gangster Dawood Ibrahim. He still has four criminal cases pending against him, including for robbery, attempted murder and illegal payments in connection with an election.
In interviews to select channels since the sit-in protest began in April, Singh has reacted with defiance and counter-accusations.
During a TV interview, when he was asked about the allegations of sexual harassment, Singh lashed out.
“First, they say it was a hundred girls, now, they say it’s a thousand,” he said. “Have I been eating chapatis made of shilajit [an aphrodisiac]?”
Meanwhile, support for the protests among Indian athletes and the wider public appears to be growing.
Many of India’s top athletes, including six-time Grand Slam champion Sania Mirza, Tokyo Olympic champion Neeraj Chopra, and cricketer Virendra Sehwag have spoken out in support, and several politicians, rights activists and farmer unions have now joined their protest.
Every few days, #IStandWithMyChampions trends on Twitter and fans and supporters across the country have held candlelit marches.
At the protest site, amid checkpoints and a heavy police presence, the protesting wrestlers have tried to maintain a basic, daily routine that begins in the early morning with jogging and exercises. But as the impasse drags on, their worries are mounting.
“It’s an important year. There are Asian Games [in September], then Olympic qualifications. We had not thought that our fight would go on for so long. We thought that we had a simple demand and the government would agree [to remove Singh], but the government is not ready to take any action,” Malik, 30, told Al Jazeera.
“We don’t know if anyone cares, [but] we are going to be here till he is punished for his crimes.”
Phogat said the protesters just want basic rights to be respected.
“We don’t want to fight. We want solutions. We want a guarantee that there will not be any sexual harassment in wrestling,” she said, before adding, “It’s easy to say we want this and that, but nothing is bigger than politics in this country.”