THERE HAS BEEN no protest like this in Indian sport. Even when the wrestlers first came out at Jantar Mantar, it was unprecedented. I think at the time they believed that their demands would be met because they had appealed directly to the prime minister; he had hailed them as champions, he spoke so often of Beti Bachao. They thought their appeal would work, but it didn’t.
Brijbhushan Singh, from what I have been told by people who know him, is immensely powerful in the region that he operates in. He has the loyalties of 12 Lok Sabha MPs and 36 MLAs, or so he claims. Also, he seems to be a counter to [Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister] Yogi Adityanath. Perhaps, that is the reason he is being shielded. The other reason is that now it has become a question of ego. The government seems to be thinking, “How dare these women not just go away?” Moreover, we are seeing a certain dispensability of athletes—if political power cannot use them for its ends, they serve no purpose to them. They can be treated like the wrestlers are being treated today.
It is disingenuous to say that there are political forces at play, as if Brijbhushan is a lamb. He is a political person; there will be a political game. The whole point of ‘there is politics at play’ is to take away from what is the central accusation about Brijbhushan’s behaviour against his athletes. Everything else is just news channel talk to fill airtime.
The government is not in the clear because the Delhi Police are sitting on their hands. When you had this oversight committee, did you call Brijbhushan Singh in for questioning? The sports ministry, the Indian Olympic Association and the Wrestling Federation of India are all controlled by people from the same party. And everyone is trying to protect one guy.
Some of the athletes have spoken up in support of the wrestlers, but most of the superstars, especially in cricket, have not. This is because there is an established line, especially under this dispensation, that nobody must upset the sarkar. Cricket stars are happy in their golden cage. Their managers might have asked them not to rattle it.
You see that there is also no response from the heads of sports organisations, some of whom themselves may be former athletes. Kalyan Chaubey, for example, heads the All India Football Federation. I haven’t heard anything from him about the houses of two of India’s football players—Chinglensana Singh and Thongkosiem ‘Semboi’ Haokip—being burnt down in the Manipur violence. So, it is about party loyalty before sporting loyalty.
I cannot imagine the position of Geeta and Babita Phogat (Vinesh’s cousins) in this whole standoff. Babita (a BJP leader) has fallen silent after one tweet. Geeta, a police officer in Haryana, did manage to attend the protest despite being stopped at one point. I assume hers is a tacit approval for the protest, but I cannot read her mind. This is family for them, which is closer than anything in the world.
The argument that the medals belong to the nation as they do to the athlete is bollocks. The athletes won them; the nation supported the process of the athletes. Our taxes paid for the process that took them to the competition, but we didn’t sweat, we didn’t train, we didn’t get our noses broken and our ears turned into plasticine by opponents. These are their medals. And those saying that they should have thrown away the medals... do they even know what the medals mean to elite athletes? That is why the wrestlers were crying.
At some point, they must have realised that this is an end to their competitive career. They could have competed for another Olympic cycle, perhaps, but they can still be involved in wrestling in some way, whether it is through setting up a wrestling school or something else. That is an opportunity because the Indian sports system is changing and broad-basing itself.
Another thing that must be said, since we are going on about the medals, is that, at the Olympic Games, officially, there is never a medals tally by countries (the International Olympic Committee does not recognise it). That is our invention to make it nation versus nation. In theory, there is no medal tally; each individual athlete is celebrated. But these are finer points that the “nationalistic trolls” cannot grasp.
As for redress mechanisms, I believe the Sports Authority of India has a very active and usable hotline. But would an athlete in a camp call SAI and say their coach is torturing them? They don’t know how the SAI person who picks up is connected to their coach. That is the problem. There is nothing even approaching an independent body that the athletes can turn to. Athletes fear consequences on their career; that’s why they don’t complain even to internal mechanisms. Sakshi Malik is on the sexual harassment committee of the Wrestling Federation of India. How could she have complained against her own president?
The United World Wrestling statement is a big one because if the international bodies say you are banned because your governance methods are shoddy, then you are not going to be able to send people out to the Olympics. The IOC has also come out with a statement saying that it is “disturbed”. Those photographs of the wrestlers being dragged have shaken up everybody. Consequences of that kind (banning) could shake up the system, so that these guys have to at least look over their shoulders. How would it look if the wrestlers compete under an independent flag because the WFI is banned? It would be an insult to the office bearers.
I think the wrestlers have realised that this is a point of no return. That is just my sense. They are ready for the long fight. They want the man to be arrested because, if he is around, he gets to control whoever new controls Indian wrestling.
This is perhaps the best chance for sports to try and find an independent resolution mechanism for its athletes. The federations control who goes to the games. So, the athlete is dependent on the federation official who wants them to touch his feet. Wrestler Sonam Malik was punished because her relatives went to collect her passport, when she had to go to Tokyo, instead of her.
And I’m not saying that athletes, elite athletes particularly, are not insecure, greedy or hypocritical. But their talent cannot be replaced. The talents of our sports officials, however, are eminently replaceable, because at this point they require enormous remodelling and improvement.
The writer is a journalist and author.
—As told to Anirudh Madhavan