Wrestlers' protest: Some see effort to 'defuse' situation, others await proof

IOA needs to show empathy and solidarity with athletes, says Abhinav Bindra

PTI01_19_2023_000053A Bout time: (From left) Bajrang Punia, Sakshi Malik and Sangita Phogat at Jantar Mantar | PTI

THEY SEEMED to be in a metaphorical chokehold for years. Finally, at Jantar Mantar on January 18, they broke the grip. Star wrestlers Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia, Sakshi Malik and a few others made explosive allegations of sexual assault, mental harassment and financial irregularity against Wrestling Federation of India president Brijbhushan Sharan Singh and others in the organisation.

Singh―a BJP MP from Uttar Pradesh―alleged that the protests were political. He and his supporters alleged that the wrestlers, all from Haryana, had the support of Congress leader Deepender Singh Hooda. The old bogey of Haryana vs Uttar Pradesh wrestling was also raised. The Singh camp, though, is also wary of wrestlers being backed from within the government.

The WFI, Indian Olympic Association and the sports ministry were taken by surprise by the protest, and by the support it got. After all, it is not easy to come out against a strongman like Singh or the federation. The government, for political reasons, was careful in its reaction. The IOA, likewise. Most of those at the helm are part of the ruling dispensation.

The sports ministry set up an oversight committee―after two rounds of talks―to look into the matter and also run the day-to-day affairs of the WFI. A report is to be filed by mid-February. The IOA, led by P.T. Usha, formed a seven-member committee to look into the matter. M.C. Mary Kom will head both.

The ministry suspended WFI assistant secretary Vinod Tomar, a Sports Authority of India employee lent to the federation. It also suspended all WFI activity, including competitions, till the oversight committee took charge, on January 24.

Over the years, there had been whispers of alleged sexual abuse of young women wrestlers and the high-handed ways of Singh. However, no one came out on record as they reportedly feared for their careers and families.

The protesting wrestlers wrote to the International Olympic Committee’s Athletes’ Commission on January 20. A copy of the letter, which THE WEEK has, talks of Vinesh “contemplating suicide” because of the mental harassment by Singh and also pending payments to wrestlers from a deal with Tata Motors.

The IOC commission has written to its counterpart in India and the United World Wrestling (the international body) is also keeping a close eye on developments.

IOC athletes' commission member Abhinav Bindra was part of the IOA's “urgent” executive council meeting days after the protest.

Reportedly, the IOA members heard Bindra out before setting up the committee, though how that will help remains to be seen.

During the meeting, said sources, Usha went by the pre-decided script; joint secretary Kalyan Chaubey was the one who talked. IOA vice president Gagan Narang was for supporting the athletes, but did not say much in the meeting. Mary Kom remained quiet.

Former wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt spoke in support of the WFI, which shocked many members in attendance. The larger wrestling community was not surprised. Dutt had joined the BJP after his retirement and has been slammed for not supporting wrestlers in the past. Apparently, he told the meeting that the protesting wrestlers wanted to “take over the federation”.

“We have a great responsibility as athletes,” Bindra told THE WEEK. “It takes a lot of courage to come out with this. Second, it is important for stakeholders, especially the IOA, to show empathy and solidarity with the athletes. Third, the charges are grave and require proper investigation. Lastly, we fixed an IOC call with the IOA athletes' commission. The IOC has a lot of measures to safeguard the complainants.”

Vinesh had said at the protest: “I have received a call from a woman wrestler. I have a 30-minute recording of that call in which she has detailed what happened with her. These allegations are against a WFI vice-president (there are seven).... We have proof that people have complained about the harassment.”

Parties on both sides of the fence are waiting for this proof. Said sports activist and lawyer Rahul Mehra: “According to me, enough has come out. Now a complaint must be lodged. Unless you put down the date, time and nature of the incident, it is difficult to take action. There is a trust deficit, which is quite obvious.”

As for Phogat and Malik “bringing up old incidents”, Mehra cited the POSH Act, 2013. “Even if the incident happened five years back, but there was also harassment three months ago, a complaint can be filed under it (the cut-off date to file a complaint is three months from the last incident),” he said. “There will be issues, but see what happened when #MeToo started. Some law somewhere will kick in.”

Mehra, however, did not have high hopes from the committees. “I see this (appointment of oversight committee) as a way to defuse the situation as their own MP is involved. I do not see anything coming out of it. The IOA committee, too, is of people handpicked by the government. The IOA itself has newly elected people handpicked by the government.”

Citing clauses of the National Sports Code, Mehra called for the WFI to be suspended. “Give a show-cause notice, too,” he said. “Why shy away from it?”

He also slammed the WFI for its “sexual harassment committee”, which has only one woman―Malik. As per rules, a woman must head it and half the members should be women. “Initially this was the Ethics Committee,” he said. “Once the federation came under pressure, the name was changed to sexual harassment committee.”

Going forward, the fight in court will certainly be harder than anything the wrestlers have done on the mat. However, as Mehra said, “You might not win, but you must call people out to give strength to the next generation. There is no shame in coming out with details. One must shame the alleged attacker.”