It is a hot, dry evening in June, but there is a dark cloud inside Sonipat’s biggest girls’ akhada. The Brijbhushan Sharan Singh controversy―women wrestlers have accused the BJP MP of sexual harassment; he is yet to be arrested―has reached training centres in Haryana, and coaches and parents are grappling with uncertainty. Veteran wrestler Devi Singh, who runs the Yudhvir Akhada, observes the class from a distance. “The boys would run away; girls are more disciplined,” he says, explaining his decision to open a girls-only akhada.
Singh has seen a lot in his time as wrestler and coach. He does not let out much. “It is too early to say,” he says, cautiously, when asked if the issue had affected new enrolments. On the girls’ safety, he says, “We will respond when the results of the investigation are out.”
Brijbhushan, who has run the Wrestling Federation of India for the past 12 years, has been forced to “step aside” while he is being investigated by the Delhi Police.
The akhada, set up in the middle of a field, houses around 40 girls from in and around Haryana and also from Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. Around 20 others commute from their homes every day. They are all in the junior category.
Haryana has close to 15 such girls-only akhadas, where hopefuls as young as eight enrol to fulfil their dream of representing India. Sadly, only a few do.
Sameeksha, one of the coaches at Yudhvir Akhada, says, “It has affected [new admissions] mildly, but it is not like girls have dropped out. The girls and their parents do ask questions, but we cannot say on our own who is right or wrong. We tell them even we are waiting for the result of the investigation. We tell them to be alert at camps and trials, and to not mix around freely with anyone. We also accompany them for tournaments.”
Under Brijbhushan, the WFI held all national camps and selection trials for women at the Sports Authority of India centre in Lucknow, his backyard. This was despite protests from coaches and even SAI officials in Delhi. In fact, one senior SAI official, now retired, had reportedly raised this issue in writing, but her request fell on deaf ears.
Now, SAI has moved all women’s national camps to the National Institute of Sports in Patiala. “That is a good move,” says Devi Singh.
In the background, the girls go through various drills under the watchful eyes of the coaches. They are aware of the controversy, but with no access to mobile phones or television news, information is scant.
At another all-girls akhada, in the Mamta Modern Senior Secondary School, 12km away, the issue is more out in the open. Coach Rajesh Saroha, who runs the centre, admits that there has been an impact. “Some girls who were preparing to join the academy refused to get into the sport,” he says. “New girls, mostly.”
The large hall of the training centre has photographs of top Indian wrestlers on its walls, including of Sakshi Malik, one of the key protestors. Few of the girls are around. “See, it does affect the kids,” says Saroha. “So much news is coming out. The parents are confused about what the right choice is. We tell them to not let their children get carried away by various things that the coaches and officials might offer them.” Especially when they go to Lucknow for trials or competitions. “You do not get anything for free,” he says. “If a person is giving you something, he will definitely want something in return.”
He gives an example that hints at the Lucknow camp’s clout. A junior wrestler, after winning her trial in Lucknow, returned to her home in Hisar, Haryana. On the evening of the same day she got a call from an official, asking her to return to Lucknow for another trial the very next day.
“The girl returned to Lucknow,” he says. “Her coach asked the national coach if there was going to be a weight check again. She had eaten a bit as she thought the trial was done. She had to sweat off the excess weight by working out for three hours. Then, in the bout, the referees blew the whistle controversially and, despite this one leading, the other girl was declared the winner. We counselled the girl and told her not to give up. Two months later, at another trial, she beat the same opponent 10-0 (technical superiority).”
It was the success of the Phogat sisters―Geeta and Babita―along with the movie Dangal, says Devi Singh, that drew girls all over Haryana to the mat. At the Yudhvir Akhada, the girls rest in their dormitory after their training session.
At any of these akhadas, the average cost for a wrestler is between Rs15,000 and Rs20,000 a month. This includes the cost of staying and the nutritious meals that include fruits, dry fruits and a lot of desi ghee.
Though it is the holiday season, most of the girls at Yudhvir Akhada have not gone home; life for them is wrestling. The current controversy, however, has soiled the mat. “New girls are not coming in as many numbers as before,” says Saroha. “But parents are making their girls aware of the perils and so are we.” He added that he and other coaches would stick to their wards right throughout the camp and trials in Lucknow.
Sameeksha, meanwhile, just wants the investigation to conclude fast. “Trials are continuing, but competitions have been stopped,” she says. “If this gets over quickly, at least competitions will resume. Also, those who are in the right would get justice.”