India’s most famous wrestlers including Olympic medallists like Sakshi Malik, Vinesh Phogat, and Bajrang Punia have come together to protest against the actions of Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the president of Wrestling Federation of India (WFI).
On Tuesday, the protesting wrestlers announced that they would immerse their medals in the Ganga river in Haridwar as a mark of protest to demand action against Singh. But they did not carry out the threat after farmer leaders sought five days' time from them to resolve the issue.
Here's what we know so far.
Who is Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh?
BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh has been the President of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) since 2011. He has been a Member of Parliament six times, five times for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and once for the Samajwadi Party. This case isn’t the first example of contention around his name – Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh’s political career has always been shrouded in controversy, having faced charges for as many as 38 cases against him, including murder, theft, kidnapping, intimidation, etc. In fact, Brij Bhushan has even admitted to shooting someone dead, in an interview to a TV channel.
The protests taking place currently are because of sexual harassment allegations against Brij Bhushan by female wrestlers who have worked with him. According to Indian Express reports, two women wrestlers lodged a complaint against Brij Bhushan for touching their breasts and stomachs inappropriately, under the pretext of examining their breathing, and he also lifted one of the women’s shirts without her consent. Vinesh Phogat, a well-known wrestler said that she was “mentally harassed and tortured” by Brij Bhushan for not winning a medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
Despite the statements of these women, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh denies any acts of sexual harassment. He said “I am completely innocent and have full faith in the Supreme Court and Delhi Police. I am ready for the investigation.”
How are the wrestlers protesting?
In an interaction with the Indian Express, Sakshi Malik said “A lot of girls are sexually harassed, but don’t have the courage to speak up immediately.”
The Delhi Police has filed two FIRs against Brij Bhushan, but the wrestlers want him to be permanently removed from his post as the President of the Wrestling Federation of India.
The protestors are camping at protest sites until their goal is accomplished. The protestors include Olympic medallists like Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia.
Five wrestlers leading the protest wrote an open letter to the President of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) saying they wanted to “create a safe and secure place” for young wrestlers. They appealed to the Sports Ministry to remove Brij Bhushan from power. After confirmation that the Sports Ministry would look into the matter, the protestors backed down. However, no progress was made, so the wrestlers took to the streets once more to advocate for their cause.
Who supported the wrestlers protest?
The wrestlers received immense support, as farmers and opposition parties joined them in their protests. The protestors allegedly faced violence and abuse from the police, as two protestors received head injuries in an altercation with the authorities.
According to PTI, on May 28, the leading protestors, including Vinesh Phogat, were detained by the police for bypassing the security cordon while trying to protest at the new Parliament building where a Mahapanchayat for women was being held. Dependra Pathak, the special CP of Law and Order has said, “They have been detained for violating law and order. We will take legal action after an inquiry in due course of time.”
In protest against the treatment meted out to them, the wrestlers decided to throw their medals into the River Ganga. “These medals are our life and soul”, said the wrestlers in a joint statement, “we are going to throw them into the Ganga. After that, there is no point in living, so we will sit on hunger strike until we die at the India Gate.”
Farmer leader Naresh Tikait dissuaded the protestors from taking the extreme step. The wrestlers have given the authorities a five-day ultimatum to remove Brij Bhushan from the Wrestling Federation of India.
Brijendra Singh, a BJP MP, in a Tweet said: “I feel the pain and helplessness of our wrestlers, forcing them to the brink of throwing away their lifetime hardwork – the medals from Olympics, CWGs, and Asian Games in the Holy Ganga. Absolutely heartbreaking.”
The protesting wrestlers continue to be on hunger strike. The Delhi Police has said that it will not allow protestors to return to the protest sites.
Statements from wrestling organisations:
United World Wrestling, the international governing organisation for wrestling, released a statement regarding the matter - "For several months, United World Wrestling has followed with great concern the situation in India where wrestlers are protesting over allegations of abuse and harassment by the President of the Wrestling Federation of India. UWW will request further information about the next elective general assembly from the IOA and the Ad-hoc Committee of the WFI. The 45-day deadline that was initially set to hold this elective assembly shall be respected. Failing to do so may lead UWW to suspend the federation, thereby forcing the athletes to compete under a neutral flag. It is reminded that UWW already took a measure in this situation by reallocating the Asian Championship planned in New Delhi earlier this year."
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) too stepped in, urging that the allegations by the wrestlers should be followed up on by an 'unbiased, criminal investigation in line with the local law'.
"The treatment of the Indian wrestling athletes over the weekend was very disturbing. The IOC insists that the allegations by the wrestlers are followed up on by an unbiased, criminal investigation in line with the local law. We understand that a first step towards such a criminal investigation has been made, but more steps have to follow before concrete actions become visible," the IOC said in a statement.
(With inputs from PTI)