Sunday, May 28, 2023

A Wrestle For Justice At Jantar Mantar

Political Overlap

A Wrestle For Justice At Jantar Mantar

Wrestlers who won medals for our country are determined to take the fight against WFI chief Brij Bhushan to the finish

Hear Them Out: The protesting wrestlers have just one demand­—the WFI president should resign
Hear Them Out: The protesting wrestlers have just one demand­—the WFI president should resign Suresh K. Pandey

For the past few weeks, the cream of the crop of Indian wrestling has been eating and sleeping on the pavement outside Jantar Mantar in Delhi. They use the public washrooms nearby and live under tarpaulin sheets that protect them from the blistering Delhi heat. Their mattresses got drenched recently when unseasonal rain lashed the city. When they tried getting some foldable beds inside their makeshift home, a scuffle broke out between the wrestlers and two allegedly drunk policemen who refused to allow the beds to be moved in. International wrestling champion Vinesh Phogat and upcoming wrestler Sangeeta Phogat were pushed around. Sangeeta’s brother Dushyant Phogat and former wrestler Rahul Yadav sustained severe injuries.

But the wrestlers are determined to stay put until the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh steps down. The protesters have accused Singh, a sixty-six-year-old man, of touching wrestlers inappropriately on their breasts and stomachs on the pretext of ensuring a normal heart rate and breath.

“We have known about his misconduct since 2012. Everyone in the Federation knows. They chose to remain silent,” says Olympian Bajrang Punia. “Hum bas WFI se is gandagi ko saaf karna chahte hain,” he adds.  (We want to clean the WFI of this dirt).

One of the protestors is Sakshi Malik, who won a bronze for India at the 2016 Rio Olympics. She was allegedly harassed by Singh during a 2012 international tournament when she was 19. “When my daughter told me about it, we couldn’t do much. But today, we fight together to save other young athletes from meeting the same fate,” says Sudesh Malik, Sakshi’s mother, who, along with the mothers of other wrestlers, has joined the ongoing protests.

At the protest site, one finds a banner describing Singh’s history sheet. A six-time Member of Parliament from Kaiserganj in Uttar Pradesh, he faces as many as 38 cases under several sections of the IPC. The cases include theft, rioting, murder, criminal intimidation, attempt to murder and kidnapping.

Hailing from Gonda in UP, he also faces charges under the stringent UP Control of Goondas Act and The Gangsters Act. During the UP elections in 2022, he boldly declared that he has committed one murder in his life but remains acquitted in all 38 cases. Singh was also a part of LK Advani’s Rath Yatra that led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992.

Despite two different FIRs registered against him on April 28, Singh roams free. “No official notice has been served to Singh by the Delhi Police yet,” says Narendra Hooda, Senior Advocate, Supreme Court.

When Singh was reached for a comment, his close associate Subhash Singh said that it was not a possibility at the time.

The top brass of the government remains silent. The wrestlers resumed their protests on April 23 because they felt cheated. “The findings of the government committee after our January protest were never made public. No action was taken against Singh,” says  national wrestling champion Sangeeta Phogat.

The protesting wrestlers admit they had expected support from the government and are a little disappointed that the sit-in has continued for so long.

The protesting wrestlers have formed two committees to advise them on the future course of action—one is a 31-member committee, the second is a nine-member one. Khap panchayat, farmers and women organisations are part of the 31-member committee. “We made a mistake the first time. We refused any external support but we will not repeat that mistake. We are gracefully accepting support from all those who are in this fight with us,” says Malik.

This time, they have received support from opposition leaders. Those who have visited them at the protest site include Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, CPI politburo member Brinda Karat and former Haryana CM Bhupendra Singh Hooda.

Defending the government’s stance on the protest, Union Minister and BJP leader Meenakshi Lekhi says that the case was being dealt with “very sensitively”, adding that the credibility of the protest was “dented” after “discredited” politicians and “those who were involved in scams” joined the wrestlers.

Days have passed since the altercation with the Delhi Police. Though the wounds have healed, emotional scars stay. “They hurled abuses at Vinesh and pushed at her chest. They kicked and punched me after I fell on the ground,” says Yadav, who suffered three stitches on his head and sustained a foot injury.

Somvir Rathvee, Vinesh’s husband, feels betrayed that so much drama happened over a couple of folding beds.

The Delhi Police’s lathi charge has left the Olympians and international champions shaken. The women who brought honour and pride to the country were left in tears after the scuffle. During a media interaction the same night, an emotional Punia said: “I request the government to take away all the medals I have won.” He broke down in front of the cameras when he asked a pertinent question to no one in particular: “Is there any law and order in this country?” That night, Vinesh, too, reques­ted the government to take away her medals.

Particularly after the incident that night, the mothers have emerged as a strong force of support for the protesting wrestlers. “We could not do anything when it happened with Sakshi. Younger women coming into sports should not have to fear such predators and that is why we must continue this fight,” says Sakshi’s mother Sudesh.

The wrestlers admit they had expected some support from the government within two-three days of the protests and are a little disappointed that the sit-in has continued for so long. “It was unexpected that the government would not take cognisance of our protest for such a long time. They should understand that we are not protesting against any party, we are protesting against Singh’s sexual offences and corruption,” says Punia.

It looks like the protests, now mired in legal technicalities, may go on for quite some time. Here’s proof of it.

Three women wrestlers filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking a court-monitored investigation. However, the apex court, on May 4, closed the same, taking note of the fact that FIRs have been registered by the Delhi Police against Singh. The bench, headed by CJI DY Chandrachud, noted that the petition was filed seeking FIRs against the accused, and with the same being registered, the purpose has been served. It further granted liberty to the petitioners to invoke the jurisdictional magistrate or the remedy under Section 482 of the CrPC before the Delhi High Court in case of any further grievances.

Hooda, appearing for the petitioners, says that they would be waiting for a week for the Delhi Police to summon Singh and serve him a notice following the FIRs that were registered two weeks back.  He says that the Delhi Police should have registered the FIR long before but it went on dragging its feet on a case of sexual harassment that falls within the category of cognisable offences. The POCSO Act mandates the registration of an FIR, ascribing information received with an entry number and a record in writing. It has been reported that the complaints were s­ubmitted to the Delhi Police on April 21 but no FIRs were registered following which the complainants had to move the court.

Though the milieu of protesters, athletes, students, villagers and politicians raise slogans invoking the constitution, justice and deceitful promises of Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, the champion wrestlers are gradually learning what the road to justice in India entails. “If we are unheard today when so many medallists are protesting, what would have happened if we had spoken in 2012?” asks Sakshi’s mother Sudesh.

(Edited by Swati Subhedar)

(This appeared in the print as 'A Wrestle For Justice')


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