Indian Wrestlers Demand Action Against Sexual Harassment, Raise Concerns Over Safety Of Accusers

Indian wrestling champions like Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik, Bajrang Punia and others have been demonstrating in Delhi's Jantar Mantar for the past four days to demand the arrest of WFI chief and BJP leader Brij Bhushan Singh whom they accuse of sexual harassment.

Wrestlers protest at Jantar Mantar

‘Brij ko giraftaar karo, sarkaar ki dadagiri nhi chalegi, nahi chalegi’ 

The slogan rang out across the crowded protest venue at Delhi’s Jantar Mantra where for the past four days, Indian wrestlers have been demonstrating in protest and demanding the arrest of the sport’s governing body chief who faces several charges of sexual harassment. Renowned athletes Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik, Bajrang Punia, and others have gathered at Jantar Mantar to resume a protest they had started earlier in January this year. 

Having disclosed the sexual assault claims against the BJP leader and chief of the Wrestling Federation of India, Brij Bhushan Singh earlier this year, the athletes claim they have been coerced into action due to denial of the promises made to them. 

At Jantar Mantar, the mood was electrifying with slogans coupled with lyrical composition as adamant protests braved media scrutiny and the glare of cameras and lights in the sweltering April heat. This time, the protesters claim they are more adamant than before and will only rest once constructive action is taken by authorities. From making hollow promises, the official response has now transformed into complete silence.

On Wednesday, world championship wrestling medallist Vinesh Phogat tweeted a photo of the protesters with the caption “From podium to footpath”. 

Questioning Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “blindness” towards the “mann ki baat of desh ki beti”, wrestler Sakshi Malik recalled how he had congratulated and honoured athletes like herself after winning medals for the country. Malik is the first Indian woman to win a medal for wrestling at the Olympics in 2016 when she won bronze.

The wrestler declared “Respecting the Prime Minister is our duty. We trust our elders, this is in our upbringing. We are respectfully asking him to listen to our demands”. She adds that the silence from leaders like Smriti Irani is unacceptable, especially when they ignore the conditions of national athletes sleeping on the road in protest. 

World Wrestling Champion Bajrang Punia who is part of the demonstrations tells the media that the protesting athletes have been facing several restrictions from the police including not being allowed to practice at the protest site. “We have tournaments lined up (Asian Games), we tried to train today in the morning here (on Wednesday, April 26). We got training mats. But the police didn’t allow us to bring them in,” Punia states.

“When we started training, they said you don’t have permission to train here. We are not allowed to take the food inside. Do we have to take permission to breathe from the police as well?” He added “We are running at Jantar Mantar, what should have happened in tournaments is happening here. It is very saddening.”

The protests have started to receive political mileage. After the public display of support by former Governor Satpal Malik, various khap panchayat leaders participated in the rally on April 26. “The support we seek from the government, we are getting from the people,” said Vinesh Phogat said at a press conference at Jantar Mantar.

Safety of survivors in question?

Addressing the media at the protest site, the athletes have also raised concerns about the safety of the women and their families who have come forward to complain against Brij Bhushan Singh and stressed the need to protect the identities of the women coming forward. 

Reacting to a statement issued by Brij Bhushan asking for proof of the alleged assaults, wrestler Satyawart Kadian told Outlook, “This is not right. When the court itself provides that the identity of the accuser need not be disclosed in cases of sexual assault, he should not be saying this. This is him going against the court”.

He further added, “Even the little girls who spoke up are getting threats now.” 

Bajrang Punia told the media that even the athletes at the protest were not aware of the names of the accusers. “We tried to protect their identity, but now their relatives are getting threats. Brij’s people have reached the girl’s house. If he is innocent why are they doing all this? Why are they trying to suppress the voices?” He further announced that if anything happens to the athletes, the Government will be solely responsible.

Following the allegations of committee member Radhika Sreeman “snatching” the final IOA report from Babita Phogat before she could read it, Sreeman issued a statement that ‘Only one girl raised the issue of assault during the inquiry.’ However, being a witness to the committee proceedings, Sakshi Malik confirmed that “When the IOA committee was set up to investigate the allegations, there were in total 12-15 people.  Each girl there talked about sexual harassment. Even the female members of the committee started crying listening to this.” 

Vinesh Phogat states that ironically, “the report is clean chit as not even one case is written about. We are thankful that at least Radhika ma’am acknowledged one case.” She added “Even if it is one case, is it negligible? Sexual assault for one or many can’t and shouldn’t go unnoticed.” Phogat requested the athletes through the media to join the cause in huge numbers. She declared that everyone at the protest is putting their lives and careers at stake. The individual damage will lessen when more align with the cause. 

Questions linger on as the protest blankets the Jantar Mantar streets - Is this a revival of the #Metoo movement in India through sports? And will silence from the BJP hurt its “khiladi” vote bank and women supporters ahead of the upcoming poll?