Herald View: Is this protest wrestling with obduracy?

"Nobody is listening… we're being framed as liars," said Sakshi Malik, the first Indian woman wrestler to win at the Olympics. PM Modi's response: Silence. We wonder if he's heard, at least...

Wrestlers Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik address the media at Jantar Mantar (Photo: Twitter/@DKShivakumar)
Wrestlers Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik address the media at Jantar Mantar (Photo: Twitter/@DKShivakumar)

Herald View

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is good about acknowledging our national athletes, especially those who have won Olympic medals and other high-visibility competitions. He is also quite generous, as even his worst critics will attest, about making himself available for photo ops with these superachievers. He has strenuously projected the image of being a sports enthusiast. He has feted athletes, hosted them at home and cheered for them on social media.

So one wonders how he is processing the ongoing wrestlers’ protest, because we haven’t heard a peep from him about this—not even after these women wrestlers pleaded with him to listen to their ‘Mann Ki Baat’ (for a change). Sakshi Malik, the first Indian woman wrestler to win a medal at the Olympics and part of the agitating cohort, broke down while speaking to the media and said: "Nobody is listening… we're being framed as liars."

The wrestlers are demanding action against Wrestling Federation of India president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh (66), also a BJP Member of Parliament, for alleged sexual harassment. They first sat in a dharna in January this year, but were persuaded at the time by Union sports minister Anurag Singh Thakur to suspend the agitation till an oversight committee had investigated their allegations.

The six-member committee, headed by star boxer M.C. Mary Kom (also incidentally a BJP MP) and including another star Olympian, indeed the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) president, P.T. Usha, submitted its report to the ministry in the first week of April.

Despite these reassuring names in the mix, the wrestlers apparently found the oversight committee not quite empathetic during the inquiry. They even accused a member of the committee of selectively leaking sensitive information to sections of the media. Even more alarmingly, people close to the WFI president, a six-time MP, have apparently been calling the agitating wrestlers’ family members, warning them of dire consequences if the athletes press ahead with the charges.

Attempts to file an FIR have also been stalled by the police, and the agitating wrestlers have had to up the ante and go to the Supreme Court. There, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told a bench of Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud and Justice P.S. Narasimha that, in the assessment of the Delhi Police, "a preliminary enquiry into certain issues" was necessary before registering an FIR.

Damningly for the review process and its minders, one member of the oversight committee reportedly told the magazine Sportstar that they had signed the final report, submitted to the ministry in early April, under protest.

"I was not allowed to read the final report in full and I had objected [to] it. The report was submitted to the sports ministry on April 5 and that morning, I realised that certain objections I had earlier raised had not been included in the report. When I asked the committee to include these points, this was not done," the member reportedly said. The committee has apparently not even made any suggestions on the most serious allegations raised by the protesting wrestlers.

This is not the first time that sports administrators, coaches and captains have been accused of sexual harassment. There were reports that as many as 40 such complaints have been received in the past 10 years from different campuses of the Sports Authority of India (SAI). Not so long ago, former India hockey captain Sandeep Singh had to resign from his minister's post in Haryana following similar allegations.

The Wrestling Federation says it has a grievance redressal committee to deal with such complaints, and maintains that the wrestlers did not approach the committee.

But of course, given how deeply entrenched patriarchy is in the country, it cannot be easy for women to go public with such complaints. For athletes nurturing ambitions of representing the country or making a professional career in sports, going against their coaches and mentors is even more likely to also jeopardise their careers. It can't be easy to risk all that—not to even mention all the unsavoury public attention.

And yet the wrestlers have returned to press their demands for an enquiry. Do they deserve a hearing, Mister Prime Minister?

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Published: 28 Apr 2023, 9:10 PM