Wrestlers' Protest: The Fight of Their Lives

The Indian wrestlers’ #MeToo movement has polarised the nation—and also brought it back together

Indian wrestlers Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik, Bajrang Punia and other wrestlers during their protest against the Wrestling Federation of India (photo: Getty Images)
Indian wrestlers Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik, Bajrang Punia and other wrestlers during their protest against the Wrestling Federation of India (photo: Getty Images)

Sharda Ugra

Whichever way you look at it and wherever it may end up, the protest by the country’s leading women wrestlers can become Indian sports’ line in the sand.

For those following the wrestlers' Jantar Mantar sit-in, the message being sent out via words, pictures and social media posts is that if our champion athletes dare, they have the equity to take on the nation’s most powerful. These are the first group of Indian athletes to have challenged the very centre of their sport’s power and, by extension and perhaps unwittingly, the power at the centre of the country itself.

“The woman wrestler desired to communicate with her father, but lacking a mobile phone, I offered mine for her to use and connected her with him. After talking, I hugged her. When she felt uncomfortable, I told her that I am hugging her like a father.” —Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, BJP MP and president, Wrestling Federation of India, in a TV interview
“Sakshi Malik clung to me, I did not hug her.” —BBS Singh

By now, the wrestlers have been given enough proof of the influence and clout of those they challenge. As much as they say their protest is not against the government, they have been at the receiving end of government pushback. To start with on social media and through the sporting establishment—the sports ministry, the Sports Authority of India, and even their own Athletes Commission. Next it was the law enforcement machinery—it took them a week to record an FIR, and on the eleventh night of their second round of protest came a scuffle with the Delhi police itself.

The video footage of the wrestlers being pushed around showed two things: one, that the athletes’ battle is only going to get harder and, two, the wrestlers’ response showed great restraint. These are elite fighters, capable of breaking bones with sharp, quick moves. What is being forgotten is that they are fundamentally high-performance athletes, capable of hunkering down and digging in when the challenges get tougher.

There is no comparison between what they are actually doing and what they could do if they decided to approach the situation no-holds-barred.

“During the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, [the big athletes, cricketers] showed their support. Don’t we deserve even that much… Are you all so afraid?” — Vinesh Phogat
Vinesh Phogat

In 1997, Prakash Padukone and the country’s leading badminton players set up a breakaway federation to seize control of their game from the mismanaged, malfunctioning Badminton Association of India. A compromise was reached: Padukone was made chairman for a while, only to be side-lined by career bureaucrat V.K. Verma as president for 13 years (ending with the CWG2010 scam). The difference between that rebellion and this lies in the stakes involved today, making for bigger, greedier political beasts.

The wrestlers’ protest is exceptional because Indian sport has not seen anything like it in living memory—and it is amplified by the 24x7 news cycle and social media. It has escalated from January’s quiet, no-politics-please restraint into a head-on, take-no-prisoners joust, with Jantar Mantar as the akhara. Dissatisfied by the inaction of the oversight committee appointed by the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) when presented with the facts, the wrestlers have changed their approach. They have opened up to the media and mobilised every manner of support, reaching out to fellow athletes, farmers and khap panchayats. They have chosen to ignore tournament schedules, bypassed the sports ministry’s latest outreach and now gone to the Supreme Court to register a criminal case. It is now very political because everything at the very top of Indian sports is.

The protest by wrestlers on the street is tarnishing the country’s image and amounts to indiscipline. Those protesting are renowned wrestlers who brought laurels to the country. They have an equal responsibility of safeguarding the interest of our sports, sportspersons and also the image of our country. — P.T. Usha, former athlete and president, Indian Olympic Association
“The girls who have complained are being pressured. WFI officials are going to their homes and offering money. If something happens to those girls, the police and government will be responsible. I don't know how the names were disclosed." –Bajrang Punia, wrestler

What raised the temperature considerably was the wrestlers’ statements on Wednesday April 26th, when they directly questioned the silence of the country’s most powerful. They cited Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most-publicised causes—Beti Bachao and Mann Ki Baat—and the zero response from the Union cabinet minister for women and child development, Smriti Irani.

It is now evident that Sakshi Malik, Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia and their families have put everything at stake—careers, reputations, futures, even their personal safety. All to bring down six-term Member of Parliament Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh (WFI president for three four-year terms already) and his acolytes. The WFI elections now stand suspended and even though Brij Bhushan has said he will not compete for a fourth term, his son Prateek Bhushan, MLA from Gonda, is expected to be his likely successor.

Even with famous athletes involved in this case—and perhaps it is this that would have surprised these elite athletes themselves—every unjust response by Indian society around grievance redressal mechanisms as well as the criminal justice system has been laid bare.

Victims of alleged sexual harassment and bullying were put in the dock ahead of the accused, their characters and motives questioned. The Delhi Police would not lodge an FIR, despite one part of the charge being a POCSO complaint involving a minor. Only after a week, when the Supreme Court intervened, was the FIR registered. In the interim, the Solicitor General turned police procedure and the law on their head, informing the Supreme Court that a ‘premliminary probe’ is needed before an FIR can be registered at a Delhi police station.

At this point, understanding B.B.S Singh’s position in the power structure will explain how the scales tilt here. The politically informed say Singh is the BJP’s ‘heavy’, relied on during the various horse-trading mini-Olympics that take place after several assembly elections. He is in charge of the Ayodhya district and its surroundings, the heart of UP’s Hindu heartland. His political scorecard tallies at 12 MPs and 38 MLAs loyal to him. Expecting the most voluble members of his party to support wrestlers despite the most severe allegations made against Singh is sheer naivete.

The most optimistic scenario at this point for the wrestlers would be if wrestling’s international governing body, United World Wrestling (not a gathering of saints itself) de-recognises the WFI with an ad hoc body taking charge of operations—leading to the WFI’s constitution being rewritten, its electoral college being remodelled, thus changing stakeholder dynamics, at least in theory and intention. While this has been done in several Indian sports, with differing results, here political power and government machinery prefer to combine effectively to crush an Indian athlete’s agency.

For the sports ministry, SAI, WFI and everyone sidling up to power, including the establishment media, the wrestlers’ protests are reduced to Us versus Them. As window dressing, the ministry may issue a diktat that all national sports federations should spruce up their internal complaints committees (ICC)s. But while, around 10 years ago, the Ministry had ordered the ICCs to be set up, obviously no one has bothered to check federation by federation whether all was kosher. The WFI’s ICC was headed by a man and featured no independent member.

The most elite athletes in India are more privileged than the rest—but institutional power’s reflexive response to being challenged is exactly how it chooses to treat the vast majority of India’s unknown athletes: as mere underlings, meant to be grateful, to stay silent and to obey.

Those post-big-medal cash showers or much-bickered-over national awards? Eventually just hush money in a golden tracksuit.

Look at what newly appointed Indian Olympic Association president P.T. Usha, during her own career an athlete of eminence and stature, said about the wrestlers: “These protests are tarnishing the image of the country. There are other ways to put your point across. They could've approached the Athletes Commission. This sets a bad precedent and amounts to indiscipline."

Ah, yes, the ‘unanimously-elected-after-stripping-the-electoral-college-bare-at-the-nth-hour’ IOA Athletes Commission. A few days after Usha was pilloried in public, news reports emerged that the AC had agreed upon a statement of support for the wrestlers. The statement was never released—because, according to one report, it was blocked by an AC member, Olympic medallist Gagan Narang, who said that the AC would be criticised for being late.

This would have been the AC’s first public statement in any matter around athlete welfare since its contentious creation in November 2022. Another report stated the statement was blocked when an unnamed AC member invoked a ‘privacy clause’ which requires that all “information, discussion and decisions” about the AC cannot be disclosed to any outside party person “before it is disclosed to the CEO and executive council of the IOA”. Which fundamentally ties the AC’s hands and renders it meaningless. Narang also happens to be the IOA’s vice-president.

The wrestlers have given fellow athletes across the board a case study that if ever they want to take on the very powerful at the top, they will need to be more than prepared and ready— with artillery, defence and the stomach for the fight of their lives.

An earlier version of this piece first appeared in Mojo Story

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