Herald View: Wrestling with our ugly side

Quite possibly nothing will come of the five month-long spectacle that the incredibly brave women wrestlers have put themselves through. But they still have shown us the mirror

The protesting women wrestlers at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi (Photo: Vipin)
The protesting women wrestlers at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi (Photo: Vipin)

Herald View

We must be thankful to the protesting women wrestlers for showing us the mirror. What we see in the mirror is hardly edifying though. It shows us up as a nation of hypocrites, making peace with the weakening of the rule of law and a bankrupt moral universe.

It also shows a weak, faltering judiciary, the decline of an effective and upstanding police force, and the demise of civil society as a moral force to build public pressure. We must be thankful to the sports ministry and the government for dragging this soap opera for so long that they too stand thoroughly exposed.

The image we see of all these too-fragile pillars of society is ugly. We must also be thankful to at least a section of the much-reviled mainstream media. The journalists of The Indian Express accessed the FIRs lodged by the seven wrestlers, which provide in graphic and horrific detail the instances of sexual misconduct by the former president of the Wrestling Federation of India.

The wrestlers recalled places, tournaments, cities where they were groped, molested and forcibly ‘hugged’ by the WFI president. They recalled how the president, a powerful BJP MP, inappropriately touched their breasts, buttocks and navels.

They cited instances when he pulled up their jersey and ‘tested’ their ‘breathing’ by placing his hands on their stomach and breasts. They alleged they were warned of dire consequences if they did not fall in line and were also enticed with promised favours on the career path. Resistance and protests led to their ‘unselection’ by the federation for various tournaments and to a withdrawal of sponsorships.

When they finally decided to make their grievances public in January this year, their family members received threats. Sufficient information appears to be available with the Delhi Police to show that the WFI president attended selection trials, training camps and tournaments both here and abroad; that he made his presence felt by barking instructions to the wrestlers as well as referees; that he parked himself in the same hotel and on the same floor as the wrestlers and would impose himself on whoever he could lay his hands on.

The Indian Olympic Committee and the sports ministry should have known about this conduct and should possibly have intervened. But the fact that nobody reported this for 12 long years and everyone was complicit in a conspiracy of silence does not speak highly of the ministry or the IOC.

As for the police, it should not have been difficult to check records and confirm the dates, cities and tournaments when and where the alleged molestations took place. They should have had no trouble finding out whether the WFI president was in fact required to be present at selection trials and tournaments—or was there for reasons of his own.

The prolonged soap opera has exposed several more warts, however. As many as 16 of the 30 national sports federations do not seem to have the internal complaints committee (ICC) mandated by the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) Act of 2013. Neither the sports ministry nor the IOC appear to be embarrassed by this, though.

A former Delhi Police commissioner, participating in a discussion on the protesting wrestlers, claimed that the ‘selection couch’—like the casting couch in the film industry—was an open secret in Indian sports. He wenton to claim that the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) was also in receipt of complaints that not just women cricketers but even their mothers were asked to concede sexual favours.

None of these complaints were ever investigated because the ladies refused to lodge formal complaints with the police. The men in administrative positions and in the police clearly believe that it is required for the women to invite public ridicule, humiliation and additional leering from the men in uniform for an investigation to actually initiate.

The wrestlers had to do just that, and they made their private humiliation public—but even that has failed to work. They have been accused of ‘doing politics’ and even the redoubtable Roger Binny, a member of the Indian World Cup-winning cricket squad from 1983 and the current BCCI president, dissociated himself from an expression of distress and concern by his teammates over the treatment meted out to the women wrestlers.

The BCCI president would surely be aware of the nexus between cricket and politics, and his suggestion that sports and politics should not be mixed seem ironic at best.

Meanwhile, the civil society which had worked itself into a frenzy barely 10 years ago following the gang rape of ‘Nirbhaya’ by a bus crew, has barely stirred for the wrestlers’ protest. While farmers from Haryana and western UP have rallied round the wrestlers, and some students and women’s associations, the middle-class in the NCR have remained largely unmoved, at least physically.

The law is taking its own time to run its course, too. And so, quite possibly nothing will come of the five month-long spectacle that the incredibly brave women wrestlers have put themselves through. They will still have done us a favour by showing us the ugly side of our own social fabric, the very warp and weft of it.

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