WFI suspension: Sports ministry interference cannot be long-term solution

Another ad hoc body under Indian Olympic Association supervision will not help in lifting the world body's ban on WFI

Sanjay Singh (left) with mentor Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh (photo: @SakshiMalik/X)
Sanjay Singh (left) with mentor Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh (photo: @SakshiMalik/X)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

Now what? This seems to be the overriding question a day after the sudden suspension of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) by the Union sports ministry.

The decision by the government, ostensibly on charges of violation of the Sports Code, and of the newly-elected WFI body being controlled by former officials, has been welcomed by Sakshi Malik & Co. and opposition politicians, since the verdict has clearly put tainted ex-WFI chief Brij Bhushan Singh and his coterie in a spot.

However, it is back to square one now as far as Indian wrestling is concerned, and the first ones who will take a hit are the sub-junior and junior wrestlers — the dates and venues of whose nationals have become a contentious issue. 

Looking beneath the surface, the government’s proactive action has been in stark contract to its response to the wrestlers’ agitation earlier in the year. There could, however, be pertinent questions about whether the ministry can legally suspend the activities of an NSF (national sports federation) as it is tantamount to government interference, not acceptable to any world governing body of sport.

While questions have also been raised about the eligibility of Sanjay Kumar Singh’s candidature for the presidency as per the Sports Code of 2011, the fact remains that the new president does not come under its purview. 

What does the Sports Code actually say vis-à-vis the election of candidates for the top three executive positions in any NSF? ‘’With a view to encouraging professional management, good governance, transparency, accountability, democratic elections etc in NSF, the code brought into force the tenure limit provisions in modified form whereby the President of any recognised NSF could hold office for a maximum period of 12 years with or without break.

"The Secretary and the Treasurer of any recognised NSF could serve a maximum of two successive terms of four years each after which a minimum cooling off period of four years will apply to seek fresh election. The President, Secretary and the Treasurer shall cease to hold post on attaining age of 70 years.” 

While the code would have made Brij Bhushan ineligible for contesting another term as president anyway, his aide Sanjay Singh has not actually held either of the top three positions for the cooling-off period to apply to him. The newly-elected president was a member of the executive council and a joint secretary under erstwhile supremo Brij Bhushan and hence, there was no apparent technical hitch in allowing him to contest the elections.  

What must have certainly rattled the government was the sense of impunity in Brij Bhushan & Co’s reaction, which saw him gloating at Sanjay Singh’s victory while his son and son-in-law began issuing sound bytes to the media. This has happened primarily owing to Brij Bhushan’s importance to the BJP as a six-time MP from Uttar Pradesh, and running the WFI as his fiefdom — the latter being a vice of most longstanding sports administrators in the country. 

As a six-time MP from Uttar Pradesh, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh is important to the BJP (photo: @b_bhushansharan/X)
As a six-time MP from Uttar Pradesh, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh is important to the BJP (photo: @b_bhushansharan/X)

While the functioning of high profile bodies in sports like cricket, football, hockey or that of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) is constantly under the media scanner, the dynamics of less popular disciplines often go under the radar. Public perception of an Indian sporting body is largely dependent on the discipline’s performance in the international arena, and wrestling being a medal-producing sport, nobody would have questioned the WFI administration but for the wrestlers’ protest from January-June 2023.  

Speaking to the media after a meeting with the BJP’s all-India president J.P. Nadda on Sunday, Brij Bhushan said he was now "retired" from wrestling and would have other responsibilities on his plate, such as the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. The words are a clear signal that he has been asked to keep his hands off the WFI, and it won’t be a surprise if it paves the way for lifting the suspension sooner than later with a censure. 

However, if the IOA finally forms an ad-hoc body to run the WFI activities as per the ministry’s reported directive, it won’t be acceptable to the sports world governing body United World Wrestling — which means another election could be on the cards.

Can Indian wrestling afford that? 

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