Junior wrestlers’ protest: a masterstroke or too obvious a plot?

Demand for age group nationals is logical, lifting the suspension on WFI not quite their domain

Snapshot from the Jantar Mantar wrestlers' protest (photo: social media)
Snapshot from the Jantar Mantar wrestlers' protest (photo: social media)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

The fresh twist to the ongoing wrestling controversy, provided by the three-hour protest by around 500 young wrestlers at Jantar Mantar, bore all the hallmarks of a political masterstroke. It’s just that the plot got a little too obvious in the end. 

It was at the same venue where exactly a year back, the trio of Bajrang Punia, Sakshi Malik and Vinesh Phogat had kickstarted their agitation against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the erstwhile Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) supremo, accusing him of sexually harassing six female wrestlers.

In terms of optics, nothing could have been more striking than young wrestlers culled from different parts of Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh waving placards bearing photos of the famed trio with slogans against them. 

‘’UWW (United World Wrestling) save our wrestling from these three wrestlers" and "kar diya desh ki kushti ko barbad (you have destroyed the country’s wrestling), Sakshi, Bajrang, Vinesh Phogat", read the slogans as the youngsters went on to deface the photos of the award-winning medallists and trampled upon them. Their apparent agenda being a 10-day notice to the sports ministry to revoke the suspension of the WFI and allow it to hold the age-group nationals. 

Sunil Rana, an upcoming wrestler and bronze medallist at the Hangzhou Asian Games in the Graeco-Roman category, emerged as the face of the new generation as he told the media: “If they don’t do it (revoking the suspension), we will start returning our Arjuna and other awards to the government just like Bajrang and Vinesh have done.” 

This is where the intent of the brains behind this agitation leaves nothing more to the imagination. While the young wrestlers have a point that they have lost a year of competitive wrestling and want the Under-15 and Under-20 nationals to be held at the earliest, it was plain unconstitutional on the part of newly-elected but suspended WFI president Sanjay Singh to announce the nationals dates arbitrarily (28-30 December in Gonda) as the executive committee ought to have convened a meeting with sufficient notice and taken a call on it. 

The three-member ad hoc committee formed by the IOA (Indian Olympic Association) on the sports ministry’s orders to run the day-to-day operations of the WFI has Bhupender Singh Bajwa back as chairman, while the other two members are 1980 Olympics hockey gold medallist M.M. Somaya and former India captain and 1998 Commonwealth Games badminton medallist Manjusha Kanwar. Bajwa said on Wednesday that they would be hosting the age-group nationals in Gwalior within six weeks and were working towards it. 

The concern about this ad hoc body is not its administrative capacity, but the complex dynamics that each sports discipline is subject to in India, and also the fact that the world governing body will never recognise it and lift the ban on WFI. This is what forms the calling card of Brij Bhushan and his men, primarily Sanjay Singh. 

For the three senior wrestlers, who have a collective haul of 49 major international medals (including the Olympics, World Championships, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games), it has now boiled down to a one-point agenda — removal of Sanjay Singh as WFI president because of his proximity to Brij Bhushan. Singh is unmoved as he knows that the election process on 21 December, which saw him beat former wrestler Anita Sheoran 40-7, was ratified by the IOA and held under the guidance of a retired Supreme Court judge as observer. 

While challenging the government's suspension directly will be an affront, no prizes for guessing that they are on a path to isolate the trio of super achievers further, and try to build public opinion against them. The young and hapless wrestlers, in the bargain, can be pawns in a bigger game. 

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