Who exactly is running the affairs of wrestling in India?

World body’s lifting of ban helps WFI get its nose ahead against the ministry

A major plank for Sanjay Singh (centre) in getting the UWW suspension lifted was that the world body was ‘satisfied’ with the electoral process (photo: @rwac48/X)
A major plank for Sanjay Singh (centre) in getting the UWW suspension lifted was that the world body was ‘satisfied’ with the electoral process (photo: @rwac48/X)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

The news of wrestling's world governing body revoking the ban on the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) on Tuesday has come as a shot in the arm for its president Sanjay Singh, but does it bring clarity on who exactly is running the sport in India? The answer is no.

With the Paris Olympics barely five months away, the future of the discipline which fetched India two medals in Tokyo 2020 (Ravi Dahiya and Bajrang Punia) still appears messy. While United World Wrestling (UWW) lifting the ban means WFI is now authorised to run the operations of the sport in India along with the selection of squads for all international events, the Union sports ministry will not lift its suspension until all UWW criteria are met in the coming months.

So in the ministry's book, it is the ad hoc body appointed by the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) that will run the sport until WFI holds elections for a compliance officer and athletes’ commission (meant to be a former wrestlers’ body with equal representation of men and women) as mandated by UWW. The process, according to insiders, should take at least another two to three months, and that’s not good news for the wrestlers’ community.

A major plank for Sanjay Singh (the under-fire president of WFI and a known aide of tainted erstwhile WFI chief Brij Bhushan Singh) in getting the UWW suspension lifted was that the world body was ‘satisfied’ with the electoral process held at Delhi's IOA premises in August 2023. However, barely two days after the elections, the sports ministry suspended the federation on account of not following the National Sports Development Code laid down in 2011.

Wrestlers Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia at a media conference following the WFI elections (screengrab from @SakshiMalik/X)
Wrestlers Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia at a media conference following the WFI elections (screengrab from @SakshiMalik/X)

Meanwhile, the three faces of the protracted wrestlers’ protest last year alleging sexual misconduct by Brij Bhushan, have spoken up again. A perception was gaining ground that the trio of Punia, Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik may have relented, with Vinesh landing a gold in the last nationals, and Punia resuming practice, but all three took to their respective X handles to allege that Singh had used 'deceit' in getting the suspension lifted. The trio also threatened to resume their agitation against WFI soon.

In a letter to UWW, Punia wrote: "This decision has again put Indian wrestlers under threat and harassment by WFI members. This is to bring to your notice that this WFI was suspended by Ministry of Youth and Sports (MYAS) dated 27 December 2023 due to serious anomalies after a couple of days of taking charge. MYAS also formed an Ad Hoc Committee to overlook and conduct wrestling activities.

"Even after this suspended WFI members took blatant decisions to conduct sporting activities without any recognition from sports ministries under the same leadership. Wrestlers all over India have lost trust and belief in functioning of Wrestling Federation of India. Because of this MYAS took diligent steps and issued a circular dated 7th January 2024.

"Even after this they have publicly issued statements against wrestlers and Ad Hoc Committee. This elected body is still being run by same individual and their allies who serious charges against them and MYAS also took the same in consideration while suspending the body.

"For your reference we have attached the mentioned letters. We wrestlers request you kindly support Indian athletes against unfair practices and harassment through various means. Indian wrestlers are looking up to you for justice and their rights to fair and safe play."

However, it’s a given that there is no room for government or any third party interference in governance of umbrella bodies like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or FIFA — the latter’s 2022 ban on the All India Football Federation being still fresh in memory. The lifting of the ban, hence, empowers WFI as the sole authority to hold trials and send teams to the Olympic qualifiers and the Senior Asian Championships in April.  

Does this mean WFI now has its nose ahead in its 'fight' with the IOA? There is another interesting argument about the landmark decision by Delhi High Court in August 2022 on a plea by sports activist Rajiv Mehra, which also puts the ministry's suspension of WFI on shaky turf.

The case centered around the IOA and its non-compliance with the Sports Code, and 13 pitfalls were raised during the ruling, highlighting inconsistencies between the IOA’s constitution and the Sports Code, including the appointment of life presidents, differential voting rights, electoral college compliance and the inclusion of athletes and women in sports administration.

The judgement resulted in the Union sports ministry refusing to ‘recognise’ the national sports federations (NSF) for 2023, including WFI. The question being asked now in certain quarters is: how can the ministry then de-recognise or suspend a federation if it’s not recognised in the first place?

The takeaway from the latest development, hence, is: the last has not quite been heard on the wrestling controversy.   

With inputs from IANS

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