Wrestlers Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia, Sangeeta Phogat and Sakshi Malik interact with the media during a protest against the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief Brij Bhushan Singh | Photo: ANI
At a time when sports in India seem looking up with news of medal-winning achievements coming up almost every other day, the happenings at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi are certainly disturbing. India’s leading wrestlers, men and women, protesting for what they believe is a genuine grievance that women wrestlers have been facing over a period of time, does not portray a pretty sight. Not that they are indulging in any act of indiscipline or bringing down the image of sports in the country as unfortunately, of all persons, the IOA President P.T. Usha was to initially say in her reaction. She did make amends later by visiting the site of the protest, meeting the aggrieved sportspersons and providing all assurances from her part. But the fact remains there is a fear of a rot creeping into the sporting system and ironically in the case of wrestling as it stands, if one were to trust the wrestlers, the root cause comes from the Wrestling Federation of India officialdom. The man in the spotlight is the WFI President, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, a six-time MP affiliated to the ruling party, against whom the allegation is of sexual harassment.
When the matter first came to light in January, the wrestlers who had, like now, assembled at the Jantar Mantar to raise their protests, the action seemed to have a swift response. The Sports Minister Anurag Thakur took cognizance and the IOA too came into the picture. An oversight committee was formed to look into the allegations. Also, Singh was asked to keep away from his duties in the WFI. Hopes were high of some tangible outcome. Clearly the wrestlers found nothing happening and even the report of the oversight committee, headed by Olympian Mary Kom did not come out. The present blow-up was a consequence to that but the picture appears grim with wrestlers shedding tears, getting jostled around by Police at the protest site while the alleged culprit freely airing his supposed innocence to all around! Nothing concrete has come out yet though cases have been filed, thanks to the intervention of the Supreme Court and the country’s best-known wrestlers are on the streets facing challenges that seem much mightier than what they are used to in the competitive rings.
These are no ordinary wrestlers who are pressing to be heard but wrestlers who had done the country proud many a time with medals in Olympics and world championships, just to name two key events and earned Government recognitions too for their deeds. Performers like Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Mallik and Bajrang Punia, who are leading the protest movement, as also others have a standing in society through their deeds. At least that is what sadly these wrestlers innately believed. That they are all even ready to surrender all their medals and other recognitions bestowed on them by the Government, highlight their plight and the level to which they have been driven to, to have their side of the story heard with a touch of compassion. In fact, all of them still have the calibre to come up with top performances and reap rewards. But look at the sad reality. With this year being particularly important with the Asian Games, World championships and qualifying phase for the Paris Olympics lined up, these classy wrestlers are virtually putting their career on the line. Perhaps that is the level of helplessness they have sunk to!
It is this level of desperation and the subject of sexual harassment that has moved sportspersons in general to react with a touch of emotion. Champion performers like Neeraj Chopra, Abhinav Bindra, Sania Mirza, Nikhat Zareen and many cricketers of past and other sporting disciplines have all poured their concern and support, unable to see athletes fight in the streets to seek justice. As Chopra said in his tweet, “it hurts me to see our athletes on the street demanding justice. They have worked hard to represent our great nation and make us proud. As a nation we are responsible for safeguarding the integrity and dignity of every individual, athlete or not.” He could not have put the matter in a better perspective.
Now, it can be said that until the guilt is proved why this noise. As the Sports Minister Thakur has in his latest appeal said, the wrestlers should wait until the investigation is complete. The process was on, he said. Perhaps the wrestlers are still to be convinced considering that the earlier instituted oversight committee report was not revealed. In any case, the band of sportspersons who are agitating are putting everything at stake considering their reputation but still are hell bent on seeing their demand met, that of a concrete action against the WFI chief!
Time will tell what outcome this grind will bring about to not just the wrestlers but the sport of wrestling itself and perhaps Indian sports in general. Good or bad, one thing is clear, this episode has certainly become a dark chapter already in the annals of Indian sports history. At the moment the wish of every sports lover would be for the things to pan out on amicable lines and allow the wrestlers to get back to serious training and be at the earliest to where they are at their best- performing in the ring with a touch of class.