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
New Delhi: The protesting wrestlers on Monday threatened to approach the top court of the country if an FIR is not lodged against WFI President Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh even as Sports Ministry stalled the Federation's election on May 7 and asked the IOA to form an ad-hoc committee to conduct polls.
The ad-hoc panel, which will conduct elections within 45 days of its formation, will also manage day-to-day affairs of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) till the sports body gets a fresh Executive Committee.
The top wrestlers said they have nothing to do with the WFI polls and would continue to press for a proper investigation into their allegations that Singh sexually harassed women athletes.
The ministry's decision came after the country's top wrestlers, including Tokyo Olympic bronze medallist Bajrang Punia and World Championship medallist Vinesh Phogat, resumed their sit-in protest at Jantar Mantar on Sunday and demanded the public disclosure of the findings of the oversight panel that investigated the allegations.
The ministry instructed the IOA to form an ad-hoc panel but did not reveal if the oversight panel found merit in the sexual harassment allegations.
However it did say in its instructions that according to the oversight panel findings, the WFI did not have a proper system to address such complaints and that transparency and communication between the WFI and the wrestlers is required.
"... it is understood that the election to the EC (of WFI) has been scheduled on 07th May 2023. In this regard, considering the current situation, it is expedient that the said election process should be treated as null and void, and fresh elections to the EC should be conducted under a neutral body/Returning Officer," a ministry letter to IOA president PT Usha said.
"... a transitory committee or Ad-Hoc Commitee may be constituted by the IOA to conduct the election of the Executive Council of WFI within 45 days of its formation and to manage the affairs of WFI, including selection of athletes and making of entries for the participation of sportspersons in international events for the interim period till the next EC takes charge," the letter added.
The ministry also revealed that the Oversight Committee, formed on January 23, now "cease to exit".
"The OC has submitted its report to the Ministry and is currently under examination. Some major findings include absence of a duly constituted Internal Complaints Committee under the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act, 2013 and lack of adequate mechanism for awareness building among sportspersons for grievance redressal," the ministry said.
"...need for more transparency and consultation between the Federation and stakeholders, including sportspersons. (And) need for effective communication between the Federation and the sportspersons."
IOA president PT Usha said they will discuss the matter on April 27 at their Executive Committee meeting.
"Our scheduled EC meet on 27 April will discuss & provide actionable solutions to the current impasse in WFI. IOA is committed to the betterment of our sportspersons & its sporting ecosystem," Usha tweeted.
Admitting that they made a mistake by ending their protest three months back, the wrestlers, led by Olympians Vinesh, Punia and Sakshi Malik, said they were back then, "manipulated" by certain people.
Sakshi said their legal team was contemplating approaching the apex court.
"We will go to the Supreme Court. If we are wrong in levelling the allegations, then a counter FIR should be filed against us," the Olympic bronze medallist said during a press conference.
Meanwhile, politicians cutting across party lines, visited the protest site, showing solidarity with the wrestlers.
Bajrang said, "We are not going to listen to anyone (mediators) now. We will be the face of the protest but we will now be guided by our 'gurujans' (elderly) and 'coach-khalifas' (mentors)."
Vinesh said it was a mistake to end the protest the last time around.
"We will not accept any mediator now, we won't let anyone deceive us," she said.
"All we want is that the police files an FIR and investigates the matter. We are citizens of independent India and there are numerous channels to get justice. Won't we get it (justice) from anywhere?," she questioned.
The wrestlers have claimed that they had approached Connaught Place Police Station officers to lodge an FIR against the WFI president but the cops refused to entertain their plea.
While Sakshi said they were manipulated, Bajrang also said that they want 'khaps' and other organisations to support their stir.
"We wanted to keep it (protest) apolitical the last time around but now, we want the farmers' organisations, the women's organisation, the 'khaps' to support us."
When wrestlers had began their protest in January, former wrestler and now BJP affiliate Babita Phogat had mediated between the aggrieved wresters and the government.
However it seems that wrestlers are not happy with the way Babita, who was part of the government's oversight panel, conducted herself.
"Maybe she loves politics more than the wrestling now," Vinesh said, while taking a jibe at her cousin sister.
Asked if they would reveal the names of the victims, Vinesh said,"The oversight committee was always biased against us. Only the Supreme Court will get to know the identity of the victims, not Brij Bhushan."
Vinesh also said that it benefits only Brij Bhushan that he is an MP from BJP, the party that is currently running the central government.
"Definitely it helps. We don't know if the government is under pressure (from party MP)."
Bajrang added,"You should ask the government why is it quiet? When we win medals for the country, we are felicitated and now that we are on road with our demands, no one is bothered."
On being questioned whether they feel it has become a battle of two states, Haryana from where most wrestlers hail and Uttar Pradesh, the land of WFI supremo, Bajrang shot back, "When we win medals for the country, we are known as Indian sportspersons. And now when we are fighting for justice, people label it as UP vs Haryana fight. They (Brij Bhushan) have money and muscle power but we have truth on our side."
Asked if they presented solid evidence before the probe panel, Vinesh said, "I can give you example. Brij Bhushan had called a woman wrestler in his room and tried to impose himself on her, is this not sexual harassment?."