Wrestler Vinesh Phogat speaking to media; Wresting Federation of India (WFI) president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh | Photos: ANI, PTI
New Delhi: In a startling revelation, a crying Vinesh Phogat on Wednesday alleged that Wresting Federation of India (WFI) President Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh has been sexually exploiting women wrestlers for many years, a charge vehemently rejected by the sports administrator and BJP MP.
Vinesh, who has been at loggerheads with WFI since the Tokyo Olympic Games, also claimed that several coaches at the national camp in Lucknow have also exploited women wrestlers, adding there are a few women at the camp who approached the wrestlers at the behest of the WFI President.
The 28-year-old though clarified that she herself never faced such exploitation but claimed that "one victim" was present at the 'dharna' they began at Jantar Mantar on Wednesday.
So disturbed was Vinesh that she along with Tokyo Olympic bronze medallist Bajrang Punia had even met Union Home Minister Amit Shah to flag their issues about three months back.
"We had met the Home Minister and he had assured us that, 'you will get justice'," star wrestler Punia told PTI, adding that the 'sit-in' was their another attempt to highlight the prevailing issues in Indian wrestling.
Vinesh also claimed that she had received death threats at the behest of WFI President from officials close to him because she dared to draw Prime Minister Narendra Modi's attention to several issues plaguing Indian wrestling when she met him after the Tokyo Games.
"I know at least 10-20 women wrestlers who have told me about the sexual exploitation they faced at the hands of (the) WFI President. They told me their stories. I can't take their names now but I can definitely reveal the names if we get to meet the Prime Minister and the Home Minister of the country," Vinesh said addressing the media after staging a four-hour 'dharna' at Jantar Mantar.
"I have received death threats from people who are close to the WFI President. If anything happens to any of us sitting here, only the WFI President will be responsible."
Rio Olympic medallist Sakshi Malik, world championship medallist Sarita Mor, Sangeeta Phogat, Anshu Malik, Sonam Malik, Satyawart Malik, Jitender Kinha, Amit Dhankar and CWG medallist Sumit Malik were among 30 wrestlers who assembled at the famous protest site.
Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, 66, was elected unopposed President of WFI for a third consecutive term in February 2019.
Taking note of the allegations, the sports ministry has sought an explanation from WFI and directed it to "furnish a reply within the next 72 hours on the allegations made".
The ministry said, "if WFI fails to furnish the reply within the next 72 hours, the Ministry will proceed to initiate action against the federation in terms of the provisions of the National Sports Development Code, 2011."
In view of the developments, the ministry has also cancelled the National camp, which was due to start SAI centre in in Lucknow from Wednesday.
Sitting beside Vinesh, Bajrang said the federation is being run in an arbitrary manner and they will not compete in any international competition unless the WFI President, who is no less than a "dictator", is removed.
"Our fight is not against the government or the Sports Authority of India (SAI). This is against WFI. 'Yeh ab aar paar ki ladai hai' (It's a fight to the finish). We will continue this protest until WFI President is removed," Bajrang said.
"We will not compete in any international competition until the WFI President is removed. This is a fight to save Indian wrestling. While we are denied help and support of foreign coaches, the President has hired a foreign coach for his own academy in Gonda," he later said while addressing the media.
"He uses abusive language against wrestlers, we can even show you videos of that."
In December 2021, the WFI President had slapped an overage wrestler during the under-15 national championship when he insisted on competing after being disqualified.
The sitting BJP MP from Kaiserganj in Uttar Pradesh rejected all the charges against him and refused to quit his post.
"There is no truth in any of the allegations. Why should I quit? Even if one woman wrestler comes and proves the sexual harassment charge, I am ready to be hanged. There is an industrialist behind it (conspiracy)," said the 66-year-old WFI President.
"There can be an investigation by the CBI or police. There is no dictatorship. These same wrestlers had met me a week back and did not say anything," he added.
Responding to the allegation of death threats given to Vinesh on his behalf, Brij Bhushan said, "Why Vinesh did not talk to me or approached the police at that time? Why did she not meet the PM or the Sports Minister? Why is she saying this now."
The WFI boss indicated that the new policy and the rules they have introduced are perhaps causing a bit of discomfort to the wrestlers and that's why the protest.
He said the wrestlers are being asked to compete in the National Championships and appear in trials for fair selection, and there is nothing wrong in it.
"Different states host Nationals and all want the country's best athletes to compete. None of these wrestlers has competed in the Nationals. We have made it clear that only those athletes who compete and win at the National Championship will be selected for the National camp.
"The state of Haryana has been the pride of the country but we want to take wrestling to other states also. So we stopped the arrangements of states sending multiple teams at the Nationals," Brij Bhushan said.
"States like Bihar, Jharkhand, Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram are weak and we need to promote the game there. So we introduced National Open Championships apart from the regular Nationals and there also Haryana claimed 61 per cent of the medals," he said, adding that a certain Tirath Rana was also misleading the wrestlers.
Tirat Rana is a former wrestler who had tried to get into Haryana Wrestling Association but the sports body was suspended by WFI and later a new association, which had the backing of national federation, was formed.
Vinesh said she is labelled an indisciplined athlete because she dares to speak her mind.
"I am being tortured every day."
Asked why they did not raise the issues before, Vinesh said, "These are powerful, influential people. We could not muster courage. Now we were not left with any option. 'Ab paani sar se paar ho raha hai' (the limit has been reached). We have to think about the next generation of players as well."
Adding to it, Bajrang said, "We are approaching the end of our careers. For how long will we play? 2024, 2026 or maybe 2028 but it is a question of the entire wrestling fraternity."
It may be recalled that the WFI, while taking disciplinary action against Vinesh for not wearing the official singlet during the Tokyo Games, had banned her but later lifted it after receiving a written apology from the athlete.
Vinesh said she did not wear that singlet because it was "zero quality."
Explaining his position, the WFI President said that they were facing action from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for flouting the rules and he had to take action against Vinesh out of compulsion because he did not want a ban on India.