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Why have India’s top wrestlers taken to the streets in protest?

India’s Olympic-level wrestlers have recently been leading a demonstration in New Delhi as an act of protest. This movement, which started with MP Brij Bhushan being accused of sexual assault, is scheduled to end only after his arrest. With powerful stakeholders involved, the victims await justice and an acceptable probe. 

TW: This article contains mentions of sexual harassment.

With the Paris Olympics soon approaching, we have seen athletes from across the world preparing for their stint in 2024. India’s athletes, however, have been grappling with concerns outside of just sport.

A few months back it was reported that the President of the Wrestlers’ Federation of India (WFI) had been sexually harassing female players, including a minor.

The country’s most accomplished wrestlers have been sleeping on the streets as a form of protest. This includes Vinesh Phogat, the first Indian female wrestler to win gold in both the Commonwealth and Asian Games, and Olympic medallists Bajrang Punia and Sakshee Malikkh. The disruption has been so significant that 2023’s Asian Wrestling Championships have been shifted from New Delhi to Astana in Kazakhstan.

Why are the wrestlers protesting?

The protestors demand that Brij Bhushan be arrested and removed as president of the Wrestlers’ Federation of India (WFI). Singh is also an MP belonging to the country’s ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

In January, similar demonstrations took place in response to the same allegations. The first-time round, Sports Minister Anurag Thakur assured the public that an investigation would take place.

This began with the suspension of WFI assistant secretary Vinod Tomar. Tomar faced accusations of bribe-taking and financial corruption. WFI ceased operations and Brij Bhushan was instructed to distance himself whilst the month-long investigation took place.

The Sports Ministry then established a six member oversight committee to investigate the claims and submit a report in six weeks.

What were the findings of this committee?

The committee’s report was submitted to the Sports Ministry on the morning of April 5. Over a month later, the details of its findings have still not been made public, and the details as to its creation are hazy at best. Here’s what we do know.

Upon its submission, one committee member, Babita Phogat, found that none of her complaints made throughout the inquiry were included. She also stated that she was not given the report’s full details.

She claims another member, Radhica Sreeman, did not permit her to read it in its entirety as her own family was involved. Sreeman has refuted this as ‘ridiculous.’

Phogat also asserted that none of the documents submitted by the witnesses and the WFI were provided to the committee. No cross-examination or verification of the witnesses supposedly took place.

Rebutting this statement, Sreeman insisted that Phogat went through the report four to five times and confirmed its findings. She also mentioned that every member of the committee was asked to gather at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) headquarters on April 4 to provide signatures.

Babita Phogat apparently did not attend, however, with her phone being switched off throughout the day. The committee chairman, Mary Kom, decided that everyone present on April 4 would sign the report and Phogat could do so the next morning.

Another member of this committee, Yogeshwar Dutt, spoke in favour of Radhica Sreeman, asserting that none of the wrestlers that had testified during the inquiry had spoken of sexual harassment. Further, he maintained that no one was under any pressure to sign the report and Babita Phogat was not in attendance at the time that the rest of the members signed.

The findings of this report not being made public have created immense scope for speculation and doubt. Even those protesting say that they were not made aware of this committee’s report.

Distraught with the lack of transparency, they’ve chosen to demonstrate yet again, and have been observing a sit-in on the streets of Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, since April 23.

What are the charges levelled against Brij Bhushan Singh?

On April 28, the Delhi police filed two First Information Reports under the POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act based on the statements of a minor, apart from charges of outraging the modesty of a woman.

On that account, three of the offences against Brij Bhushan are non-bailable and serious. One of the charges is that of Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which relates to assault or criminal force on a woman with intent to outrage her modesty. The punishment for this is between one to five years with fine.

In their statements, the police said that women have alleged instances of stalking and molestation by Singh. Sections of stalking were included as the women reported Singh would call them frequently and request favours.

Additionally, a police source said that the women have pointed to 8-10 instances of harassment between 2012 and 2022; while some allegedly occurred at Singh’s bungalow, others took place during domestic and international tournaments.

What has the overall response been to the protestors?

Bhushan proclaimed his faith in the judicial system, stating, ‘I am not running anywhere. I am in my house. By now a case must have been filed against me. I will cooperate with Delhi Police. Whatever the decision of the Supreme Court, I will follow it. Ask the players who are protesting about the allegations against me.’

On the 1st of May, days after Brij Bhushan was charged, he claimed that wrestler Bajrang Punia had asked someone to ‘arrange a girl’ in an effort to level allegations of sexual harassment against him.

Further, Bhushan contends that he even submitted supporting evidence in the form of an audio clip to the committee previously investigating this.

Bhushan said that he would resign from the BJP if his party asked him to, before proclaiming that the protest was focused on targeting BJP and that the demonstrators were ‘paid’. Not only this, he also asserted that he would hang himself if a single charge against him was proven to be true.

With two competing sides to the story, this matter has divided the nation’s sporting and political community. Those who plead Bhushan’s innocence cite the ongoing protest as a ploy of the Indian opposition.

And those who stand with the players push for a fair police probe in accordance with the rule of law. With multiple facets to this story, the intricacies of the offence are unclear and so is the possibility of a conviction.

That being said, one thing is for certain. It is not every day that the top athletes of a country – especially ones that command immense authority and respect – abandon their beloved sport in this manner.