And so it ends, for now. Inquilab, but not yet zindabad.
From Wednesday till late on Friday, India witnessed something incredible, unprecedented. Athletes have, on occasion, stood up to their tormentors in administration, but rarely at a level we saw this past week. Olympic and World Championship medallists, the biggest names in their sport, taking to the streets for three whole days and levelling one serious allegation after another at the long-time president of their federation – also a sitting member of Parliament from the ruling party of India. Surreal doesn’t quite cover it.
If it started on a scale that grabbed everyone by the collar and forced us to pay attention, it ended in just as unprecedented a fashion: well past midnight, on the lawns of the sports minister’s house, athletes and minister jointly conducting a press conference. The minister announced the appointment of an oversight committee to not just investigate the complaints but also run the federation for the duration of the investigation (deadline: four weeks).
Concerns assuaged, the wrestlers will now go back to the mat as they prepare for a crucial year ahead, keeping in mind the Paris Olympics next year. But this episode raises many questions, the answers for which ought to induce some soul-searching in the corridors of sporting power.
First. Why did India’s champions take to the streets?
The allegations made by the wrestlers — some of the biggest names in non-cricket Indian sport, we must remember — were manifold. The primary four aspects of these were: sexual harassment and assault, financial misappropriation, mental harassment (of Vinesh Phogat and others), and the hiring of incompetent coaches.
As per their website, the Wrestling Federation of India has a five-member sexual harassment committee (including one of the most vocal of the protesters, Rio Olympic medallist Sakshi Malik). They also have an athletes committee (three out of the four were leaders of this protest) and a grievance redressal committee (chaired by the WFI president himself).
Quite obviously, the mere fact that the wrestlers came out in public shows that these committees hold no real power. Here it’s also important to note who they were going up against. Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, president of the WFI, is a six-time MP from Uttar Pradesh, from a region where power is wielded in a feudal manner. Sample this video, taken moments after he landed back in his hometown, 24 hours after serious allegations of sexual assault and financial misappropriation were made against him:
BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan with his supporters stepping out of a Gym in UP’s Gonda. pic.twitter.com/B2tqC9aLTw
– Piyush Rai (@Benarasiyaa) January 20, 2023
One of the many allegations the wrestlers brought up was that he ran the federation like a private fiefdom, from his own home. Entering his 12th consecutive year as top boss, his influence on the federation is almost total. Is it really a surprise then that neither the victims nor the protestors didn’t trust the internal complaints redressal process?
Now, the WFI is a member of the Indian Olympic Association and as a result comes under its jurisdiction. The IOA too has a four-member Sexual Harassment Prevention committee. The utter inefficacy of this committee is proven not only by the fact that the victims and protestors did not go to them, but by the hammer-blow of the IOA themselves constituting a separate seven-member committee to probe the allegations.
With the Sports Ministry now appointing an oversight committee just hours after the IOA announced the formation of theirs, the question arises – just how much power does the IOA committee hold now?
As IOA President, I’ve been discussing the current matter of wrestlers with the members and for all of us the welfare and well being of the athletes is the top most priority of IOA. We request athletes to come forward and voice their concerns with us. (1/2)
– P.T. USHA (@PTUshaOfficial) January 19, 2023
Not only were the IOA late to the scene — no one from the newly elected executive or from the athletes commission visited the protestors, indeed no one even commented on this till a PT Usha tweet in the afternoon on the second day of protests — they now appear to have been completely brushed aside.
Support system? What support system.
Did no one else step forward?
The first organisation to take a proactive, positive step was the Delhi Commission of Women. The chairperson of the DCW took suo moto cognizance and sent notices to both the Sports Ministry and the Delhi Police.
What they did, though, was then negated somewhat by what the chairperson of the National Commission of Women said – it hadn’t received a single complaint, and there was nothing it could do. The same NCW, however, had on many instances previously tweeted that the NCW takes suo motu cognizance of all cases brought to their attention.
To add to which, there was nothing but silence from the Ministry of Women and Child Development. on the matter.
Meanwhile, backing came from athletes across different sport. World Champion boxer Nikhat Zareen and Asian Games champion Amit Panghal tweeted in support of their wrestling colleagues while former Olympic medallist Vijender Singh sat in with the protestors on the second day.
एक साथ मजबूत#StrongerTogether@BajrangPunia @SakshiMalik @Phogat_Vinesh pic.twitter.com/kAzdoqGQHq
– Amit Panghal (@Boxerpanghal) January 20, 2023
At jantar mantar #BoycottWFIPresident #fullsupport pic.twitter.com/c8S17S7Gbv
– Vijender Singh (@boxervijender) January 20, 2023
What does the defence say?
Sharan Singh went on the offensive from the get-go; suggesting conspiracy, accusing the wrestlers of lying, asking where the victims were [hiding], and essentially batting away all of the criticism. He had done this on Wednesday evening in Delhi, but by Friday morning he was back in Gonda. Where he shifted a scheduled 4 PM press meet to Sunday.
What took the absolute cake, though, was the social media channels of the WFI (who are now tweeting exclusively in Hindi) where what’s playing out is a lesson in the theatre of the absurd. Sample this:
– Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) (@wfi_wrestling) January 20, 2023
Oh, and this, retweeted by the official WFI handle, which appears to indicate that as far as the federation is concerned, everything is completely normal:
आज नंदिनी नगर इंडोर स्टेडियम में
भारतीय कुश्ती संघ @wfi_wrestling द्वारा आयोजित तीन दिवसीय सीनियर नेशनल ओपन रैंकिंग कुश्ती टूर्नामेंट का
वैदिक मंत्रोचार-शंखनाद-बजरंगबलीजी पर माल्यार्पण के साथ भव्य शुभारम्भ
समूचे भारत से आए हजारों की संख्या में महिला-पुरुष खिलाड़ियों को शुभकामनाएं pic.twitter.com/KElpwLeMx9
– BrijBhushan Sharan Singh (@sharan_mp) January 20, 2023
What happens now?
The National Sports Code clearly states that the federation should file a complaint with the appropriate authority if any conduct is reported that is a specific offence under the Indian Penal Code (or any other law). Will the Ministry listen to its own edict and have the committee that will run the WFI now file a police case against the alleged perpetrators of these crimes?
This is not a matter of choice – but the political affiliations of the accused make it an even more complex question to answer.
As difficult, as unprecedented as it is, though, there needs to be swift resolution.
This is a big year for wrestling: India will host the Asian Championships from March 28 to April 2 this year while this year’s World Championships (in September in Belgrade) will have added meaning as a total of 90 quotas for the Paris Olympics will be allocated there. Not to mention the one-year-delayed Asian Games will be conducted around that time. And this is just for the cream of the crop — the underlying structure too needs to have its regular competitions running like clockwork.
As the wrestlers kept repeating at Jantar Mantar, the last thing any of them needs right now is distraction. But the fact that they are willing to put their careers on the line so publicly should speak volumes.
This, though, could be a seminal moment in Indian sport. Just in the past nine months, there have been five cases of sexual harassment reported (that we know of): they’ve all more-or-less been brushed under the carpet.
This time, the athletes spoke so loudly nobody could ignore them. The powers that be had to listen, and they did. Whether any real change will come of it remains to be seen — if (and it remains a big if) it does materialise… could this be the start of a domino effect across Indian sports administration?