Wrestlers threaten to step up protest against WFI chief

Wrestlers Banjrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik and others sitting on a demonstration at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on January 19, 2023.

Wrestlers Banjrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik and others sitting on a demonstration at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on January 19, 2023.
| Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

A day after top Indian wrestlers accused Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh of sexual exploitation of young athletes at the women’s national camp, Olympic bronze medallist Bajrang Punia said that several more wrestlers were willing to step forward.

Mr. Punia referred to Mr. Singh’s defence a day ago wherein the six-time MP had said that he would “hang himself even if one girl came forward to accuse him“. “Yesterday there were two girls. Now we have five to six girls who are willing to step forward with proof,” Mr. Punia told the media at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar where he and several international and Olympic medallists had gathered in protest since Tuesday.

The protesters received the support of fellow wrestler and BJP leader Babita Phogat, who met them on Thursday, while Union Sports Minister Anurag Thakur said in Chandigarh that he would meet the wrestlers when he returns to Delhi.

Two-time world medallist and three-time Commonwealth Games champion Vinesh Phogat added that if their demands were not heard, they would have to approach the police. “Earlier we had two girls and now we have 5-6 girls who are willing to share proof. If we are not heard we will go to the police and take the matter forward,” she said.

However, Ms. Phogat said that while they had victims willing to speak publicly, she hoped it would not come to that. “Do not force us [the alleged victims of exploitation] to come in front of everyone. We are fighting to save our atma samman (self-respect). We don’t want to come forward and say this is what happened to us. If we are forced it will be a shame that India’s daughters have to come forward with proof in front of the media that this is what happened. We hope we will not see this black day. We will step forward with five to six FIRs if we have to. When that day comes, it will go down in India as a black day. I say this with so much shame, that if people like us can go through this, I can say this with surety that no woman anywhere in India is safe. Women and daughters should just not be born in India,” Ms. Phogat said.

Mr. Punia and Ms. Phogat’s statements about approaching the police came a few hours after they met representatives of the Sports Ministry along with Rio Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik to present their demands. “In the meeting they only gave us assurance that our concerns will be looked into but we are not satisfied with what they are saying. There has been no satisfactory answer,” Malik said.

“Everyone knows a wrestler missing a day’s training is like losing 100 years of practice. Today is the second day of our protest and it is our misfortune that we haven’t got a suitable answer. The accusations were made because we had truth on our side,” Phogat said.

While their demands have not been met, the wrestlers insist they are not backing down. “The question is not of his [WFI president’s] resignation. That we will take anyway. If we are provoked more we will send him to jail. We want his resignation and proceedings carried out. The longer this gets delayed the worse this will get for the WFI president. Yesterday there were two girls and today there are five. Tomorrow it will be 10 and then 20,” Ms. Phogat said. “We are not fighting the government. We are fighting for justice. Our fight is with the federation not the government. We are appealing to the Prime Minister, the Home Minister, the Supreme court to hear us. Doodh ka doodh pani ka pani ho jayega [the truth will be clear]. But at least let him [WFI president Singh] resign first,” she said.

Ms. Phogat further added, “If we are forced to do it, we are ready to file an FIR on Friday. He [Mr. Singh] finished wrestling in Uttar Pradesh due to the exploitation. Now we’ve been getting calls from girls in Maharashtra and Kerala, congratulating us for taking a stand and asking us to continue to fight for them. Imagine, if we are hearing from States that don’t have such a wrestling legacy, how far does this federation’s influence go?,” she added. “If there is no solution and world medallists and Olympians are not believed, then it is sad,” Ms. Phogat said.

The protests gathered steam on Thursday with many wrestlers absent a day before making their presence felt. Ms. Punia added that the vast majority of India’s wrestlers were on the side of the protesters. Indeed, Tokyo Olympics silver medallist Ravi Dahiya and world championships silver medallists Deepak Punia and Amit Dahiya – who had been absent on Wednesday – joined the protests on Thursday. “Yesterday you [Mr. Singh] had said only 3% of the wrestlers were protesting and 97% were on your side. Today your office is shut [WFI office is situated at Mr. Singh’s New Delhi residence near the protest site at Jantar Mantar] and we are still here,” he said.

Meanwhile, meeting the fellow wrestlers, Arjuna awardee Babita Phogat, the chairperson of the Haryana Women Development Corporation (HWDC), assured that she would mediate with the government and resolve the issue quickly.

Union Sports Minister Thakur told the media in Chandigarh that he would meet the protesting wrestlers when he returns to Delhi, listen to their grievances, and address the issues. The Minister pointed out that the Sports Ministry had acted promptly in asking for explanation within 72 hours from the WFI.

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