One Month of Wrestlers’ Protest: The Story so Far, What Lies Ahead
Sports and our athletes have historically been neglected and made to suffer at the hands of people not fit to be in administrative positions within sports. As this scandal unfolds, a lengthy battle awaits the protesting wrestlers.
For what seems like the entirety of 2023 so far, the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) has been caught in a storm. Athletes had levelled sexual harassment allegations against the WFI president, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, as well as several other officials.
Since January, there have been protests going on in the national capital. Protesters, which include famous and international laurel-winning wrestlers such as Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik, Bajrang Punia and Ravi Dahiya, have demanded Singh’s resignation and the dissolution of the WFI, with first information reports (FIRs) and even petitions before the Supreme Court being filed.
What has been the story so far?
In January, wrestlers gathered at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, accusing Singh and other national coaches of sexual harassment that took place over several years. The Union Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports took notice of these allegations and sought an explanation from the WFI. The Indian Olympic Association (IOA) was then informed, with a complaint letter being written by the wrestlers demanding Singh’s resignation as the president of the WFI. The working of the WFI was suspended till an oversight committee was formally appointed.
Several complaints (by a total of seven wrestlers, including one minor) were filed with the Delhi Police against Singh, alleging that Singh had sexually harassed and molested the complainants during both national and international tournaments. For some reason, the Delhi Police did not register a single FIR against Singh.
An oversight committee was formed by the IOA to conduct an enquiry into the allegations. The members of the committee were sporting heavyweights including boxer and former Rajya Sabha member M.C. Mary Kom, wrestler and politician Babita Phogat, and badminton player Trupti Murgunde.
Singh was to step aside till the inquiry was concluded. The protests, in that regard, were at least put off for the time being.
What recent developments led to the filing of FIRs against Singh?
With almost three months passing since the formation of the committee, it was announced that the WFI would be holding fresh elections, with Singh stating that he would not contest the president’s post. The waters got muddied when it turned out that the oversight committee had concluded its inquiry, but the sports ministry chose not to make the inquiry report public. This led to resumption of the protests at Jantar Mantar.
It had also come to light that several complaints (by a total of seven wrestlers, including one minor) were filed with the Delhi Police against Singh. It was alleged that Singh had sexually harassed and molested them during both national and international tournaments. For some reason, the Delhi Police did not register a single first information report (FIR) against Singh.
This led to the complainants approaching the Supreme Court with a petition seeking registration of the FIRs against Singh. The Supreme Court issued notice to the Delhi Police, terming the allegations as serious.
The Delhi Police, on April 29, after the Supreme Court had issued notice, registered two FIRs against Singh, with the FIRs being registered under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 as well as for provisions regarding outraging the modesty of women under the Indian Penal Code, 1860. On May 4, the Supreme Court closed proceedings in the matter, taking note that FIRs had been registered against Singh.
Investigation has commenced and the Delhi Police have recorded Singh’s statement. The Delhi Police have also informed a special court constituted to deal with the matter in Delhi that a special investigation team (SIT) has been constituted to look into the matter, with the Delhi Police purportedly visiting four different states to collect evidence against Singh.
Singh, a five-time member of Parliament on a Bharatiya Janata Party ticket, for his part, has denied the allegations, going so far as to say that they are politically motivated and that he would hang himself if a single allegation was proved.
He, however, has a history of being accused of criminal activities, having faced as many as 38 criminal cases so far. He has previously been charged for multiple offences, including theft, kidnapping, criminal intimidation and even attempted murder.
What does all this mean, and what lies ahead?
“Earlier, they were saying that I had sexually abused 100 children. Then they started saying that it happened to 1,000 children. Did I eat roti made of Shilajit?” Singh told ABP News Channel during a recent televised interview, as quoted by the Hindustan Times.
This is a parliamentarian, and a man who has been entrusted with running a national sports federation in our country. Whether guilty or not, he seems to be trivialising an issue as serious as sexual offences against children.
Whether guilty or not, Singh seems to be trivialising an issue as serious as sexual offences against children.
While the protests have been lauded, and rightly so, Indian athletes are severely handicapped when it comes to reporting such incidents against figures of authority. The British Broadcasting Corporation reported in February that as per the response to an application filed under the Right to Information Act, there had been 45 complaints of sexual misconduct against coaches and officials of the Sports Authority of India. From those, five coaches had suffered pay-cuts, one was suspended and later reinstated, and two had their contracts terminated. Most of India’s sports federations also do not have oversight committees, such as the one formed in the instant case, and which are also otherwise mandated by law.
A lot of our national sports federations are headed by powerful people such as Singh, and so it is no surprise that athletes tend to back off when it comes to pursuing complaints against such people in power— out of fear of potential repercussions on their career, which they have worked tirelessly to develop.
In the instant case, despite there being protests at a national and televised scale, things are moving at a snail’s pace, and it took intervention from the Supreme Court to get the Delhi Police to even file a complaint against the alleged perpetrator.
Political parties, especially the ruling party (the ones who appoint these goons as presidents of national sports federations) tend to turn a blind eye towards issues plaguing those sections of society who do not constitute a vote bank. Sports and our athletes have historically been neglected and made to suffer at the hands of people not fit to be in administrative positions within sports.
As this scandal unfolds, a lengthy battle awaits the wrestlers.
If Singh is found guilty, it shall serve as a wake-up call to the top brass to appoint competent people who care for the well-being of sports to run national sports federations, rather than random politicians who only want to abuse positions of power. If he is acquitted, however, going by his statements, he is going to continue to serve as president of the WFI, which I believe is only going to be one step forward and two steps back for the sport.
Gaurav Saxena is an advocate with a keen interest in the intersection between sports and law.
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