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PM’s Silence on Women Wrestler’s Struggle Emboldens Offenders

The silence at the top on sexual harassment allegations is a shot in the arm for the man -- BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh -- these women wrestlers are charging.

On May 28, several internationally-acclaimed women wrestlers, who made India proud by winning coveted medals in the Olympics, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games, took a painful decision to immerse their medals in the River Ganga. They also decided to fast unto death following the televised police brutality against them for trying to protest in front of the new Parliament building while Prime Minister Narendra Modi was inaugurating it. None from the government reached out to them. Only after farmer leaders Rakesh Tikait and Naresh Tikait intervened and pleaded with them did they agree to postpone immersing their medals for five days.

Denial of Right to Protest

When the women wrestlers attempted to protest at the new Parliament building, they were mercilessly beaten, dragged, and forcefully taken to a police station. A first information report (FIR) was filed against them for inciting ‘rioting’. Above all, Delhi Police dismantled the facilities they had fixed in Jantar Mantar to carry on their over month-long protest against the BJP Member of Parliament Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, president of the Wrestling Federation of India, who they allege sexually harassed them and a woman who was a minor at the time.

The police demonstrated their hostility toward them when they told them that the Jantar Mantar venue could not be used any more for their protest and that they would have to submit a new request for another protest site.

Recall that it was only on the direction of the Supreme Court that an FIR was filed against Singh, and it invoked very stringent provisions under The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012, which mandates immediate arrest of an alleged perpetrator and denies bail to the accused. But no action has been taken against Singh. BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Modi and Union Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani, have maintained a deafening silence. Tragically, the women wrestlers’ constitutional right to protest demanding action against Singh, and defend their honour and dignity against sexual harassment, has been trampled upon.

The same women wrestlers who brought glory and honour to India for their internationally acclaimed performances on the strength of their sporting talent are being humiliated for raising their voices against sexual harassment. Now even the International Olympic Association has strongly condemned the severe police handling of the wrestlers during their democratic protest.

Modi Talks Democracy as Police Attacks Democratic Rights

Right at the moment when they heroically confronted atrocities and police violence, Prime Minister Modi was waxing eloquent about democracy and inaugurating the new Parliament building. “Democracy is not just a system for us,” he asserted, claiming, “It is a culture, an idea, a tradition”. He said India “will be a prosperous, strong, and developed India that adheres to principles of policy, justice, truth, dignity, and duty”.

Those words sounded so hollow against the grim context of the suffering and insults meted out to women wrestlers by Delhi Police, which works directly under the control and supervision of the Modi government at the Centre. Their slogan, “Jab-jab Modi dartaa hai, police ko aage karta hai—Whenever Modi is afraid, he deploys the police, sums up the fear-stricken atmosphere they face.

Release of Convicts in Bilkis Bano Case

This is not the first time Modi has talked about women’s dignity and safety while simultaneously doing exactly the opposite. Recall his Independence Day address to the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort on August 15, 2022. He asked, “Can we not pledge to get rid of everything in our behaviour, culture and everyday life that humiliates and demeans women?” But on the same evening, with clearance from the Union Home Ministry headed by Amit Shah, the BJP government of Gujarat released 11 murderers and rapists convicted for life for committing heinous crimes against Bilkis Bano and her family members during the 2002 Gujarat violence.

The Prime Minister never said a word against the decision to release those convicts who were welcomed with sweets after being released from jail. Some BJP leaders even defended that decision on the ground that they belonged to the Brahmin caste and therefore had good sanskar [good values and cultured behaviour]. Eventually, the Supreme Court took up the matter, which is now being adjudicated. But the silence of the Prime Minister on the issue is very disquieting.

Precisely in the same manner, Modi has not uttered a word on the sexual harassment faced by women wrestlers, and their protest for seeking justice for them is continuing.

Harassment of Wrestlers vs Hollow’ Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’

It is painful that the Modi government, which coined the “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao—Save Daughters, Educate Daughters” slogan and took initiatives such as Khelo India—Play India, is callously indifferent to the sexual harassment charges levied by women wrestlers against Singh. It is all the more worrying that the government did not reach out to them to try and persuade them not to immerse their medals.

Rule of Law

The bland statement of the Minister for Youth Affairs and Sports Anurag Thakur that the law is taking its course and the women wrestlers should not worry but instead, wait patiently for justice offers no hope to them. It unmistakably makes the impression that the central government is on the alleged perpetrator’s side. Shockingly, Singh contradicted Thakur by saying the POCSO Act is grossly misused and the government should amend it. He reportedly meant that the stringent provisions of the Act denying bail to the alleged offenders should be deleted. Let us juxtapose this with the Prime Minister’s statement in his May 28 speech that the laws made in it will create new opportunities for the youth and women. How will changing the POCSO Act [a demand now also raised by seers in Uttar Pradesh who back Singh] enable these or provide justice to victims of sexual harassment? Instead, it would provide an escape route to the perpetrators of offences under this law.

The Prime Minister’s silence, Anurag Thakur’s routine statement that the law will take its course, and Singh’s assertion that he would pressure the government to change the POCSO law send an unmistakable signal that the government India led by Modi is unmoved by the plight of the women wrestlers and women in general.

Now, details of the FIR registered by the women wrestlers with Delhi Police have come to light through a report in The Indian Express newspaper, which says seven complainants have charged Singh with at least 10 instances of sexual advances, inappropriate touching, and forceful hugging and stalking. 

It is getting increasingly difficult for the government to brush the wrestler's demands and complaints under the carpet as they are starting to draw support from a variety of quarters, including some BJP leaders. In Maharashtra, BJP Member of Parliament Pritam Munde has said her party must seriously consider the wrestlers' allegations. In Haryana, where the wrestlers are from, BJP leaders have questioned the Union government's silence over the protest. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee hit the streets for a candle march demanding justice for the wrestlers, and farmers organised a mahapanchayat (grand assembly) in the Muzaffarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh on 1 June, demanding swift action on the complaints. Continued inaction, they said, would lead to another, more extensive public meeting in Haryana this weekend.

Latest news reports on 2 June also say that Singh has been forced to "postpone" a days-long rally planned in his favour in Ayodhya town of Uttar Pradesh after the local administration denied him permission citing World Environment Day. All these points to the need to take action against Singh and provide relief to the protesting women wrestlers.

PM Must Restore Dignity of Women Wrestlers

When the same wrestlers won medals in tough international competitions, the Prime Minister paid them glowing tributes and described some as part of his family. It is distressing that the same Prime Minister is not standing by them when they are claiming sexual harassment and struggling for justice. He must rise above partisan considerations and live up to the ideal governing his own “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao—Save Daughters, Educate Daughters” slogan. He can do this by effectively applying the law against the alleged offender so that the dignity of women wrestlers is restored, the country’s prestige is safeguarded, and public confidence in the majesty of our republic, ever ready to do justice for women, is assured.

The author served as Officer on Special Duty to President of India KR Narayanan. The views expressed are personal.

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