Wrestlers' Protest Spotlights Sexual Abuse in Sports
India's top wrestlers have been staging protests in New Delhi over the past few days demanding action against a powerful politician, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who is accused of sexually harassing and intimidating female athletes.
Singh, a member of parliament, is from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and has helmed the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) since 2011.
After allegations of sexual harassment surfaced against him, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) formed a panel in January to investigate them.
Indian Sports Minister Anurag Singh Thakur said the probe would be completed in four weeks. The inquiry report was ready in April, but the findings were not made public.
Singh, meanwhile, has ignored calls for him to step down as WFI president in recent months. He has denied the allegations leveled against him, claiming it's a conspiracy to smear his reputation and force him out of India's parliament.
Top court says the allegations are 'serious'
The wrestlers and their supporters, meanwhile, have slammed the government for not taking action against the politician, stressing they will not leave the protest site until Singh is arrested.
"Until there is some action and Singh is arrested, we are not going to end our protest. This is not a fight of wrestling alone. It is for the self-respect of all sportspeople in the country," Tokyo Olympics bronze medalist Bajrang Punia, who is male, told DW.
Vinesh Phogat, a triple Commonwealth Games gold medalist, told media it's not only the head of the WFI: several coaches have also sexually harassed women wrestlers at national camps.
She also accused Sports Minister Thakur of "trying to suppress" the case.
"It is very difficult to stand against a person who is misusing his power and position for so long. By forming a committee, the sports minister tried to suppress the matter there. No action was taken that time," Phogat said.
Angered by government inaction, the wrestlers approached the Supreme Court of India. The nation's top court described the allegations as "serious" and ordered the police to register a case against Singh.
Late on Wednesday night, the athletes camping at the protest site alleged that police assaulted them, an accusation the authorities denied.
Photos and videos shared on social media showed police deploying more officers to the area.
Modi criticized for keeping quiet
Prime Minister Modi has also been criticized for keeping quiet on the issue.
"He invites us to his home when we win medals and gives us a lot of respect and calls us his daughters. Today, we appeal to him that he listens to our 'Mann Ki Baat,'" Sakshi Malik, a female wrestler said during a media interaction, drawing analogy with the prime minister's popular radio program.
Mukul Kesavan, a historian and political essayist, told DW Modi's silence is even more problematic given his government's campaign to boost female empowerment.
"A government that claims to live by slogans like 'Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao' (which translates to Save the Daughter, Educate the Daughter) is now playing defense for a politician who publicly revels in his reputation for violence," Kesavan said.
Many sports afflicted by sexual harassment
Wrestling has become popular in parts of India in recent years, especially among women, after a series of successes at the Olympics, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games.
The nation's female athletes have won at least one medal for wrestling in each of the last four Olympics.
Many of the wrestlers hail from the northern state of Haryana and come from humble backgrounds, potentially making it easier for powerful officials to intimidate them into not reporting any misconduct.
Wrestling is not the only sport in India affected by sexual harassment. The coach of the country's national cycling team was sacked last June following similar charges. And a month later, Alex Ambrose, the assistant coach of the Indian women's under-17 football team, was suspended and sent back from a training camp in Norway for allegedly abusing a minor player.
In response to a query in parliament last July, the sports minister said that the Sports Authority of India had received 30 complaints of sexual harassment in the five preceding years.
A key moment for Indian sports?
A report published in August 2021, "Dangers lurking for sportspersons in India," indicated there could be nearly 200 perpetrators and 10,000 victims across 53 major sports in India.
Payoshni Mitra, an athlete rights advocate, said the ongoing protest is a significant moment for Indian sports. She said she hoped it would lead to a more responsible and accountable system of governance for sports bodies, ultimately benefiting athletes.
"Athletes, however central we may think they are to the political ecosystem, are in reality not treated in a fair way. Moreover, sexual or any other form of harassment should have no place in sport," Mitral told DW, adding that the protesting athletes are "sending a strong message to the entire country."
Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru
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