Wrestlers who have contributed to raising India’s position in the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games, the Asian and World Championships have been protesting at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, for the past one week. They are also fighting a legal battle in the Supreme Court against the state and its institution, the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI). They have accused the president of WFI, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh (a BJP MP from eastern UP, who wields considerable political power in the region) and other officials of WFI, of sexual exploitation of women wrestlers, including minor girls for over a decade. They have demanded that the WFI president should be removed from his post and strict punishment should be meted out to all accused officials, which should serve as a deterrent to such sexual exploitation in the future. The protestors include well known wrestlers such as Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik, Bajrang Punia and others.
The wrestlers had earlier protested at Jantar Mantar in January this year, with the same demands. They had called off their protest after the Central government ordered a formal investigation by a seven-member committee headed by an Olympic medalist and former Rajya Sabha MP. However, the committee’s recommendations to the government were not made public, nor any action taken on the wrestlers’ demands. This forced them to resume their protest.
The protesting wrestlers have demanded that not only should the FIR filed by the seven wrestlers be registered, but that their names should not be disclosed publicly in keeping with the law governing sexual harassment allegations. They have demanded that the recommendations and findings of the seven-member committee be made public and that the president of WFI and other accused officials be arrested and prosecuted.
For four days after the protests began on April 23, the police refused to file an FIR as demanded, giving the reason that certain preliminary investigations were needed. The aggrieved wrestlers then approached the Supreme Court. It was only after the Supreme Court ordered the filing of the FIR, on the 5th day of the protest, that the FIR has now been registered.
The protesting wrestlers have expressed the apprehension that their request to the court, to not disclose the names of the sexually harassed wrestlers, has been violated. There are reports that their families are being threatened and pressurised to make the wrestlers withdraw the allegations.
For the first time in the history of Indian sports, an allegation of sexual harassment of such extensive proportion has come to the fore. The protesting wrestlers have spoken extensively to the media, giving examples of the kind and extent of sexual harassment and intimidation they continuously have to face.
The protesting wrestlers have received support from women’s organisations, trade unions and workers’ organisations, kisan organisations as well as panchayat organisations. They have received overwhelming support from sport persons in India, in all fields of sport. Many of these persons have written or spoken of discrimination in sports, on the basis of gender, political affiliation, caste, community, social position, etc. The unity of women and men of sports, of workers, peasants, women, youth and students in support of the agitation has helped to highlight the grievances of the protestors.
The protest action of the women wrestlers has once again brought to the forefront of political debate, the question of the exploitation and discrimination that women in our country face. The state, its officials and all its institutions are guilty of upholding this exploitation and discrimination, including outright violence against women.