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Wrestlers’ Protest in Delhi: Was It a Battle for Supremacy?

© Sputnik / Rahul TrivediWrestlers’ Protest in Delhi
Wrestlers’ Protest in Delhi - Sputnik India, 1920, 22.01.2023
The federal Sports Ministry has announced that an oversight committee will probe allegations leveled by India’s top wrestlers against Wrestling Federation of India chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.
Sports enthusiasts in India saw massive action last week as the top grapplers of the country staged a protest at Jantar Mantar in Delhi against the “dictatorial behavior” of Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) President Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.
The grapplers sitting in the protest demanded that the WFI, the apex body of wrestling in the country, and federations of other states should be dissolved while WFI chief Singh should be removed from the post.

Why Did Wrestlers Stage a Protest?

The wrestlers started their protest on Wednesday, January 18. On the first day, wrestler and world championship medalist Vinesh Phogat leveled serious allegations against the WFI chief, claiming that he had been sexually exploiting female wrestlers for many years.
Vinesh Phogat, however, clarified that it was not her, but one of her fellow wrestlers who had been exploited. She further claimed that several coaches at the national camp in Lucknow have also exploited female wrestlers and that there are a few women at the camp who had approached the wrestlers at the behest of the WFI chief.
Phogat, who has been at loggerheads with the WFI after she suffered a loss in the semifinals of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, said that she, along with ace wrestler Bajrang Punia, met federal Home Minister Amit Shah three months ago to flag their issues.
The athlete also made a startling revelation that she had received death threats at the behest of the WFI chief from officials close to him because she dared draw the attention of Prime Minister Narendra Modi when she met him after the Tokyo Olympics to several issues plaguing Indian wrestling.
Vinesh Phogat was joined by 30 other grapplers at Jantar Mantar. The ace wrestlers who joined her included Tokyo Olympics bronze medalist Bajrang Punia, Rio Olympics medalist Sakshi Malik, world championship medalist Sarita Mor, Sangeeta Phogat, Satyawart Malik, Jitender Kinha, and Commonwealth Games (CWG) medalist Sumit Malik.
The wrestlers were adamant that they want the removal of the WFI chief and the disbanding of the national federation, along with state federations.

WFI Chief Denies Charges

WFI chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh outright rejected the allegations leveled by the grapplers and claimed that the protesting wrestlers are just three percent, while the others are with him.
Refusing to quit, Singh, who has been the president of WFI since 2011, said that there is no truth to any of the allegations against him, and if a female wrestler proves sexual harassment charges, then he is ready to be hanged. He also said that he is ready to face any probe.
Alleging a conspiracy behind the protest, Singh stated that the wrestlers are staging the protest at the behest of Congress politician Deepender Singh Hooda. He said that it was a “political conspiracy” against him by former Haryana Wrestling Association chief Hooda, as he questioned why only a small section of Haryana players are the ones protesting against him and claimed that the target was in fact the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
However, the grapplers staging the protest denied this and said that the protest is not politically motivated and that it is a fight for the dignity of players and to save wrestling in the country.
The WFI chief also alleged that the players taking part in the protest are troubled by the new policies around competition in the national championship.
According to new policy, only those athletes who compete and win in the national championship will be selected for the national camp.

Political Slugfest Over Wrestlers' Protest

While the ace wrestlers made all efforts to keep the protest “apolitical,” political parties in the country have started utilizing it to train their guns on the BJP.
On the second day of the protest, January 19, when Communist Party of India (Marxist) politician Brinda Karat reached the protest site, Bajrang Punia politely asked her to leave the stage, as they don’t want the protest to take political shape.
Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) national convener and Delhi state chief Arvind Kejriwal, and several other politicians from opposition parties extended their support to the wrestlers through tweets and posts on various social media platforms.
However, the protesting athletes made it clear that the demonstration has no political aspiration or association and that they are fighting for the rights of players.
Punia told the media that they have repeatedly said at their press conferences that the protest is neither against the federal government nor against any particular state government. It is also not against the Sports Authority of India (SAI) or any other organization, but only against the WFI.
They have requested that all politicians and people associated with political parties not join the stage, as the protest is completely apolitical and they don’t want any kind of politics in it, Punia further stated.
© Sputnik / Rahul TrivediWrestlers’ Protest in Delhi
Wrestlers’ Protest in Delhi - Sputnik India, 1920, 22.01.2023
Wrestlers’ Protest in Delhi

Action by Federal Gov't and IOA

Becoming aware of the protest, the federal Sports Ministry asked the WFI to submit its response to the allegations leveled by wrestlers within 72 hours.
However, the grapplers were not satisfied with the action so they continued to protest.
On the second day of the protest, the government sent three-time Commonwealth Games medalist and BJP politician Babita Phogat as a mediator to talk to the wrestlers and assure them that their demands will be met, but the grapplers insisted on the dissolution of the WFI.
Later, federal Sports Minister Anurag Thakur held a four-hour meeting starting 10 p.m. (IST) with the wrestlers at his residence. The meeting remained inconclusive, as the athletes refused to back down from their demands.
On the third day, Friday, January 20, the wrestlers wrote a letter to Indian Olympics Association (IOA) chief P.T. Usha. According to the letter, reviewed by Sputnik, Vinesh Phogat was mentally harassed and tortured by WFI chief after she missed out on an Olympic medal in Tokyo and she even thought of committing suicide.
The IOA is responsible for selecting athletes to represent India at the Olympic Games, Asian Games, and other international athletic competitions and for managing the Indian teams at these events.
After the letter was received, IOA chief Usha formed a seven-member committee, headed by ace boxer MC Mary Kom, to probe the charges. Besides Mary Kom, the panel included wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt, archer Dola Banerjee, and Indian Weightlifting Federation President and IOA Treasurer Sahdev Yadav.
The wrestlers held a meeting with federal Sports Minister Anurag Thakur on Friday. After the meeting, Thakur announced that a four-member oversight committee would be formed to probe the allegations against the WFI chief.
He also announced that the committee would submit a report within four weeks and that until then, Singh would not be participating in the day-to-day activities of the federation.
In a recent development, WFI Additional Secretary Vinod Tomar was suspended by the federal Sports Ministry. Tomar had worked closely with Singh and looked after day-to-day affairs of the federation.
The ministry also cancelled the ongoing ranking tournament in Gonda, Uttar Pradesh and directed the WFI to return the entry fees paid by participants.
Meanwhile, the WFI has also cancelled the Annual General Meeting (AGM) after the Sports Ministry directed it to suspend all the activities immediately. The AGM was scheduled to be held on Sunday, January 22.
The WFI chief was scheduled to address the media after the AGM, but sources have now told Sputnik that he will talk to the media after the oversight committee submits its report on the allegations leveled by wrestlers against him.
© Sputnik / Rahul TrivediWrestlers' protest in Delhi
Wrestlers' protest in Delhi - Sputnik India, 1920, 22.01.2023
Wrestlers' protest in Delhi

Was Protest a Battle of Supremacy?

Sputnik has tried to reach out to several wrestling coaches and other experts to understand the gravity of the issue. Arjuna awardee and winner of silver medals in the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games Shokinder Tomar told Sputnik: “It is really shameful that players who brought laurels to the nation are sitting on a road protesting for their dignity.”
When asked about the WFI chief claiming that the protesting athletes have problems with the selection process, Tomar said that firstly, it isn’t true, and secondly, even if Singh were right, then it still wouldn’t give him the right to sexually exploit them.
One person privy to the matter told Sputnik on condition of anonymity that this is not only about the alleged dictatorship of the WFI chief, but it is rather a battle for supremacy.
Clarifying, he said that some people want the wrestling federation to be controlled from Haryana, as most of the wrestlers come from there, while the current chief is from Uttar Pradesh.
However, Tomar dismissed this allegation. “I come from Uttar Pradesh and am here to support the wrestlers. Anyone who is giving the whole issue such political turn is doing wrong because this will not yield good results for the sport,” the Arjuna awardee stated.
Meanwhile, a few wrestlers have come out in support of the WFI chief and said that ever since he took charge as the federation president, the level of wrestling has gone up.
As of now, the protest has been called off and the first action has been taken by the Sports Ministry, and wrestlers as well as sports enthusiasts are now waiting for the oversight committee's report.