Desperate for justice: On the issue of exploitation and India’s medal-winning wrestlers

Wrestling needs to be rescued from its feudal culture of exploitation 

May 01, 2023 12:10 am | Updated 12:35 am IST

India’s leading wrestlers, especially women supported by their male counterparts, have again taken to the streets in Delhi. If the first protest was during the winter in January, the latest is happening in peak summer at Jantar Mantar. That both the biting cold and the searing heat did not diminish these athletes’ determination to air their sexual-harassment grievances against the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) office-bearers, especially its president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, is a reflection of their trauma. It also reveals their sheer despondency as even the Oversight Committee led by Olympian Mary Kom set to clean up the system, has not yielded any results. That three inconclusive months have lapsed since the first public complaint is another pointer to the inhumane reaction that often trails sexual-harassment allegations. First there is silence from people in authority, then there are furious denials, and third, insinuations are allowed to seep in about the victim’s morality. Brij Bhushan may have stepped aside from the day-to-day functioning of the WFI but this sports administrator, essentially a BJP MP from Uttar Pradesh, has enough clout to stymie efforts to prise him out from the federation.

Wrestling harks back to India’s rural heartland, especially North India, and is seen by sportspersons as an opportunity to escape the suffocating feudal atmosphere. The trust in a coach or official borders on blind devotion and this trait gets exploited. To not accept gender-violence as a sordid reality and to sweep it under the political-rivalry carpet does no good to Indian sport. This is not about the central government pitted against the opposition; it is about fairness in dealing with athletes. The Indian Olympic Association president, P.T. Usha, an icon for many, made it worse by stating that the athletes are tarnishing the country’s image. Be it Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik or Bajrang Punia, who have led the protests, their quest for justice and desire for a complete overhaul of the WFI structure are genuine endeavours. The Supreme Court’s directive that forced the Delhi Police to lodge a first information report against Brij Bhushan is a step in the right direction. More was expected from the larger sporting fraternity but with the exception of Olympic gold medallists Abhinav Bindra and Neeraj Chopra, the rest, especially the much-feted cricketers, have responded feebly. Kapil Dev and a few other players besides Sania Mirza voiced their concern through social media. But these remain the few volleys of resistance. India’s medal-winning wrestlers deserve better.

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