In an unprecedented move generating much heat, India’s leading wrestlers cutting across the gender-divide took to the streets last week. Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia led the sit-in protest at Jantar Mantar and their ire was directed at the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. Vinesh levelled sexual harassment allegations against Brij Bhushan and stated that she had even contemplated suicide. Sakshi and Punia too stressed that not all was well with the functioning of the WFI. The federation meanwhile denied all allegations and hinted at a ‘Haryana lobby’ trying to discredit the president in the run-up to the association elections. Brij Bhushan, who is also a Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament from Uttar Pradesh, stuck to his denial while the aggrieved athletes dug their heels in, repeated their sit-in protest for another day besides having multiple meetings with Sports Minister Anurag Thakur. Though for now this is a case of furious allegations and flat denials, the incident highlights the inherent flaws in India’s sporting underbelly. In a largely patriarchal country, the rural woman athlete’s first exposure to a male outside the immediate family environment is often the coach or a sports administration official. If this trust is violated, the athlete is scarred for life.
There are the rare ideal coach-athlete equations based on mutual respect, but there are also exploitative tales simmering under the surface. The deafening silence had to end and the medal-winning and much-feted wrestlers have taken the first step. Now, the five-member oversight committee set up by the Sports Minister has to follow up on the allegations and arrive at the truth. That the responsibility has been given to Olympian Mary Kom, who heads the committee, should put both sides at ease. Mary Kom and her fellow-members have to both reveal empathy and a firm quest for the truth. That Brij Bhushan hails from the ruling party should not become a burden and the Sports Ministry did well in forcing the WFI president to step aside from the day-to-day functioning of the association. That politicians cutting across party lines are part of India’s sports administrative ecosystem is a known fact. Drawn by the soft power of sport and the goodwill it generates, most sporting bodies have politicians in vital positions. The power that they wield within these federations and the phone calls that they could place back to New Delhi, do create a stifling environment. The wrestlers need to back their allegations with proof and the latest episode offers an opportunity to clean up the administration.