The four-month-long tussle between Indian women wrestlers and Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief and BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh has reached the Supreme Court. On April 24, an SC bench led by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud decided to examine the petition filed by seven women wrestlers against Mr. Singh alleging sexual harassment. Since then, the Delhi Police has registered two FIRs against Mr. Singh — one dealing separately with offences under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act allegedly committed against a minor. Citing the same, the Court on May 4 closed the case saying the the wrestlers’ petition has served its purpose.
However, Delhi’s Jantar Mantar continues to see a burgeoning crowd of wrestlers, who are now receiving support from khap panchayats, farmer organisations, labour groups and student and women groups.
Wrestlers Vs WFI: What triggered the row?
On January 18, thirty Indian wrestlers including Sakshi Malik, Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia, Ravi Dahiya, and others staged a silent sit-in protest at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar against WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, alleging that he and several coaches had sexually harassed many girls.
Speaking to ANI, 28-year-old Commonwealth Games gold-medallist Vinesh Phogat said, “Some coaches who are favourites of the federation misbehave with women coaches as well. They sexually harass girls. The WFI president has sexually harassed so many girls”. While Ms. Phogat clarified that she herself did not face this issue, she said she had received death threats at the behest of Mr. Singh.
Refuting any wrongdoing, Mr. Singh said that he “would hang himself if any such incident had happened”. Taking a jibe at the protesting wrestlers, he said they had not contested any national tournament after the Olympics. He added that the main issue of the protest was the new rules and regulations brought in by the WFI.
As no action was initiated against Mr. Singh, the wrestlers continued their protest at Jantar Mantar. Moreover, Olympians Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik alleged that the WFI was ‘harassing wrestlers through its arbitrary rules and regulations’. They also accused the WFI of interfering with their personal lives and failing to provide adequate coaching and medical support. Their demands included police investigation against Mr. Singh, his removal as WFI chief and disbanding of the WFI.
With the protest gaining media attention and the support of several Opposition parties, on January 19, the Sports Ministry sought an explanation from WFI within seventy-two hours regarding the allegations. The Ministry also cancelled the Women National Wrestling Coaching camp, scheduled for January 18, as the wrestlers remained adamant in their demand for disbanding the WFI immediately.
The Centre’s response
On January 19, a meeting was held between government officials and the protesting wrestlers to iron out the issues, followed by a meeting with Union Sports Minster Anurag Thakur.
After a second meeting between the wrestlers and Mr. Thakur on January 20, protests were called off with the assurance that the Centre will form an oversight committee to investigate the allegations against Mr. Singh. On January 21, the Sports Ministry suspended WFI’s assistant secretary Vinod Tomar to ensure proper functioning of WFI, halted WFI’s ongoing activities with immediate effect and asked Mr. Singh to step aside till the month-long investigation was completed.
On January 23, a six-member committee headed by boxing champion M C Mary Kom was constituted to investigate the charges against Mr. Singh and manage the day-to-day affairs of the WFI. Besides Ms. Kom, the committee comprised former wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt, ex-badminton player Trupti Murgunde, ex-TOPS CEO Capt Rajagopalan, SAI executive director Radhica Sreeman and ex-wrestler Babita Phogat.
Later in court, appearing for the Delhi Police, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said about the FIR filed agaisnt Mr. Singh: “We are doing our best. It will be a completely independent and impartial investigation. There is no reason for the petitioners to come here (apex court at every stage). That will not serve the ends of justice” .
Oversight committee probe into Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh
After a two-week tenure extension, the committee filed its final report on April 5. On February 28, Mr. Singh appeared before the committee for questioning as part of the inquiry.
On April 16, Mr. Singh — a six-time MP from Uttar Pradesh’s Gonda, Balrampur and Kaiserganj — stated that he would not contest for the president’s post in the WFI election on May 7. Mr. Singh has served three four-year terms as WFI president and is ineligible to contest for the top post as per the Sports Code. However, he can contest for another WFI post after a four-year cooling-off period.
Mr. Singh, 66, a wrestler himself, is a strongman from UP’s electorally significant Bahraich belt. Known for his involvement in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, Mr. Singh is one of the accused in the Babri demolition case. As per his 2019 election affidavit, he also faces four criminal cases including charges of robbery and an attempt to murder, and was once charged under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA).
The Kaiserganj MP enjoys massive support in the Gonda-Balrampur belt and hence action against him by the BJP will be highly unlikely, say party leaders. Touting Mr. Singh as the ‘pride of Uttar Pradesh’, his supporters have turned the probe into a state issue, claimingthat the charges against him were falsely levelled by players ‘of a particular region’ — alluding to the wrestlers’ Haryana roots. Mr. Singh has also alleged that the protesting wrestlers are ‘puppets in the hands of Haryana Congress MP Deepender Singh Hooda’.
Filing of probe report and further protests
On April 5, the committee filed its final report to the Union Sports Ministry after questioning multiple victims, witnesses and Mr. Singh himself. However, ex-wrestler Babita Phogat objected to the way the probe was conducted and alleged that she was not privy to the full report and that witnesses’ statements were not cross-verified. Speaking to PTI, Ms. Phogat accused Radhica Sreeman of not allowing her to read the report as her family was involved in the protest. Ms. Sreeman has refuted these allegations.
While the panel’s report has not been made public, PTI reported that Mr. Singh was given a clean chit with a 5-1 verdict.
On April 23, Indian wrestlers including Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat, Ravi Dahiya, and Sakshi Malik resumed protests at the Jantar Mantar, claiming that nothing had been done to resolve their issues. The wrestlers demanded that the panel’s findings be made public and threatened to approach the Supreme Court as Mr. Singh is yet to face any action.
Interacting with the media, a teary-eyed Sakshi Malik said that seven female wrestlers including a minor have each filed a sexual harassment complaint with the Delhi police against Mr. Singh. However, the Delhi police is yet to file an FIR in the case, she said.
“We are being framed as liars which we cannot bear. We are waiting for two and a half months now but no one is listening,” she added.
The wrestlers have also accused Mr. Singh of intimidation in their police complaint. Moreover, Vinesh Phogat hit out at sister Babita Phogat — an oversight panel member — saying she was more worried about her political career than the cause of the wrestlers.
The Delhi police sought a report from the oversight committee and stated that an FIR will be filed ‘after concrete evidence comes to light’.
Backing the wrestlers, Congress’s Bhupinder Hooda and Udit Raj, CPM’s Brinda Karat, Hannan Mollah, and A. R. Sindhu, and Aam Aadmi Party’s Reena Gupta met with protesters at Jantar Mantar on April 24, while the CPI-linked National Federation of Indian Women protested outside Delhi police headquarters, demanding action. Several Haryana leaders like Bhupinder Hooda, Deepender Hooda and heads of many khap-panchayats too have thrown their weight behind the wrestlers.
The Supreme Court steps in
On April 25, the Supreme Court termed the allegations against Mr. Singh as ‘serious’ and listed the petition on non-registration of FIR against the WFI chief on April 28. At the request of the petitioners, their details have been redacted from the court’s records. As per the petition, the incidents of sexual abuse allegedly occurred between 2012 and 2022 during domestic and international wrestling competitions, sometimes at Mr. Singh’s official MP bungalow in New Delhi. One of the complainants alleged that she was harassed when she was sixteen, seeking action against Mr. Singh under the POCSO Act.
“There are serious allegations of sexual harassment in the petition, which is instituted by professional international wrestlers who have represented India,” stated the SC bench,
On May 4, the Supreme Court closed the case after the Delhi Police registered two FIRs against the accused, while also granting the liberty to the petitioner to move the high court or the jurisdictional magistrate for further relief.