The Fight Of Their Lives: Indian Wrestlers’ #MeToo Movement Is Taking The Nation By Storm

Top Indian wrestlers, including Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik, Bajrang Punia and others, on Sunday returned to Delhi’s Jantar Mantar to demanding action against federation chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.

By Sharda Ugra, 28 Apr 2023

Whichever way you look at it and wherever it may end up, the protest by the country’s leading women wrestlers can become Indian sport’s line in the sand. For those following the wrestler’s Jantar Mantar sit-in, the message being sent out via words, pictures and social media posts is that if our champion athletes dare, they have the equity to take on the most powerful, when they believe it is needed.

In 1997, Prakash Padukone and the country’s leading badminton players had set up a breakaway federation to seize control of their game from the mismanaged, malfunctioning rust-bucket that was Badminton Association of India. Eventually, a compromise was arrived at, Padukone was made chairman for a while, only to be side-lined by a career bureaucrat VK Verma whose term as president lasted 13 years (ending with the CWG2010 scam). The difference between the badminton players and the wrestlers, it must be pointed out that in 1997, no political heavyweight was being challenged. And the stakes involved today make for bigger, greedier beasts at the top.

The wrestler’s protest is exceptional because Indian Sport has never seen anything like it in living memory – and it is being amplified by the 24×7 news cycle and social media. It has escalated from January’s quiet, no-politics-please restrained approach into a head-on, take no prisoners dangal with Jantar Mantar as the akhara. Dissatisfied by the inaction by the oversight committee to run the functioning of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) and present the facts at hand, the wrestlers have changed their approach. They have opened up to the media and every manner of support, reaching out to fellow athletes, farmers and khap panchayats.

They have chosen to ignore tournament schedules, bypassed the sports ministry’s latest outreach and now gone to the Supreme Court to register a criminal case. It is now very political because everything in Indian Sport at the very top is.

What raised the temperature considerably was the wrestlers’ statements on Wednesday, when they directly questioned the silence of the country’s most powerful. They cited Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most-publicised causes – Beti Bachao and Mann Ki Baat – and the zero response from the Union Cabinet minister for Women and Child Development, Smriti Irani.

It is now evident that Sakshi Malik, Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia and their families have put everything at stake – careers, reputations, futures, even their personal safety. All to bring down six-term Member of Parliament Brijbhushan Sharan Singh (WFI president for three four-year terms already) and his acolytes.

The WFI elections now stand suspended and even though Brij Bhushan has said he will not compete for a fourth term, his son, Prateek Bhushan, MLA from Gonda, is expected to be his likely successor.

Even with famous athletes involved in this case – and perhaps it is this that would have surprised these elite athletes themselves – every unjust response by Indian society around grievance redressal mechanisms as well as the criminal justice system has been laid bare. Victims of alleged sexual harassment and bullying put in the dock ahead of the accused, their character and motives questioned.

When the police are approached to lodge a complaint – merely a first information report, the fundamental driver for an initial investigation, not a charge sheet or call to trial – the police mock the complainants and will not lodge the FIR.

Police procedure and the law itself is turned on its head as the Supreme Court is told by the Solicitor General that a ‘premliminary probe’ is needed before an FIR can be registered at a Delhi police station. So what if it is an allegation of sexual harassment featuring as is being said a minor. (Maybe that explains why cops countrywide are so tardy about registering FIRs – because their preliminary probes are occupying all their time.)

At this point, understanding Brij Bhushan’s position in the power structure will explain how the scales tilt here. The politically informed Brij Bhushan is the BJP’s heavy/bagman, relied on during the various horse-trading mini-Olympics that take place after several assembly elections.

He is in charge of the Ayodhya district and its surroundings, the heart of UP’s Hindu heartland. His political scorecard tallies at 12 MPs and 38 MLAs loyal to him. Expecting the most valuable members of his party to support wrestlers despite the most severe allegations made against Brij Bhushan is sheer naivete.

The most optimistic scenario at this point for the wrestlers would be if wrestling’s international body United World Wrestling (not a gathering of saints themselves it must be said) de-recognises the WFI with an ad-hoc body taking charge of operations. Leading to the WFI’s constitution being rewritten, its electoral college being remodelled, thus changing stakeholder dynamics – at least in theory and intention. While this has been done in several Indian sports, with differing results, but political power and government machinery prefer to combine effectively to crush an Indian athlete’s agency.

For the sports ministry, SAI, WFI and everyone sidling up to power including the establishment media, the wrestlers’ protests are reduced to Us versus Them. As window dressing, the ministry may issue a diktat to all national sports federations to spruce up their Internal Complaints Committees (ICC)s.

Around ten years ago, the Ministry had ordered the ICC’s to be set up, but obviously no one has bothered to check federation by federation whether all was kosher. The WFI’s ICC was headed by a man and featured no independent members.

The most elite athletes in India are more privileged than the rest – but institutional power’s reflective response to being challenged is exactly how it chooses to treat the vast majority of India’s unknown athletes. As mere underlings, meant to be grateful, stay silent and obey.

Those post-big-medal cash-showers or much bickered-over national awards? Eventually just hush-money in a golden tracksuit. Look at what newly-appointed Indian Olympic Association president PT Usha, during her career as an athlete of eminence and stature, has said about the wrestlers: “These protests are tarnishing the image of the country. There are other ways to put your point across. They would have approached the Athletes Commission. This sets a bad precedent and amounts to indiscipline.”

Ah, yes, the ‘unanimously-elected-after-stripping-the-electoral-college-bare-at-the-nth-hour’ Athletes’ Commission. Just the body that India’s athletes in trouble can turn to. Not. The wrestlers have given fellow athletes across the board a case study that if ever they want to take on the very powerful at the top, they will need to be more than prepared and ready – with artillery, defence and the stomach for the fight of their lives.