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Wrestling with justice, toying with democracy

ByHindustan Times
Jun 11, 2023 04:03 PM IST

This article is authored by Anita Anand, communications and development specialist.

In New Delhi, the nation’s Capital, May 28 was a kind of historic day. The new Parliament building was inaugurated by the Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi, who said, "This is not just a building. It reflects the aspirations and dreams of 1.4 billion Indians. This is the temple of our democracy, and it is giving the message of India's determination to the world."

Wrestlers Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik in Sonepat on Saturday. (PTI)

Two kilometres away, democracy was being tested. A group protesting the sexual harassment of women wrestlers were marching towards the Parliament building. They had been in a sit-in at Jantar Mantar, the 18th-century observatory, a historically natural gathering point for protests for years. Their march was stopped, people were beaten, and charges filed against some.

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This wrestler’s protest started in April, but goes back to January 2023, when 30 of the wrestlers, including Olympic medallists, Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik, Anshu Malik and Bajrang Punia and others, staged a sit-in accusing Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh and other coaches of sexually harassing female players for years, one of whom is a minor. The wrestlers then, and now, are demanding Singh’s resignation and changes in the WFI administration. They appealed to PM Modi and the Sports Authority of India to act against the WFI chief, who is also a six-time Member of Parliament of the ruling party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), from Uttar Pradesh.

Singh has repeatedly denied the allegations, refusing to resign from his WFI president post, saying if charges against him are proven he will kill himself.

The protests were called off in January 2023 when the government promised to create an oversight committee to investigate the allegations. The oversight committee, led by the boxer Mary Kom, submitted its report to the ministry of sports and youth affairs after questioning Singh and other witnesses. It found that the WFI did not have any Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) as mandated by the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) Act 2013 to address sexual harassment complaints. According to the WFI website, the ICC was disbanded in May 2023.

Support for the wrestles has come from many quarters. The International Olympic Committee has asked for an unbiased investigation in the sexual harassment case. The international wrestling body United World Wrestling (UWW) condemned the treatment of wrestlers by the Delhi police, concern over poor investigations by the relevant authorities and gave a 45-day deadline for elections for a new WFI administration and a failure to do so may lead to the suspension of WFI by UWW. In India, Opposition party leaders, activists and women’s organisations have spoken up as well.

Who does the public believe? While Singh continues to deny the charges, the Centre for Voting Opinion & Trends in Election Research, or CVoter, an Indian international polling agency, on June 5 shared results of a poll conducted by them: 66.5% of the people surveyed said they believe that the protesting wrestlers are telling the truth. Only 17.3% said they believed Singh. And 54.1% National Democratic Alliance (NDA) – the ruling alliance led by the BJP - voters believe the wrestlers over Singh.

The wrestlers leading the protests are in their early to mid-30s, from rural families in the state of Haryana and often have a family member who is in the wrestling business. The women have been encouraged by their fathers and extended family members to join competitive wresting and families have moved to enable better training facilities for the aspiring wrestlers.

In India wresting is a poor person’s sport, daring back to the 5th century BC. There are no fancy training facilities, equipment or gear - just raw power with agility and technique to create a fascinating spectacle. It has grown in popularity over the past decades and was largely restricted to men. In 2006, Alka Tomar was the first Indian woman to win a world championships medal, a bronze in the 59kg category.

According to olympics.com, women’s wrestling made headlines at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi when Geeta Phogat was the first woman to win gold. Her sister Babita Phogat won the 51kg silver medal. And, in Rio in 2016, according to Olympics.com, Sakshi Malik won the Olympic bronze in the 58kg, to become the first Indian woman wrestler to win an Olympic medal. The winning women (and men) wrestlers have received numerous national awards, been given land by the Haryana government, crores of rupees, and guaranteed jobs in the Railways.

In Haryana, a state known for son preference and a low sex ratio of girls to boys, women wrestlers have outdone themselves. The incentive and courage to speak up about sexual harassment is impressive. According to testimony of the wrestlers themselves, the media and police reports, the harassment was recorded and handed to the Oversight Committee appointed in April 2023. Accusations of tampering with the video tapes and not recording testimony completely have been levied against the Committee by a committee member.

Sexual harassment of women is not new. Since the global #MeToo movement originating in the United States in 2006 and gathering momentum a decade later, women in many countries, including India have spoken out. The goal of #MeToo was to empower sexually assaulted people, especially in the workplace, to speak out. When women have spoken out, sometimes they have received justice. At other times, they have not, especially if the men were in power positions.

Is there a link between sexual harassment and power? Researchers Williams, Gruenfeld, and Guillory suggest that despite the common association between sex and power, men who are insecure and low in social status are more likely to be sexually aggressive than higher status men. Singh is a Rajput from the state of Uttar Pradesh. His early years are marked by violence in the community and his family moving away fearing threats to their lives. A lawyer by profession, he entered politics early; has several criminal cases pending against him, some he has been acquitted of. His son died by suicide some years ago, citing his father’s bad behaviour towards him and his siblings. Singh’s website presents him as a man devoted to his community, to education (he has set up several institutions), to wrestling (especially promoting women wrestlers). He comes across as an impressive orator in Parliament, reciting poetry.

Singh, like other Indian citizens, is not above the law. India has in place the ‘Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) Act of 2013 and the 'Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Bill (POCSO)’ of 2011. The wrestlers are simply asking for justice under these two laws.

The government has stalled on its promises of an Oversight Committee (a real one that is) and is pacifying the wrestlers, asking for time to reach an agreement, while discrediting and threatening them. Instances of manipulating Twitter feeds have occurred, and the police have stalled on registering First Information Reports (FIRs).

The ‘Mother of Democracy’ surely needs to treat its citizens better than this.

This article is authored by Anita Anand, communications and development specialist.

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