Wrestlers’ protest: Fear keeping the next Sakshi, Vinesh off the mat

ByAvishek Roy
May 25, 2023 12:06 AM IST

The frustration visible on the faces of Sakshi Malik and Vinesh Phogat as they demand action against Brij Bhushan over allegations of sexual harassment is leaving a deep impact

Meerut/Sonepat: In Rathdhana village in Sonepat, Mamta Modern Senior Secondary school buzzes with activity every summer as coach Rajesh Saroha gets a batch of new recruits — young girls hoping to be wrestlers and one day emulate Olympic medallist Sakshi Malik or world championships medallist Vinesh Phogat.

Budding wrestlers at a training centre in Meerut. (Vipin Kumar/ Hindustan Times)
Budding wrestlers at a training centre in Meerut. (Vipin Kumar/ Hindustan Times)

Saroha says his phone starts ringing relentlessly as school vacations draw near.

But this year is different, lamented the coach who had 15 wards in his care (as against the usual 35) when HT visited his training centre this week.

The anguish of Sakshi Malik and Vinesh Phogat, who have been sitting in protest in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar for over a month, has dampened the spirit of the girls in the region, and the allegations of sexual harassment they have raised against former wrestling federation chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, coupled with the lack of decisive police action, has scared parents away.

“We get new trainees in March-April after school exams are over. This year, not a single girl has joined. These are all old recruits,” Saroha said. “Seven girls were supposed to join in April. Their parents had, in January, come from Panipat and adjoining areas; one was even from Rajasthan. But when I called them last month, they said they don’t want to send our girls to wrestling — ‘we are seeing what is happening in the sport,’ they told me.”

This trend was visible across India’s wrestling hubs in Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, HT found during a spot check.

The frustration visible on the faces of Sakshi Malik and Vinesh Phogat as they demand action against Brij Bhushan, a BJP MP who has lorded over Indian wrestling for 12 years, is leaving a deeper impact than the administration realises — the next Sakshis and Vineshs are refusing to step on the mat.

The wrestlers’ agitation first began in January, and led to assurances from the establishment that action would be taken, and a clean-up was in the works. In April, the wrestlers were back.The federation stands suspended, and its running has been taken over by an ad-hoc committee appointed by the Indian Olympic Association. But the wrestlers have said they will not end their protest until the principal demand — the arrest of Brij Bhushan — is met.

A Delhi magistrate’s court is hearing the case after the Delhi Police registered two first information reports (FIRs) on complaints by seven wrestlers, including a minor, against Brij Bhushan. He has denied any wrongdoing.

The impact of this impasse is being felt on the ground.

Coaches across Haryana, the hub of wrestling akhadas, say new recruitment has come to a standstill. Parents, on their part, say they are gripped with fear over allegations about harassment and bullying going right up to the level of national camps.

“The wrestlers stay away from home for long periods because of training. In the current situation, parents are wondering whether their daughters are safe, which is natural for them,” the coach of a current India international told HT on condition of anonymity. That coach, too, did not get a single new recruit this year.

Queens of the mat

When Saroha started the centre in 2015, it was for boys and girls. But after Sakshi Malik’s Rio Olympics bronze in 2016, there was a sudden influx of young girls in wrestling. Saroha, to keep up with this surge, turned his academy into a girls-only one, and employed a female coach.

As Indian wrestling’s stock grew, with the Phogat sisters winning at international meets — Vinesh added a spring to the momentum with medals at the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and World Championships before becoming world No. 1 in 2021 — the number of young girls turning up at his camp started to swell.

Last year, he trained 35 athletes, and in 2021 his academy peaked at 41 wrestlers as the Covid pandemic eased.

Inspired by Sakshi’s Rio medal when she was just nine, 15-year-old Tanisha joined the centre in 2017. Sitting in a corner, her mother Poonam watches her daughter and other girls train. She comes with Tanisha twice a day for early morning and evening sessions.

“There are so many thoughts that come to mind since the protests and allegations have come up,” Poonam said. “You have Sakshi, Vinesh sitting there in protest. They are Olympics and world medallists. Why would they sit there instead of training, if there was nothing [to the allegations]? After all, whatever they are doing is for the future of our daughters. Maybe something positive will come out of it.”

Poonam says she always travels with Tanisha for training (from a village about 5km away. “But I will not be able to do that forever. So, I encourage my daughter to share everything with her parents. If she sees anything wrong, she must be able to speak up. She has to be strong enough to handle everything. I tell her, agar aap daboge, to log dabaenge (If you show weakness, people will take advantage of it).”

About 100km away in Sisoli, Uttar Pradesh, this sentiment is shared by another parent.

Sanjay’s 13-year-old daughter Arya is learning the ropes from one of India’s best women wrestlers, Alka Tomar, a Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and world championships medallist.

“We are terrified. We may even stop her from pursuing wrestling,” said Sanjay, a small businessman who uses only a single name.“In the middle of this crisis, you do not want your child’s career to suffer. We are putting so much into her training. Her mother stays with her in the academy, and I come to see her whenever I get time from work.”

Alka Tomar, who retired in 2011 after a successful international career, opened her academy five months ago, after seven years of struggle to arrange finances. She decided to train only girls.

“I wanted to give back to the sport. There are very few women coaches in India. We have played at the highest level and we can pass on the knowledge,” said the 39-year-old, who in 2006 became the first Indian women to win a world championship medal. “There is no doubt that the situation is disturbing. Parents are concerned. They keep asking what is happening. Even my colleagues in the office ask me about the situation. There is negativity around.”

Alka added: “Those who are sitting in Jantar Mantar are the country’s best wrestlers. We need our top wrestlers at the Asian Games, world championships.”

Long-term impactThe continued success of any sport is driven not by its once-in-a-generation stars. The story of the upswing in wrestling has humbler origins — in youngsters who chose it ahead of other sports, who work hard in the hope that they can nourish their dreams.

A steady stream of youngsters ensures that the ones who rise to the top are the best of the best. The competition pushes them, moulds them, and toughens them before they can even think about representing India.

But as the protest rages against a broken system and everything it represents, coaches fear the stream is drying up.

“If the situation continues for a few more months, it can impact wrestling in a big way,” Tomar said.

As HT wrote last week, the age group national championships were not held this year. India missed a May 15 deadline to send entries for the U-17 and U-23 Asian Championships in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in June before the date was extended by the world body on the request of the ad-hoc panel.

Savita Bharadwaj, 20, missed the Under-23 Asian trials last week because she did not get the information on time. “The trials were announced late. When I came to know, the last date of sending the entry was over. Many other wrestlers also missed out,” rued the national medallist. “My parents have taken the phone away and asked me not to focus on what is happening in the sport and concentrate on training.”

The last decade was groundbreaking for women wrestlers. International success by a handful encouraged families from wrestling hotbeds in rural Haryana and other areas — who would earlier send only boys into wrestling — to choose the sport for their daughters too.

But at a time when their faith in the system stands shaken, the future of women’s wrestling could depend on a quick and fair resolution of the current crisis.

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