Break the silence on the wrestlers’ protest
Since 2010, India’s women athletes are shining across sports. But on-field triumphs demand greater respect off it
In a hyper-partisan age where opinion is often shaped by WhatsApp forwards, India’s protesting wrestlers have discovered how fickle public adulation can be. Those who feted our medal-winning wrestlers, celebrated their life story on celluloid, rushed to take photos with them, have chosen to distance themselves from the unprecedented agitation. Lauded as heroes, the wrestlers are now being damned as part of a political “toolkit” gang, accused of theatrics when they threatened to immerse their precious medals in the Ganga, even targeted as anti-national by some government cheerleaders. Instead of being appreciated for raising public consciousness on the troubling issue of sexual harassment by men in power, they are being asked to provide proof of their allegations first. Suddenly, the victims have become the accused while the alleged perpetrator gets away all too lightly.
That the street protests would get tangled in coarsened politics was almost inevitable the longer they dragged on. That Delhi Police would never allow the protesters to march to the new Parliament inauguration was only to be expected. Ironically, the same police, which dragged the wrestlers away as if they were a rioting mob, prevaricated for months before finally being pushed by the Supreme Court to file a First Information Report on the wrestlers’ complaint. Indeed, the cacophonous political debate must not be allowed to mask the significance of what has transpired over the last few months. To quote India’s first Olympic individual gold medallist, Abhinav Bindra, “Every athlete deserves a safe and empowering environment.”
I recall being at Jantar Mantar in January when the protest first began and being struck by the extraordinary courage. “Why did it take you so long to speak out against sexual harassment,” I asked a tearful Vinesh Phogat, a world championship medallist who has become the face of the protest. Her answer was sobering: “Do you know how tough this has been for us? If we had spoken of sexual harassment earlier, our parents would have stopped our training and got us married off straight away. Truth is, we were scared because our careers would have been finished.”
Which is why our wrestlers need to be applauded and not demonised. The likes of the Phogat sisters and Sakshi Malik, an Olympic bronze medallist, are sporting revolutionaries whose impact goes well beyond just their akhadas. These trailblazing women have redefined a sport that was seen as an exclusive male bastion. A woman in the wrestling ring is not just breaking a stereotype but also challenging centuries of prejudice and starkly unequal gender relations. Their incredible struggle represented a coming-of-age moment for women in rural Haryana and went far beyond what any Beti bachao, Beti padhao slogan could ever have achieved.
And yet, while the wrestlers became symbols of national pride and gender empowerment, they could never change the asymmetrical power equation between those who run the sport and those who play it. The man whose arrest they are calling for, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, is a six-time Member of Parliament, a political bahubali (strongman) for whom the Wrestling Federation of India was a personal fiefdom where he alone could distribute patronage. The athletes brought glory to India, but Singh still called the shots. His chequered CV includes multiple serious charges, and confessing on camera to murdering a political rival. Yet, because of the winnability factor taking precedence over all else, no one in the Bharatiya Janata Party has dared call him out.
Which is why the wrestlers’ protest is a landmark moment in Indian sport. For far too long, our athletes were afraid to speak out against powerful officials: If they were women, then their lips were totally sealed. While officials enjoyed five-star luxury facilities, the athletes were expected to quietly accept a secondary status, no questions asked. During the 1978 Asian Games in Bangkok, for example, many players preferred home-cooked food from a local gurdwara. On another occasion, a sports federation official bought old blankets from Delhi’s Azad market to get tracksuits made for the team at the last minute.
Much has changed in Olympic sports since the 2010 Commonwealth Games when the country began the gradual climb up the ladder of sporting excellence. Systematic, well-drilled initiatives, such as the sports ministry’s recent Target Olympic Podium Scheme programme, have opened new opportunities. Women athletes are shining across sports: Not just wrestling but badminton, weightlifting and boxing, have thrown up world champions.
But on-field triumphs demand greater respect off it. In a sense, that’s what the wrestlers’ protest is all about. Why the reluctance to even question the MP on serious allegations against him? Why has the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012, provisions not been applied? Why has the sports minister been reluctant to dialogue with the wrestlers? Why has the otherwise voluble women and child development minister been silent? Why has the prime minister not said a word? The right to protest is a fundamental right in a democracy. One might differ on the methods being used to protest, but surely there is a need for greater collective empathy for the cause. When Olympians are charged with rioting while the accused MP is a guest at the new Parliament’s grand opening, you begin to wonder if justice will ever be done.
Post-script: While it is reassuring that Olympic gold medal winners Neeraj Chopra and Abhinav Bindra have expressed their solidarity with the wrestlers, one hasn’t heard a squeak from our more celebrated cricketers, except Anil Kumble. It’s time some of them played with a straight bat beyond the boundary too.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal