Bajrang interview: 'It’s a wake-up call, this isn’t just a fight for wrestlers' - Hindustan Times
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Bajrang Punia interview: 'It’s a wake-up call, this isn’t just a fight for wrestlers'

By, New Delhi
May 26, 2023 03:20 PM IST

As the wrestlers' protest continues, Bajrang's long-standing dream of becoming an Olympic champion seems increasingly distant

In an ideal world, Bajrang Punia would be at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre in Sonepat, training to defend the Asian Games gold he won five years back. Yet, here is, on the pavement, delivering stirring speeches, deliberating with lawyers, dealing with the media. His training is off schedule, his sporting ambitions quelled, his long-standing dream of becoming an Olympic champion increasingly distant, Bajrang finds himself in the constant company of a maddening crowd and prying cameras. It's a non-sporting stardom he is still getting used to.

Wrestler Bajrang Punia during an ongoing protest.(Sanjay Sharma) PREMIUM
Wrestler Bajrang Punia during an ongoing protest.(Sanjay Sharma)

In an ideal world, Bajrang Punia would be at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre in Sonepat, training to defend the Asian Games gold he won five years back. Yet, here is, on the pavement, delivering stirring speeches, deliberating with lawyers, dealing with the media. His training is off schedule, his sporting ambitions quelled, his long-standing dream of becoming an Olympic champion increasingly distant, Bajrang finds himself in the constant company of a maddening crowd and prying cameras. It's a non-sporting stardom he is still getting used to.

HT caught up with Bajrang for a chat in which the star wrestler opened up on the challenges of switching from the life of an elite athlete to that of a protestor, what keeps him going, and where he draws his strength from. Excerpts:

Also Read | Delhi court seeks ATR from police on plea seeking FIR against protesting wrestlers

Your sit-in has entered the second month. Did you expect it to go this far?

Honestly, no. I never envisaged it to run so long. We thought since we are international athletes, the government will listen to us. That was the whole point of us risking our careers and doing this. It hurts that we have been left in the cold, but we are wrestlers, we won't go down without a fight. I genuinely feel there are two sets of laws in this country -- one for common people and the other for powerful men like Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.

The progress, legally speaking, in the case has been slow. Even if you get the justice you are looking for, there could be repercussions from WFI or the government.

Back in December, when I, Vinesh, and Sakshi, met to plan the protest, we considered all the worst-case scenarios. We gave each other time to think it through. I must say it was not a very easy decision because we knew our careers will be ended. We knew that post-career options such as coaching or administration will not be available to us. We knew that the government can send CBI and ED after us and implicate us in false cases. We knew there could be attempts of intimidation and threats. It wasn't an easy decision, but I wouldn't have faced myself had I backed out. Once our minds were made, there were no second thoughts.

When you decided to go against the former WFI chief Brij Bhushan, did you realise what this fight would entail?

He is a very dangerous man, as dozens of police cases against his name show. But if the cause is genuine and the resolve is strong, there is no room for fear. Very early in my life, I was taught to respect women. I am grateful I had a mother as I do. She never discriminated between me and my brother and our three elder sisters. When I informed her about my decision to go on a sit-in protest, she blessed me and told me to never back down. All she is worried about is whether I am eating well, other than that, she tells me to do whatever I can to get justice for these girls.

As athletes, you are conditioned to live a regimented, cocooned life. Would you call this your introduction to the real world?

In a sense, yes. As athletes, we live a very privileged, sanitised life. Earlier, I would never find time to follow the news, but now I do. I have realised there are people who have suffered more and for much longer than us. I met a woman here, a sexual harassment survivor, who has been protesting for over a year to get justice. She walked up to me and narrated her story. She said when she looks at our struggle, she finds the strength to fight. I almost broke down. This is the country we are living in, where women have to come to the streets to get justice. It has been a wake-up call of sorts. That's why we say that it is not the fight for wrestlers alone; it is the fight for every woman in this country.

Over the past month, we have seen you emerge as a fine orator and a leader. When did this departure from your usual reticent self come about?

It's an organic development. It happened without me even realising it. People tell me that they want to listen to me. It still surprises me because I am neither a trained speaker nor a politician. Perhaps the reason people listen to me is because I speak the truth. I am a simple man from humble beginnings. My parents raised me with the right values. Most of the wrestlers are very grounded and accommodating and we don't turn down requests for photographs or selfies. People listen to me not because I am their leader, but because I am one of their own.

We have seen an increasing participation of men, particularly from Haryana, in this struggle.

This change is at the heart of our protest. The khaps that once forbade girls from entering sports are now fighting for their rights. Over a period of time, they have realised their mistake and have learned to move with the times. It is our duty to stand by our partners. There were no second thoughts as far as I, Somveer, and Satyavrat — whose wives are part of the sit-in — are concerned. A lot of men desert their partners in such fights. To such men, I would like to say, 'Please stand for your partners. They need you in their fight for justice.' These women have shown us what strength looks like. It is heartening to see so many men come out in support of women, and I hope they continue to do so not just here, but also in their homes. That's real masculinity.

Also Read | 'With all our medals, we thought we’d be heard': Bajrang Punia tells HT

What are your learnings from the protest?

For one, it has made me more patient, humble, and empathetic. It's a completely new life for all the wrestlers. Our lives are all about training and competitions, but here we have to manage the crowd, build support, meet all sorts of people, talk to the media, speak to the lawyers. None of us is trained for these things. We work 18-20 hours a day, and sometimes the tension is so much that you can't sleep at all. Days pass in a blur; even now, I don't know which day of the week it is. At training, we at least get a weekly off; here, we can't afford to drop our guard for a minute. But, all this stress and hardship is nothing compared to what women in our country face daily. If we win this battle, it will give countless women in the country the energy to fight.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Shantanu Srivastava is an experienced sports journalist who has worked across print and digital media. He covers cricket and Olympic sports.

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