India’s top wrestlers are grappling with a sexual abuse crisis
India's top wresters are protesting against rampant sexual abuse within India's wrestling federation. Their demonstration is threatening to become a national crisis.
Jantar Mantar—the 18th-century astronomical observation site in New Delhi, India—has long been synonymous with protests and dissent. Dating back to 1993, the site has witnessed landmark demonstrations by debt-ridden farmers, students protesting the murder of one of their own, and social activists like Anna Hazare, who began a hunger strike in 2011 to root out corruption.
Most recently, Jantar Mantar has become home to an ongoing protest by some of India’s leading athletes— a protest that is on the verge of becoming a national crisis.
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Last month, some of India’s top wrestlers, including world champion Vinesh Phogat and Olympic medalists Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia, staged a sit-in to protest the lack of action against the head of the country’s wrestling federation, Brijbhushan Sharan Singh, whom they accuse of sexual abuse.
The protest has lasted for nearly three consecutive weeks, with pressure mounting over the government’s inaction. The protesting wrestlers have filed an official police complaint against Singh, demanded that an independent committee investigate the allegations, and even threatened to boycott all future events until their requests were met.
“Women wrestlers have been sexually harassed at national camps by coaches and also the WFI President Brij Bhushan Sharan,” Phogat—the only Indian woman wrestler to win multiple medals at the World Wrestling Championships—said during a protest. “Some of the coaches appointed at national camps have been sexually harassing women wrestlers for years. The WFI president is also involved in sexual harassment.”
Singh, who is also a parliamentarian from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been accused of harassment by seven wrestlers, including a minor, but has denied all the allegations.
"I have not misbehaved with anybody or harassed anyone, nor have I done any injustice to anyone,” Singh said in an interview. “I have treated them like children of my own family. I gave them love and respect. Unfortunately, that is now becoming a problem for me.”
While Singh claims to treat wrestlers like his own family, footage from 2021 shows him slapping a male wrestler on stage after being confronted during a wrestling tournament.
The 66-year-old is currently serving his third consecutive term as WFI president, having been elected unopposed in 2019. And while the next round of elections was scheduled to take place on May 7, India’s Sports Ministry last week that the elections should be considered “null and void” due to the accusations levied against Singh.
Then on Monday, May 8, Jantar Mantar witnessed dramatic scenes as a group of farmers broke down police barricades to join the wrestlers' protest.
The farmers were led by one of the groups behind the protests that had opposed three farm laws passed by parliament in 2020 that loosened rules around the sale, pricing and storage of farm produce.
"We were trying to enter, police asked us to enter from one side, but there was no space,” One of the farmers told Indian news media company New Delhi Television. “We were in large number so the barricades were overturned.”
While critics claimed that the farmers were hijacking the protest for their own cause, it is worth noting that several of the demonstrating wrestlers are from the nearby state of Haryana, a rice-producing area where many people make their living from farming. Phogat reiterated this sentiment when she was asked about the farmers joining the protest.
“We are also daughters of farmers,” she said. “We come from agricultural families. It is not right to say that our own family (farmers) is hijacking the protest.”
Phogat was among the first wrestlers to join the protest on January 18, 2023. Along with Malik and Punia, she accused Singh and several coaches of rampant sexual abuse and exploitation. Phogat even revealed that she was “mentally harassed and tortured” by Singh after she missed out on an Olympic medal in Tokyo in 2021, which led her to almost contemplate suicide.
Since launching the historic protest, Phogat admitted that she lives in fear for her life, and that she has personally received death threats from officials close to the Singh after she first broached this subject with incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2021.
“They have become very powerful,” Phogat said to reporters in January. “I have spoken today and I don’t know if I will be alive tomorrow because of this. I know about 10-20 girls who have been exploited in the national camp over the past 10 years. Those girls are scared because of their family background. They can’t fight against them because they are not powerful. I can do it because I don’t mind if they stop me from wrestling. I have a house, I have food. I am here because I don’t want the future generations to go through this sadness and pain.
“We have only wrestling as our livelihood. They are taking away our livelihood. Our only option is to die, so might as well do good and die.”
According to Phogat, Mr Modi reassured her at the time and said: "You need not worry, I am here for you people. Nobody can trouble or harass you. We are here."
Phogat and other top wrestler called off the protest on Jan. 20 following assurances that the government would investigate the allegations. Within a matter of weeks, a committee was established to probe the allegations of sexual abuse and was given a one-month deadline to complete the investigation. The committee has since completed its report, though the findings have not been made public. This has drawn ire from the wrestlers, who opted to resume to the protest in late April.
Modi and his most senior federal ministers have not commented on the issue yet. Meanwhile, the prime minister’s silence has raised concerns within India’s congress.
“The PM had publicly claimed that Phogat is like his daughter and that he knew Phogat’s family very well,” Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate said in January. “So why did PM Modi do nothing against the Wrestling Federation and remain silent for so long?”