Wrestling in India began as a way of entertainment for royal families and was later practiced by men to keep fit but has now emerged as a robust professional sport that brings India international fame. Traditionally male-dominated, the sport has seen growing participation from women in past few decades. The performance of the Indian women wrestlers on the international stage has been nothing short of phenomenal and it has helped establish them as the stars of the sport in India. However, the recent sexual harassment allegations against Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) Chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh have once again brought the spotlight on the dark side of the sports world.
In January this year, the wrestlers staged a sit-in at Jantar Mantar against the WFI chief and demanded a probe into the matter. The wrestlers demanded for the chief’s resignation and dissolution of the WFI. Indian Olympic Association (IOA) constituted a seven-member panel under MC Mary Kom to inquire into the allegations. The protest was called off after Sports Minister, Anurag Thakur promised to form an Oversight Committee to look into the matter. Things took an ugly turn in April after the committee presented its report to the ministry and the ministry refused to make the report public. Following this the wrestlers have returned to Jantar Mantar.
This isn’t the first time that a harassment case has been reported in the sports world. The sports fraternity too has had its share of cases. The #MeToo movement against sexual harassment gave voice to many victims who were afraid of coming out against their predators. From the previous reported cases, it’s clear that the perpetrators are often in positions of power such as the coaches or board members. Due to the victims’ fears of their careers being sabotaged, most of these abusers never face any judicial actions or proceedings.
These people use their position to exploit the newcomers using their career as a leverage against them. And not just them, but the peer athletes also have been reported as harassers. The lack of a safe and dignified workplace has made it difficult for women wrestlers to pursue their dreams.
Indian Olympic Association president PT Usha also visited Jantar Mantar to lend her support to the protesters. Many prominent personalities came in support while many chose not to. Sports is considered to be the microcosm of the society. Hence, any form of abuse happens to put a great deal on the organisations, athletes, coaches, parents and even audiences for that matter. The worst part is that there are many cases that tend to go missing. Some on purpose and some just due to lack of timely action. Complaints are not filed because of economic and emotional pressures and such cases remain silent to the world. No person should be let off the hook because of their status or connections.
There have been numerous past harassment incidents reported by sportspersons but this is the first time that the wrestling fraternity has come up to speak on this matter. Famous wresters like Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik have been present at Jantar Mantar right from the start of the protest. These protests highlight how there might even be an institutionalised war against athletes by men in power who expect them to take it all and not fight back. If they speak up, they risk killing their careers. To what extent these allegations end up being true is certainly for the courts to decide. But we need to collectively, take responsibility to support out athletes, who work day and night to bring laureates to our country.