In the hot summer afternoon, a group of men sit playing cards and discussing the current events that have involved their village located in Haryana’s Mokhra. The ‘choupal’ or a space to gather is for the village men who smoke hookah, rest or even go on a political spree.

The current topic of discussion is the wrestlers' protest whose development has engulfed the whole country. Mokhra has particularly been in news because of the Olympic medallist Sakshi Malik, who has grown up here.

Malik is protesting the sexual harassment women have faced in wrestling by the hands of Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Brij Bhushan Singh.

As a young girl, Malik played in these streets. It is the influence the wrestler bestowed upon winning medals is what made Mokhra village famous. Speaking to The Citizen, the villagers said that it was after Malik’s success in wrestling those parents started sending more women to the ‘akhada’ – a place to learn and practice wrestling.

Students are provided training, with facilities for boarding and lodging. Here students are trained in various Indian martial arts.

“Women were not part of wrestling much in the villages but after Sakshi’s win the number increased drastically,” Bhushan Singh, a resident of the village told The Citizen.

However, now there is a lot of resentment among the villagers against both the Central and State government in how they have handled the current situation. The villagers believe it is humiliating for the wrestlers who have put their sweat and blood, in taking India’s name to international glory, to be treated this way.

Sitting in the choupal is Malik’s uncle Brijpal who said he is disappointed with the government. “Under this government there are different rules for the rich and the poor. If there was anyone else besides Brij Bhushan who was accused, he would have been in jail at the moment. He is rich and powerful is the reason he is not arrested as of now,” he told The Citizen.

The villagers also said that the environment in the village has not been good since the wrestlers’ protest started. “We are upset and angry with what is happening. I am a family member so I won’t be able to share the details. But the villagers are very angry too. We are attending panchayats wherever we can and will be supporting our daughters till the end,” Brijpal added.

Meanwhile, he also said that pressure is being built on wrestlers, to malign the whole movement. “The minor’s father had to change statements because they were put under so much pressure. Things are not easy for anyone,” Brijpal further said.

With so much developments going on with the wrestlers, the village people seem to be upset with the media as well. Rumours about rifts between wrestlers to a caste agenda behind the protest are some things that villagers pointed out was upsetting to them. Villagers alleged that by calling it just a “Jaat movement” a rift is being created by the government and media together.

Jilesh Singh, who belongs to the Dalit community of the village, said that the caste angle is being forced by the media. “I am a labourer but when the farmers' protest started, we were the first ones to protest. We shut the tolls here ourselves and sat down for days. There is no casteism here. These daughters sitting on protest are our children,” the 65-year-old said.

Speaking to The Citizen, Rajwanti, a resident at the village said that Mokhra village is known for two things – farming and wrestling.

“Both girls and boys start training early on in akhadas. While Sakshi’s win did influence a lot in bringing more girls to the sport, our village has always seen girls taking up wrestling,” she said.

Further stating that the accused should get the punishment they deserve, Rajwanti pointed out that there is so much anger amongst them that they would punish the accused themselves if he came in front of them. Besides anger there is also fear among the families who are now afraid what will happen if their daughters go through this.

“This has put some fear in us as parents. I also have daughters, so to imagine them going through this is giving us anxiety. But if the accused is punished, we will feel assured that there is space for justice and we can trust our daughters to be safe,” she added.

Rajwanti along with other women had also visited Jantar Mantar when the wrestlers were sitting there. Some women were also arrested when the wrestlers had taken out a march last month.

While wrestlers are conducting panchayats all over Haryana, discussion on sexual harassment in niche villagers has started post the protest. Many villagers were open in talking about how sexual harassment is a big issue that needs to be handled.

In this case, for example, it is imperative to arrest Brij Bhushan.

“Women go through sexual harassment everywhere and one thing that changed with this protest was how openly things are getting discussed on this issue,” Rajwanti added.

However, even though the villagers are ready to go to any extent for getting justice, they believe the government like other times is not going to arrest Brij Bhushan and have no expectations as of now.

Sandeep, a resident of the village, who is also an active member of the farmers union said, “We do not think that he will be arrested. Plus, the media is also playing games and steering issues to malign the movement. The wrestlers are only demanding justice and respect that they deserve.”

Talking about sexual harassment he said that wresters are being victim shamed and being asked why they did not come forward early. “I just want to understand that these wrestlers who won medals for our country had told the administration about what was happening and yet no investigation took place,” he said.

Sandeep, however, believes that the issue will pave way for the future generation when it comes to sexual harassment. “We will see a change in the future when it comes to sexual harassment.

Right now, there is an environment of fear. But the accused getting arrested might change that and this is what we need,” he said.

While big movements like #MeToo gathered momentum in various sectors/industries, however it only catered towards a certain section, which resided in urban scenarios. However, the wrestlers protest, many feel, can be called the rural #metoo of India.

Although, the discussion sometimes steered on different issues, which villagers feel is media’s fault, this is one step towards a bigger movement on sexual harassment in rural India. However, for many poor women, coming out and talking about sexual harassment is still a taboo.

In Haryana, women are still killed over dowry and female foeticide continues in some parts of the country but many feel things are changing little by little if not on a major level.

“Girls are more educated now and they understand what a good and bad touch means. The accused if touches a woman with bad intention both he and the victim will know about it. The environment of wrestling was so hostile for these women who were sitting in protest. And despite saying this openly, the government has done nothing,” Sandeep added.

A village where wrestling is considered sacred, many said that both young boys and girls start training early and go through a lot of training to reach national and international levels.

“It takes a lot of effort to become a wrestler. It is the family and the village who helps one become a wrestler. Their efforts and hard work go into it. That’s how a wrestler is established,” Sandeep added.

Mokhra village has seen more women winning international medals after Malik and many are under training on becoming professionals.

At the village where a small government run akhada stands, many young boys and a few young girls can be seen practising. With the evening sun about to go down, the young athletes are at it.

The children ageing from as young as nine years old, are a part of the training. Their day starts at 4 am for practice, after which they go to school. They come again for more practice in the evening.

Located in the village premises, the akhada is a sacred place for wrestlers, many who have already played on district and national level.

With the fear of their identity being revealed that might also affect their career, the coach at the akhada did not allow the reporters to record the women there. The young women were also kept away from negative news about the wrestlers' protest, so as to not bring their morale down.

Speaking to The Citizen, the coach at the akhada, Madhya Pehelwan, is a man in his late 60s who himself was a wrestler, said that they train young girls and boys wrestling and polish their skills. Sitting while watching over the practice of the young players, Madhya shared the history of the akhada.

“This akhada was established in the 1970s, and I have been running it since then. This akhada has made many national and international level players. Anyone can join the akhada and they are allowed to stay and learn here for free. Everything we teach these kids is for free,” he said.

He further said that not a single rupee is taken from anyone to use the space and their trainees are often joined by children from other villages as well.

There were at least 10 young girls practising when The Citizen reached the spot. Immersed in practice the fragile looking girls had more power than an average person. Both young boys and girls are training vigorously.

This, the coach told us, is an everyday event, wherein he overlooks their practice. “From this akhada, 30 to 35 athletes have played internationally. These kids start from small akhadas like this and keep moving forward with practice,” he added, saying that becoming a wrestler is not just an individual task and involves the efforts of coaches, family and others.

On talking about the recent wrestlers’ protest and whether the girls are made aware of such things as they also might go through it in the future, the coach said that both girls and boys are given training on restraint and talks about it.

“We tell boys to refrain from doing anything and stay away from girls by following brahmacharya (the practice of sexual chastity) and tell girls that they have to also follow rules and not get swayed into sinful things. Both are given adequate training,” he added.

However, there is little discussion on sexual harassment and what they should do if they go through something like this. While the young boys and girls live in the safety of the village elders during initial days, it is when travelling for national or international games the children become vulnerable.

Meanwhile, on Saturday a panchayat was called in Haryana’s Sonipat by the wrestlers to decide what the next step is going to be. The Citizen attended the panchayat with civil societies also being a part of it.

There was visible anger towards the government by the panchayat members that also included khaps from Uttar Pradesh and Punjab as well.

Mokhra’s Pradhan, or village head, Ram Radhan said that more than 100 khaps had attended the meeting, which was called by the wrestlers.

“We have decided that we will keep supporting the wrestlers till the government is forced to arrest Brij Bhushan. We will only talk to the government after he is arrested. They have asked for some time and after that we will take action accordingly,” he told The Citizen after the panchayat.

He also revealed that as Delhi Police has been asked to file the chargesheet by June 15, they will start protesting again from 16 or 17 June. “This was decided by us, khaps, and farmer unions who were also part of the panchayat,” he said.

The Pradhan said that there is resentment towards what has happened till now. “If Brij Bhushan is not arrested till 15th then we do not know what will happen in the country. Things might go out of hand,” he added.

He also said that during the meeting with Sports Minister Anurag Thakur on June 7, demand to take back complaints against the wrestlers was also raised, which they have been assured about.

The panchayat was also attended by Malik and Bajrang Punia, who told the khaps about what conversations they had with the government.

The villagers have also decided to wait patiently till 15th and act according to what the khaps decide. “We will follow whatever is decided. Even if it means we have to put our lives online, we will do that,” Brijpal added.

Meanwhile, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) on Monday appointed former Jammu and Kashmir High Court Chief Justice Mahesh Mittal Kumar as the returning officer to conduct the impending Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) elections on July 4.

Thakur, after his meeting with protesting wrestlers, had said that WFI elections will be conducted by June 30 but it was clear that this deadline will be difficult to follow because a 21-day notice is required to call the Special General Meeting (SGM) of the WFI.

The elections can be conducted either at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) or SGM.

Thakur had assured the wrestlers that the government will not allow any of the family members or associates of outgoing WFI chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh to contest elections, following which the wrestlers had halted their stir till June 15.

The IOA CEO, Kalyan Chaubey, communicated Justice Mittal Kumar about his appointment and sought his acceptance for the role. “IOA has to take steps forward to conduct elections of the WFI Executive Committee and we are pleased to appoint you as a returning officer to conduct the elections of the WFI. You may consider appointing one assistant returning officer and other staff to assist in conducting the elections," Chaubey wrote in the letter.

"Elections are required to be conducted in the SGM of the WFI called on 4th July and the schedule of the election will be required to be drawn accordingly. We look forward to your confirmation of acceptance and also smooth conduct of elections of the WFI on July 4," he added.

The WFI has 25 affiliated units, including union territories Chandigarh and Delhi. Each state unit can send two representatives and each representative shall have one vote. So, the electoral college for the WFI elections will consist of 50 votes.

The state units can nominate only those representatives who are members of their executive bodies, according to the WFI Constitution.

All Photographs NIKITA JAIN