Be it a democracy, or a quasi-dictatorship disguised as a democracy, a few, rare and precious moments often stand out as deeply stirring. In their deep emotional, social and political significance, they become at once historical landmarks, etching their memories into the fading pages of human consciousness. India witnessed two such incidents recently, both in the heart of the national Capital.

Ironically, also predictably, these moments were not enacted as a public pronouncement by our cricket or Bollywood celebrities. They were done by two dogged, resilient and stoic wrestlers from Haryana, both Olympic medalists and world champions.

One was Sakshi Malik, still so young, with many more years of great international achievements waiting for her, who quit the sport, placing her blue shoes on top of a table at the Press Club of India in Delhi. As tears flowed from her eyes like a stream of infinite suffering, shared by her colleague, another world champion, Vinesh Phogat, the blue shoes will always remind the nation-state of its failed promises to the girls and women of this land.

They will be a reminder of the betrayals, humiliation, harassment, and the brutal manner in which their peaceful and protracted struggle on the streets of Delhi has been crushed .

“We slept for 40 days on the road and a lot of people from several parts of the country came to support us. If Brij Bhushan Singh's business partner and a close aide is elected as the president of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), I quit wrestling…” Malik said at the press conference.

“Whatever awards I have won for the country, I have won with your blessings, I will always be grateful to all you countrymen. Goodbye to wrestling," she posted on X.

Predictably, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ‘bahubali’ from Eastern UP, bloated with arrogance and loaded with garlands, flashed a ‘V’ sign, while a close family member announced to the world: “Dabdaba hain… Dabdaba rahega (We have the clout, and the clout will continue).”

It sent an openly sinister and diabolical message to the women of India, including hard working, talented and brilliant girls aspiring to achieve difficult goals. It also tells all concerned that a man accused by several women wrestlers, with evidence (also, by a minor who retracted her statement, reportedly due to threats), of repeated cases of sexual harassment, hounding and violation of bodily dignity, can still call the shots, and he does not stand for public decency, or the basic principles of justice and fair play.

The other historic moment happened at Delhi’s Rajpath (renamed, in a dark irony, as Kartavya Path, by the current government). Wrestling champion Bajrang Punia, who has been a consistent comrade all through Sakshi Malik, Vinesh and Sangeeta Phogat’s peaceful struggle, walked to the Prime Minister’s house holding a letter and a little box.

The box carried his Padma Shri, the fourth highest award given to a citizen of the country for outstanding achievements. He wanted to meet the Prime Minister or go to his office to submit his letter, and return the award in protest. The cops stopped him.

"No, I don't have any permission. If you can please forward this letter to the PM, because I can't go inside. I am not protesting nor being aggressive,” Punia told the police. In a cinematic moment, he, quietly, bent down on the road. And left the little box with the national award on the street! He walked back, in silence, his dignity and pride intact.

“When the women wrestlers are not given due respect, I do not deserve this honour either. We were on the road for 40 days, but the promises made by the government have not been fulfilled. Our fight is not against the government, but against an individual. I believe in the judiciary, but, with what is happening, I can't keep faith in the system," Punia told the media.

Bajrang Punia said: "You must be aware that the women wrestlers of the country started a protest in January this year against Brij Bhushan Singh accusing him of sexual harassment. I too joined their protest. The protest stopped after the government promised strong action…

“But there was no FIR against Brij Bhushan even after three months. We again took to the streets in April so that the police (would) at least file an FIR against him. There were 19 complainants in January, but the number came down to seven by April. This means, Brij Bhushan exerted his influence on 12 women wrestlers."

It was widely reported that the Union Minister of Sports, Anurag Thakur, had then promised that the WFI will not elect the bahubali’s men, give proper representation to women, and implement the demands of the women wrestlers. In the current dispensation, Bhushan’s close aide, Sanjay Singh, was elected the new president, and there was not a single women member in this controversial federation.

According to reports, till now, the federation was being run from the residence of Brij Bhushan Singh, who is a BJP Member of Parliament. The victory celebrations happened in full public glare at his residence.

This is also the spot where the police have reportedly collected evidence and testimony of a wrestler who has accused the MP of sexual harassment. The case is still in the court. Singh has neither been arrested, nor has he been suspended from the BJP, and remains an honourable MP.

The latest twist in the tale is that the wrestling junior nationals are being held in Singh’s political turf, thereby creating another controversy. This was the first announcement by the newly elected WFI. "I have given up wrestling, but I have been worried since last night. What should I do about those junior women wrestlers who are calling me and telling me that the junior nationals are going to be held from December 28 and the new wrestling federation has decided to hold it in Nandani Nagar… Gonda…

“Gonda is the area of Brij Bhushan. Now, imagine in what environment the junior women wrestlers will go there to wrestle? Is there no place in this country to play nationals anywhere other than Nandani Nagar? I don't know what to do…,” Malik said.

Anita Sheoran raised this issue in an interview with the ‘Indian Express’. She is a Commonwealth gold medalist in wrestling for India and a big name in the sport. She was brave enough to fight the WFI elections against the powerful male lobby led by Bhushan, but lost. Sanjay Singh defeated her 40-7. The current Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh Mohan Yadav, contesting for the post of vice president, got only 5 votes. He lost. He did not even vote.

“Gonda and Nandini Nagar is not the right place to conduct nationals as it is Brij Bhushan’s area. We should hold nationals in a place, which is conducive for promotion of the sport. Why not conduct the nationals in Odisha where national championships have not been held? At least the sport will spread to new places. I have been to Gonda, and when a wrestling event is held, it is more like a political rally,” Sheoran said.

She continued: “Everytime I watch Sakshi’s video, my eyes fill with tears. To see an Olympic medalist retire like this is heart-breaking. Bajrang was preparing for the Olympics, but he fought a battle to ensure that women wrestlers remained safe. Same with Vinesh (Phogat).

“They raised the voice of women. But, what did they get today?.. Who will bring about change? I don’t think women wrestlers will be safe in wrestling. Women, including juniors, have been fearful for so many years… they could not even raise their voices. And now the voices of women wrestlers have been crushed again. If something bad happens to a woman wrestler today, they won’t have the courage to speak up…”

Meanwhile, on Sunday December 24, the sports ministry ‘suspended’ the newly-elected executive committee of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI). This is a direct fall-out of the controversy generated by the holding of the junior wrestling nationals in Gonda. The ministry has called the decision hasty and noted that the potential participants were not informed and the announcement was a contravention of the WFI's constitution.

“Shri Sanjay Kumar Singh, newly elected president of Wrestling Federation of India announced on 21.12.2023, the day he was elected as president, that U-15 and U-20 nationals for wrestling will take place in Nandini Nagar, Gonda (UP) before the end of this year. This announcement is hasty, without giving sufficient notice to wrestlers who are to take part in the said nationals and without following the provisions of the constitution of WFI,” the media reported the ministry’s statement.

The newly elected 15-member executive committee has two members who seemed to be aligned with the wrestlers, Prem Chand Lochab, joint secretary, and Devender Kadian, senior vice-president. Lochab was not invited to the committee's first meeting held on December 21.The decision to hold the nationals at Gonda was taken in this meeting.

"I don't have a problem with the nationals being held in Gonda. My problem is that no due process was followed. No notice was issued regarding this meeting and I, the joint secretary, was neither invited nor consulted," Lochab is reported to have said.

Meanwhile, Deaflympics Gold Medallist, Virender Singh, announced that he was returning his Padma Shree. He also asked cricket icon Sachin Tendulkar and javelin champion Neeraj Chopra to come out in support of the women wrestlers. "I will also return the Padma Shri for my sister and the country's daughter… But I would also request the top players of the country to give their decision," Virender Singh, also known as 'Goonga Pahalwan', said.

Vijender Singh, who is the first Indian boxer to win an Olympics medal, said, "The parents of the daughters would be concerned that if an Olympic medalist is not given justice, how will we get it? The PM, vice-president, and president, all should… answer why this happened... This raises a lot of questions on the justice system and the democratic structure”.

Earlier, several sports celebrities, including Olympic Gold medalist and shooter Abhinav Bindra and Niraj Chopra, tennis grand slam champion Sania Mirza, Virender Sehwag and Kapil Dev, among others, had come out in support of the women wrestlers. The entire victorious team of the Cricket World Cup led by Kapil Dev came out in support of the wrestlers, except for Roger Binny, who is the current chief of the BCCI.

They were also responding to the police violence unleashed on the women wrestlers on the streets of Delhi while they were protesting peacefully on the day the new Parliament was being inaugurated. They were dragged, manhandled and detained, while Brij Bhushan sat inside the new building.

The world cup winners had then said in a statement: “We are distressed and disturbed at the unseemly visuals of our champion wrestlers being manhandled. We are also most concerned that they are thinking of dumping their hard-earned medals into river Ganga.

“Those medals have involved years of effort, sacrifice, determination and grit and are not only their own but the nation's pride and joy. We urge them not to take any hasty decision in this matter and also fervently hope that their grievances are heard and resolved quickly. Let the law of the land prevail."

Cover Photograph: Sheer joy - Sakshi Malik wins laurels for India just over a year ago.