Wrestlers Placated, But BJP Still On Shaky Ground
International pressure mounts
The issue around the wrestlers’ protest can be compared to a dormant volcano, quiet at the mouth and active beneath. The last few days have seen many efforts being made by the government to salvage the situation and save face.
In the process the same dirty tricks that were witnessed during the farmers’ agitation, are being resorted to by the embedded media.
No matter where things go from here, in terms of perception among the people on the ground, the cat is out of the bag and it will remain Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP') Achilles Heel in the run up to the forthcoming polls.
On Wednesday evening there were reports of the government having assured the wrestlers that the police investigation will be completed before June 15. This assurance reportedly came after a marathon meeting with the sports minister Anurag Thakur.
Wrestler Bajrang Punia was quoted as saying, “We have requested that all FIRs against the wrestlers should be taken back and he has agreed to it. If no action is taken by June 15, we will continue our protest.”
Similarly Thakur was quoted saying, “I had a long six hour discussion with the wrestlers. We have assured wrestlers that the probe will be completed by June 15 and charge sheets will be submitted. The election of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) will be done by June 30.”
But the big question remains on the provision of instant arrest under the Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act that is nowhere to be seen.
Before this the wrestlers had met Union Home Minister Amit Shah as well some days back. Lawyer and politician Kapil Sibal had posted an interesting tweet on the meeting saying, “Amit Shah Meets team of wrestlers Wrestling for solutions. My prediction: No arrest Wishy washy charge sheet will be filed Brij Bhushan will be granted bail Then they will say matter is sub-judice !”
Thereafter came the attempts at creating confusion among the people on the status of the things. First there were reports of the wrestlers joining their official duties on which the embedded media went to town trying to portray it as withdrawal of the protest.
The wrestlers had to take to social media to denounce what was being spread.
There have also been reports of the minor complainant having withdrawn the complaint against the accused Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, and also about her father denying the same.
In this context there is already a contention of legal experts on whether a complaint under POCSO Act can be withdrawn and quashed in the court that easily.
At the same time observers say that the entire effort is to convey that the whole case under POCSO is ‘farcical and fraud’. If this dive is successful then it obviously casts a reflection on the entire matter.
Meanwhile, many are pointing out all this is nothing but attempts to create confusion among the minds of the people. These reports and counter rebuttals have followed a slander campaign against the wrestlers seeking justice that is still going on.
But the people have learnt to counter such dirty tricks played by the embedded media playing subservient to political and corporate masters.
The moment there were reports about the wrestlers joining their duties and withdrawing their agitation, farmer groups launched a social media drive asking the common people not to fall into the trap of the rumours being spread.
This was a strategy used by the farmers to counter the canard being spread during the farmers’ agitation. The messages accused the embedded media and the foot soldiers of right wing groups trying to paint the wrestlers black of ‘cowardly actions against the wrestlers' struggle’.
A message on behalf of Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Dakaunda) appealed to the people to continue supporting the struggle of the wrestlers while being aware of the rumours being spread.
“We declare that all your conspiracies and the terror of the police boots marching towards the wrestlers will not deter their courage.
We will surely win and continue the fight,” said the message posted on behalf of the organisation’s president Manjit Singh Dhaner.
On Wednesday, the Samyukta Kisan Mocha (SKM) which is the umbrella organization of farmer associations across the country held a meeting where the wrestlers’ fight for justice against sexual harassment was one of the core issues that were discussed.
The SKM has come out saying that it will continue extending support to the protesting women wrestlers. It has condemned the BJP led union government for ‘deferring the arrest of sexual harassment accused BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh’.
It said in a statement, “The SKM has taken note of the evolving developments with regard to the protest by women wrestlers of India against Brij Bhushan who is accused of heinous offences of sexual harassment of multiple women including a minor.
“The SKM shall continue to extend support to the protestors and once again condemns the BJP union government for shielding the perpetrator of crimes against women. The SKM demands that Brij Bhushan be arrested immediately.”
Meanwhile, the sources on the ground say that the anger continues to simmer among the people who are keeping a watch on the steps being resorted to by the powers that be. The civil society, youth and farmer organisations in Punjab are keeping a close watch on the developments and are ready to take the battle forward.
In Haryana protests and panchayats are continuing at various places and the issue of the alleged sexual harassment of the wrestlers dominates the public narrative. The state had witnessed widespread large scale demonstrations on the issue on June 5.
Sources disclosed that it was perhaps for the first time that effigies were burnt across the villages by the people to express anger.
On June 5 there was also a protest in Shimla in Himachal Pradesh where the participants condemned the statements allegedly made by Brij Bhushan for amendment of POSCO Act and protection of the sexual harassment accused by the Narendra Modi led government at the Centre.
“For 40 days, many of India's top wrestlers have been protesting against sexual harassment after the government went back on its promise of a fair and transparent investigation. It was only after the intervention of the Supreme Court, that FIRs were registered against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh—under Section 10 of the POCSO Act and Section 354A of the POSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment) Act.
“Yet, contrary to norms under the POCSO Act, no arrests have been made till date. Instead, the government tried to hush up the matter and declare the protests illegal,” the protestors said in a statement.
They also pointed at a ‘sustained campaign’ in the news media and social media against the POCSO Act.
“The POCSO Act protects minor children from sexual exploitation. Since the conviction rate in cases of sexual abuse of minor children is extremely low, the POSCO Act has been made cognate and non-bailable.
“Arrest is preferential in cases under this Act, Amendment in POCSO Act will leave lakhs of daughters of the country to be sexually exploited by ruffians like Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.
“The Modi government's protection of sexual assault accused Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, and the ongoing campaign against the POSCO Act, exposes the government's ‘Beti Bachao’ hypocrisy. The SKM will not tolerate this heinous attack against the daughters of the country,” said a statement by the SKM’s Himachal Pradesh unit.
Various organisations are well aware of the attempts, both ‘overt and covert’ being made by the authorities to diffuse the situation. There is a point of view that the government would want to resolve the matter before Modi leaves for his visit to the United States of America later this month.
Despite the embedded media playing ball, the government has got negative publicity on the matter in the international media.
The general perception now is that even if the authorities manage to diffuse the situation, the wrestlers’ issue will definitely be a part of the political narrative of the opposition parties in the run up to the assembly polls later this year and the Lok Sabha polls scheduled to be held next year.
“The issue is alive,” pointed out observers who also said that it will remain a key political matter in Haryana in particular since it is the home state of the wrestlers. The opposition will continue to hit out at the ruling BJP under Manohar Lal Khattar that has an alliance with the Dushyant Chautala led Jannayak Janata Party (JJP).
“This is not going to die down. The BJP is desperate in defending the indefensible. It will continue to face attacks on the issue on only in Haryana but in other states as well. No matter whatever charge sheets are filed on the matter, the people are not going to believe it.
“The key question being discussed by the people right now is that why is the BJP defending Brij Bhushan,” pointed out Inderjeet Singh, an All India Kisan Sabha leader based in Hisar.
Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) leader Abhay Singh Chautala has been constantly speaking on the issue during his ongoing Haryana Parivartan Yatra.
Similarly Congress leader Deepender Hooda is also keeping the heat on the matter. He raised it during a daylong dharna by his party workers in Hisar on Wednesday.
“The people are just waiting and watching. Ideally the High Court or the Supreme Court should take a suo motu cognisance of the developments, particularly in context of the provisions of the POCSO Act.
“Everyone is aware of the affluence and influence of the accused in the matter and how efforts are being made to take the things towards a different direction,” said Kavita Vidrohi, a Kurukshetra based lawyer and activist affiliated with Jan Sangharsh Manch Haryana.
Meanwhile, several women and human rights organizations issued a statement on Tuesday condemning the ‘state repression and police atrocities’ on the wrestlers in their struggle for justice against sexual harassment.
Condemning the subversion of the law, by keeping the erstwhile president of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh out of police custody, despite being an accused of sexual harassment by women wrestlers, including a minor, they said, “It is well known that the powerful and well connected, including members of the legislature and godmen, can manipulate the law through various tactics including intimidating witnesses.
“In cases of sexual harassment and assault, the complainants are often forced to change their statements. The pressure is so high that the families succumb, and the accused manage to walk away unscathed.”
The statement further said, “In the case of the wrestlers, the father of the minor had explicitly stated in the Supreme Court that Brij Bhushan Singh was powerful and had requested protection. He feared that there would be intimidation and pressure.
“The minor, who is the main witness in the FIR 0077/ 2023 filed at police station Connaught Place, u/s 354, 354 (A), 354 (D)/ 34 of the Indian Penal Code and the POCSO Act had also given a statement under oath to a magistrate in May 2023.
“In POCSO there is a presumption that the offence has been committed, especially after a statement in front of a magistrate. Therefore, an arrest is imperative. Since the primary witnesses are minors, they are vulnerable to pressure.
“Despite these factors, the accused Brij Bhushan Singh enjoyed absolute impunity and was not arrested. The consequence of not making an immediate arrest has been that five weeks after the FIR was lodged, it is alleged that on the 2nd of June, a second statement was given by the minor to the magistrate contradicting her original statement.
“We are very clear that it is for a court of law to independently monitor the investigation and come to a just conclusion. However, we would like to state that this country has no witness protection programme and once again the criminal justice system has failed our women struggling for justice.”
They have sought that in the meanwhile, the Delhi Police must continue the investigation in a fair and just manner and immediately arrest Brij Bhushan Singh and file strong charge sheets.
While demanding action against the Delhi Police for the brutal violence unleashed on the wrestlers on May 28, 2023, breaking their protest with excessive force, detaining the wrestlers and evicting them from Jantar Mantar, they have sought an immediate closure of the FIR filed against the wrestlers.
“It is unfortunate that the State, instead of helping the wrestlers who have won many laurels for India, is traumatising them physically and emotionally, including in selection for forthcoming sporting events and the threat related to their jobs in the Indian Railways.
“It is a moment of deep anguish that despite the last five decades of jurisprudence to strengthen the law against sexual violence and enable that complainants can fight for justice, the developments in the wrestler’s case shows us how pervasive the culture of impunity is deeply embedded and reinforced by the BJP.
“We express our outrage and condemn the support that the accused Brij Bhushan Singh has from the BJP that he will be allowed to address forthcoming BJP rallies in Kaiserganj and other cities in Uttar Pradesh.
“Such public glorification and legitimacy should be stopped now as it would be disastrous and demotivate women fighting rape and sexual violence all over the country,” the document further read.
It needs to be pointed out that the wrestlers’ issue stands dovetailed with the farmers’ struggle that is continuing despite the Centre having been compelled to withdraw the three controversial farm laws. The issue is now being discussed in meetings on agrarian issues that are constantly being organised in the hinterland of Punjab and Haryana.
In a latest development wrestler Sakshee Malik has come out in support of the farmers who were subjected to a lathicharge in Shahbad on Tuesday. The farmers had reportedly blocked the Delhi-Chandigarh highway seeking minimum support price (MSP) for their sunflower produce.
Malik came out tweeting, “The farmers only asked for MSP for their crops. But the cruel system gave them lathis and arrests. We condemn the arrest of farmer leader Gurnam Singh Chadhuni, he should be released soon.”
The SKM has stated, “The farmers were protesting about not receiving MSP for sunflower seed crop and instead of resolving their just demand, the BJP government lathi charged the farmers, injuring scores of persons and arrested more than 30 farmers and their leaders.
“SKM warns the Haryana government to immediately stop this repression, release all arrested persons, withdraw all false cases, pay compensation to all injured protestors and ensure all farmers get MSP for sunflower seeds, immediately, failing which the SKM shall launch a larger struggle till all demands are met.”
After the lathicharge, Malik had come out saying that Police Stations and jails are useless in the face of growing numbers of people.
Meanwhile, Switzerland-based Sport & Rights Alliance has asked The International Olympic Committee (IOC) to “immediately act to ensure reports of alleged sexual abuse of athletes by the president of the Wrestling Federation of India, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, are investigated fully.”
The Sport & Rights Alliance issued a statement and recalled that on May 30, 2023, the IOC called for an “unbiased, criminal investigation in line with local law”. However the Alliance put on record that “the Indian authorities have been reluctant to act, only initiating a police investigation after the complainants filed a petition in the Supreme Court. Six women and a child have filed complaints of sexual abuse with the police against Singh, a prominent member of parliament from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Singh denies the allegations, and made derogatory remarks against the complainants.
The statement further added that while the , “Indian officials might stoutly claim to defend the rights of women and girls, but when it has been put to test by the country’s foremost athletes, the authorities have resorted to victim blaming and shaming.”
Issued by Joanna Maranhão, network coordinator of the Sport & Rights Alliance, the statement added, “It takes a lot of courage to break the silence and disclose a case of sexual abuse. We stand with the athletes and encourage the IOC to protect them, especially in this deeply power-imbalanced situation. Their wellbeing should be the top priority.”
The IOC should call on the Indian government to inform it of progress in the investigation, and to ensure that it is credible and timebound, the alliance has said.
It recalled that “Indian authorities have forcibly tackled and detained athletes, including two Olympic wrestlers, when they attempted to march to the inauguration of a new parliament building by the prime minister that Singh was attending. They were later released. However, the authorities disbanded their month-long protest site on May 28.
“India’s 2013 Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, popularly known as the POSH Act, provides protection to all workers in the public and private sectors including health, sports, education, or government institutions. The 2012 Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) forbids all forms of child sexual abuse. Singh, who is also accused under the POCSO Act, has said that the law is being “misused,” and vowed to “force the government to change it.
“At least 30 top Indian wrestlers, both men and women, first protested on January 18, saying that Singh, as well as some coaches, had been sexually abusing athletes. The protests were led by Olympic medal-winning wrestlers Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik, and two-time World Championship medalist Vinesh Phogat.”
It quoted Phogat, who said “ ‘I started thinking about my brother’s [9-year-old] daughter who has started wrestling,’ Phogat told Al Jazeera at a sit-in in the Indian capital, New Delhi – explaining the “trigger point” that made her decide to speak out about the sexual abuse and harassment of wrestlers in India.
“The wrestlers called off the protest after they were promised an independent inquiry and that Singh would step aside until the investigation was completed.
“The committee has submitted its report, but it has not been made public. Government officials said that the committee had found that Wrestling Federation of India did not have an internal complaints committee mandated by the POSH Act, and failed to take further action against Singh.
“The Indian Olympic Association (IOA) is neither independent nor a credible body to carry out an investigation, the Sport & Rights Alliance said. The IOA initially accused the protesting wrestlers of tarnishing India’s image, although its president, Olympic winner PT Usha, later met with the group and pledged support. The athletes resumed their protest after the authorities failed to act, demanding that Singh be arrested.”
“In the face of a faltering Indian justice process, the IOC should publicly call on the BJP government to stop suppressing protesters to protect its party member, the Wrestling Federation of India president,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “The IOC has made safeguarding athletes a priority and it should use its leverage and stand with athletes seeking to protect children from abuse in sport.”
“The IOC should prioritise the safety and freedom of all athletes, as set out in its own IOC Strategic Framework on Human Rights. Given the inaction of political bodies in India over recent months, the IOC should press the Indian government to ensure that the authorities listen to Indian wrestlers and others affected though a transparent, independent, and impartial investigation into the sexual assault allegations.”
The organisation demanded that the “internal investigation should be led by a group of experts with a proven track record in safeguarding and trauma-informed investigations, and with the capacity to actively participate in all matters regarding the process, including to suggest corrections and file complaints, among other functions.”
It added that “India has made no secret of its national ambitions to host a Summer Olympic Games for the first time. In October, India will host the 140th IOC session in Mumbai, which IOC member Nita Ambani has described as a “first step” toward the realisation of a planned 2036 bid. In 2030, India will host the Summer Youth Olympics in Mumbai.
“India’s sports minister, Anurag Thakur, says that “it is the right time” for India to host the Olympic Games. The Home Minister, Amit Shah, met with the protesters on June 3. The protesters have since returned to work but have vowed to continue their campaign. The government should now urgently act to address this case and the IOC should ensure that any bid from India is contingent on significant human rights improvements, not least for safety and freedom of the country’s own athletes”.
“Indian wrestlers coming forward with allegations of sexual abuse, especially against such a powerful figure, is incredibly brave, difficult, and fraught with personal risk,” said Julie Ann Rivers-Cochran, executive director of The Army of Survivors, a survivor-founded organization formed after the Olympic system’s failure to deal with sexual abuse. “These athletes should be supported and protected, and their courageous demands for justice and safety should be met.”