Much as the powers that be would want to suppress it, the issue of women wrestlers protesting at Jantar Mantar in the national capital is raging in the minds of the common people. There are protests being held at various places across the states with Punjab and Haryana being the most vocal.

Indications from the ground are pointing towards the public anger evolving into yet another major people’s movement on the lines of the farmers’ protest.

While the demand of the women wrestlers on the arrest of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh who is the president of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) on charges of sexual exploitation, have been reported at length it is important to understand that it is not an issue pertaining to sports alone.

On the social economic turf of states like Punjab and Haryana people have been ‘investing’ in encouraging girls to pursue sports despite traditional conservatism and feudal mindsets still prevailing in certain parts. Thus this issue takes a different dimension.

There is a lot of anger among women in particular who feel that the attitude of the government is a big setback to their aspirations and empowerment. It needs to be pointed out here that women have been active and at times dominant among the protests being held at various places.

It is also a fact that sports are seen as a means for economic empowerment as well. The goal often being getting a coveted government job. In several cases it is this economic aspect that has been overriding all other concerns.

At the same time, thanks to the high public awareness that came about during the farmers’ movement against the three controversial Farm Acts, that were subsequently withdrawn by the central government, the people are not buying the narratives being spun by the right wing apologists trying to give a caste and regional colours to the wrestlers’ issue.

The Citizen reached out to a cross section of the people in these two states to understand the sentiment prevailing in the context of women sportspersons, and how they have become role models for women in general. The developments around the wrestlers’ protest have generated a lot of anger in the hinterland.

Kurukshetra based Dr Reicha Tanwar who is an expert on women’s issues pointed out, “For the last almost two decades there has been a very interesting phenomenon at work in Haryana. Even in the parts that have the reputation of being highly conservative a lot many sports women have emerged.

“And these are in sports like wrestling, weightlifting etc. These women have brought recognition not only to themselves but also to their villages and towns. For example Shahbad has given multiple hockey players to the women national hockey team.

“It is a well known fact that the women in the state are strong, hard working and have a good physique that is required for sports. They do all the hard labour in the fields. There are two factors that have led women to sports.

“One of course is recognition and the other is the prospect of a job. The latter has ensured that parents, even husbands and in-laws have not been shying away from sending the girls to coaching institutes and even sports hostels. These girls and women have complete support of their families.”

She said the serious issues that are being raised by the sports persons should be resolved at the right platform following the right procedures.

In Haryana, the people’s anger is not only on account of the issues being raised during the ongoing protest at Jantar Mantar. They see it as an extension of the issue pertaining to the allegations levelled against the state’s former sports minister Sandeep Singh by a woman coach last year.

There were protests in the state at that time that saw registration of a case against him in Chandigarh and his quitting as the sports minister while retaining another portfolio. The ongoing protests at Delhi have brought the matter pertaining to him back in the public domain. The protests in Chandigarh had not caught national attention that time.

Sandeep has denied all the allegations against him and has reportedly said no to a lie detector or polygraph test.

Sources on the ground say that the entire sports fraternity is seething in anger but is scared to speak out fearing de-recognition or their affiliations being cancelled that would have a direct bearing on their future.

There have been reports of Haryana Amateur Wrestling Association suspending secretaries of three affiliated district units for their alleged involvement in the ongoing protests in Delhi.

Some pertinent points were raised by lawyer Kavita Vidrohi who is a social activist with Jan Sangharsh Manch Haryana. “The entire attitude of the governments whether that of the state government led by Manohar Lal Khattar on the Sandeep Singh episode or the central government on allegations against Brij Bhushan comes as a big shock and carries a potential to push back the women’s fight for empowerment.

“After all, what is the purpose of bringing about strong laws like the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, if politicians are to be kept immune from them? If such allegations are coming from players of national and international repute, imagine how vulnerable are those who are competing at local levels. It is with great difficulty that women are coming out to excel in sports in a society where feudal mindsets still prevail.”

She also pointed out that there are all out efforts being made by the rank apologists of the right wing to give a caste colour to the entire issue, on the lines of what had happened in the aftermath of the reservation of Jat reservation stir of 2016 where the remaining 35 communities of Haryana were pitted against the Jats.

“The same campaign is being repeated but they have not succeeded this time because players from all castes have spoken out in support of the wrestlers. Jats may be dominant in wrestling but women from all castes and communities have made a mark in different games including hockey and athletics.

“That is why the whole issue is gradually moving towards becoming a large movement,” she added.

Some pertinent points were made by the former Indian Hockey captain, olympian and present Congress leader Pargat Singh who has openly come out in support of the wrestlers.

“No one will come out in the streets unless one was seriously piqued and harassed to the brim,” Pargat Singh said. He called out all those sportsmen and women who went through similar situations but were now sitting mute spectators.

“It is a very serious matter. A sports person knows how hard it is to come up to national and international level.

“And if such exploitation of athletes takes place at the highest level, it is even beyond holding one’s head in shame and remaining a part of the sports administration,” he added.

Pargat Singh further said, “ The agitating wrestlers are not creating indiscipline but are out to cleanse the Indian sports of its dirt and filth. They are fighting a greater battle for neat and clean sports with dignity for all.”

Meanwhile, the Jan Sangharsh Manch Haryana had organised a protest at Thanesar in Kurukshetra last Saturday.

“The attitude of both the Haryana and the central governments comes out as insensitive and points out towards protecting the perpetrators of violence instead of the victim. We salute the women wrestlers for speaking out on what they were being subjected to.

“One needs to understand that it takes a lot of guts to speak out about such humiliations and assaults in public particularly when you come from the rural hinterland in states like Haryana where everything from education to winning a medal is a very big achievement for a girl.

“The delay in action brings back the fears and uncertainties in the minds of the people who have encouraged their daughters to take up sports as a hobby as well as a vocation. It amounts to raising blocks in the path of women’s development and empowerment,” pointed out Harjinder Kaur who resides in a village close to Kurukshetra.

Aman Deol who lives in Bhawanigarh in neighbouring Punjab and works with Istri Jagriti Manch explained further, “It needs to be understood that the women have managed to create a space for themselves after overcoming so many challenges. Now there is an effort to neglect and usurp that space.

“The episode of the concerns being raised by the wrestlers and the Court having to direct registration of a case needs to be seen as an extension of the release of convicts in the Bilkis Bano case and what happened in Hathras earlier. The girls who go into sports are bold.

“But their future is linked to coaches and federations like the future of research students and their guides. What has come out brings to the fore the vulnerabilities in both the spheres.”

She added, “These players who are celebrities have been made to feel vulnerable like common women as they face gender discrimination on the lines of what common women have to. Their whole protection that comes with celebrity status stands shattered.”

She explained that there is a lot of anger among common women in the villages of Punjab who are agitated at the attitude of the government that amounts to protecting the perpetrators. “They feel the need to organise and speak out. This issue has the potential to become larger women’s as well as a social movement,” Deol added.

Dr Tanwar also pointed to the sad reality of continuing sexual harassment at work places and feels that sports is no exception. “It can happen to women at all the work places whether it is sports, education, research etc,” she said.

“The people are eager to go to Delhi to express their support to the agitating wrestlers. The common sentiment is that girls are emerging from very difficult situations to take up sports. Their parents invest a lot on their education, sports and jobs. They cannot be treated in such a manner,” underlined Sukhvinder Singh of Lok Morcha Punjab that had organised a massive protest in Bathinda and Muktsar in the last few days.

These protests are being organised at multiple levels. There are farmers’ organisations, women’s organisations, university students, student outfits, and organisations, representing people from different walks of life that are coming out in support of the women wrestlers.

The Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) which is an umbrella organisation of various farmer groups has already thrown its weight behind the agitating wrestlers. It has announced nationwide agitation and programs in support of the protesting wrestlers while demanding the arrest of Brij Bhushan.

“From May 11 to May 18, an all-India agitation program shall be held in all states of India, at state capitals, district and taluk headquarters. Public Meetings and protest marches shall be held and effigies of Brij Bhushan Saran Singh and his supporter, the BJP union government shall be burned,” said a statement issued by the SKM.

It further stated, “The SKM strongly condemns Delhi Police for not acting with due sensitivity as per the law to arrest the accused and ensure in-camera proceedings.”

During the national meeting of the SKM held on April 30, the farmer organisations had “firmly and unequivocally” expressed support to and solidarity with the protesting women wrestlers of India and demanded immediate arrest of Brij Bhushan Saran Singh.

Meanwhile, representatives of various farmer organisations have continued to visit the agitating wrestlers at Jantar Mantar all this while in a show of solidarity with the agitating players.

On the other hand the National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM), an umbrella organisation of various civil society groups has also expressed full solidarity with the women wrestlers of the country.

“We condemn the callousness and high-handedness of the Union Government that has not only failed to act on the serious charges (FIRs) against Brij Bhushan Singh (two under the POCSO Act), but has been actively protecting him, despite the matter having been raised repeatedly, over the last two years by the women wrestling champions, meriting intervention even by the Supreme Court,” a statement issued by the NAPM stated.

It pointed out, “The entire country and the world-at-large has been witnessing this sordid saga of the internationally renowned wrestlers having to fight for justice, protesting again at Jantar Mantar since April 23, 2023, while those in high positions of power are doing everything possible to not only deny them justice and the right to protest, but also discredit them and previous democratic movements, such as the farmers protests. Going by current information, the ‘Committee’ constituted by the Sports Ministry and Indian Olympic Association (IOA) seems more like an eye-wash.

“We are, therefore, fully supportive of the demand that Mr. Singh be expelled as WFI President and an independent inquiry be conducted into the matter, given the apathy, inaction and non-accountability on part of the WFI and government of India.

“We also strongly denounce the manner in which the Delhi Police has manhandled the protestors, be it at Jantar Mantar or in other parts of Delhi, attempting to forcibly disband the rightful and peaceful gathering, inflicting abuse and violence on sportspersons and students, and denying the democratic right to protest, in face of systemic apathy.

“It is amply clear that people like Brij Bhushan Singh are indicative of the criminalisation and corruption within the institutions of this government who seem to receive patronage at the highest levels.”

The civil society groups have been pointing out that sexual violence and harassment at work places is a serious offence and given its all-pervasive prevalence in all workspaces, the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) Act, 2013 was enacted by the Indian Parliament, after protracted struggles by the feminist movements in India.

They have stated that it is a colossal shame that even a decade after passing of the law, over half of the sports federations in India still have not set up Internal Complaints Committees (ICC), mandatory for all governmental and private organisations in the country.

This is but one indicator of the utterly patriarchal nature of public, institutional and workspaces in the society.

The NAPM has further stated, “Akin to its miserable role in previous instances like Kathua, Gujarat and Hathras, this episode has, yet again, exposed the hollowness and complicity of the government that raises empty slogans of ‘empowering’ women and girls, even as it protects the powerful perpetrators and its own vested interests.

“That even those who brought laurels to the country are not spared the wrath of the regime, speaks volumes. In such a scenario, it is indeed heartening to witness the swelling strength and solidarity to the wrestlers struggle in Delhi and across rural and urban India, much needed in the current times, to take on the arrogance of the fascists-in-power, even as many ‘celebrities’ choose to remain mum or take the side of the oppressors.”