When Injustice Overshadows Medals and Glory
Wrestlers protest on hold as sports minister promises WFI elections by June 30
Is the government playing a waiting game or doesn’t want to upset the apple cart ahead of 2024 Lok Sabha polls? On June 7 Union Sports Minister Anurag Thakur again assured the protesting wrestlers that the Wrestling Federation of India elections would be held by June 30, after meeting with them at his residence in New Delhi.
He told the wrestlers that the police investigation into their allegations of sexual harassment against former WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh would be completed by June 15, and they would be informed about the status of the investigation.
This assurance came after a six-hour meeting between Thakur and the wrestlers who had earlier met Union Home Minister Amit Shah.
“How many times do victims have to speak up before they get justice ?” was Vinesh Phogat’s question, recounting the number of times the seven women wrestlers including one minor had to recall their harrowing experiences.
What was the outcome of their cases presented to the Oversight Committee, an Indian Olympic Association Committee, the police and a magistrate. And now meeting the Sports Minister for the second time with the first one failing to yield any concrete result.
The meeting comes amidst the protest snowballing into what could well become an election issue in 2024 as the support for the wrestlers keeps growing.
“I had a long six-hour discussion with the wrestlers. We have assured wrestlers that the probe will be completed by 15th June and chargesheets will be submitted. The election of WFI will be done by 30th June,” Thakur said.
He added that the wrestlers demanded to make sure that Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who has completed three terms, not be re-elected for the post of the WFI president. Thakur told the media that the wrestlers have told him that they would put the protest on hold till June 15.
India’s shooting gold medallist at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Abhinav Bindra took to Twitter to react to the police detaining the protesting wrestlers at Jantar Mantar.
“Last night was sleepless, haunted by the horrifying images of my fellow Indian wrestlers protesting. It’s high time we establish independent safeguarding measures across sporting organisations,” he said.
“We must ensure that if such situations arise, they are dealt with utmost sensitivity and respect. Every athlete deserves a safe and empowering environment.”
Reacting to the incident of May 28, Tokyo 2020 Olympic Javelin gold medallist Neeraj Chopra too had raised his voice on social media, calling the treatment ‘saddening’.
“This video saddens me. There has to be a better way to deal with this,” he had written on Twitter in reaction to a tweet from Sakshi Malik.
Indian men’s football team captain Sunil Chhetri had tweeted, “Why does it have to come down to our wrestlers being dragged around without any consideration? This isn’t the way to treat anyone. I really hope this whole situation is assessed the way it should be.”
Indian track and field athlete Murali Sreeshankar also reacted to the incident. “Absolutely barbaric!! Our champions didn’t deserve this. As an athlete who dreams and works towards the Olympic glory, this picture would leave a very deep wound,” he tweeted.
But, what is indeed surprising is that while former cricketers like Kapil Dev, Sunil Gavaskar, Virendra Sehwag, Madan Lal and Kirti Azad came out strongly in favour of the protesting wrestlers, the current players maintained silence. They probably are apprehensive that their career could be cut short by the sports governing body, Board of Control for Cricket in India, which is run by none other than Jay Shah, son of Home Minister Amit Shah, one of the most powerful men in the country.
The Bharatiya Janata Party does appear to follow its dictum of being a party “with a difference,” for as the countdown for the Lok Sabha elections has virtually begun and Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, having played a key role in the last elections in the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, the powers that be are not keen on upsetting the apple cart and antagonising Singh.
He has influence in half a dozen Lok Sabha constituencies and strong links with the saints and his role in the Ayodhya temple movement make him stronger than many other Members of Parliament in the BJP.
The saffron party which has always claimed to be a very disciplined one, appears to have decided to give a go by in the case of Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.
A key player in the Ayodhya movement, he was known as a one-man army for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh when it had minimal presence on the political centre stage in the state.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has been always in the forefront praising sportspersons for their achievements and repeatedly talking of women power and the slogan “Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao,” has maintained a deafening silence on the issue. He has left the matter to his ministers, this is a clear indication of Brij Bhushan Saran Singh’s clout.
Thakur, who spoke to the media after meeting with the protesting wrestlers, said that the wrestlers would not protest until June 15. He said that an internal complaint committee, headed by a woman, will be formed for the Wrestling Federation of India.
“All FIRs against wrestlers should be taken back. Wrestlers also requested that Brij Bhushan Singh who has completed 3 terms and his associates should not be re-elected. Wrestlers will not hold any protest before 15th June," the Sports Minister added.
Speaking to the press after the meeting, Tokyo Olympics bronze medalist Bajrang Punia said that they have requested the government to quash FIRs that were filed against them during the protest.
"The government has assured us that the police investigation will be completed before June 15. We have requested that all FIRs against wrestlers should be taken back and he has agreed to it. If no action is taken by June 15th, we will continue our protest," he said.
The wrestlers began protesting at the Jantar Mantar in New Delhi in January and had a meeting with Sports Minister Anurag Thakur back then following which a probe committee was formed. However, the wrestlers returned to the protest site in May after alleging lack of proper response from the top officials and no action against Brij Bhushan, who is also a BJP MP.
In May, the world wrestling body, UWW, also threatened to suspend the Wrestling Federation of India if it did not provide information about the proposed next elective general assembly. A 45-day deadline to hold the next elective general assembly was set in January after the Sports Ministry suspended the WFI and its activities over the initial protest by the wrestlers.
The UWW also condemned the treatment of wrestlers during the protest after expressing its disappointment over the temporary detention of the wrestlers at the protest site.
The protesting wrestlers also threatened to immerse their medals in river Ganga on May 30, demanding quick action against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.
It would be interesting to recall the story of American boxer Mohammed Ali aka Cassius Clay who did something that for most people would be unimaginable — he hurled an Olympic Gold Medal into the depths of the Ohio River in 1960.
According to one story, when Clay was refused to be served at a restaurant because of his colour, he made his way onto the Second Street Bridge, tore his Gold Medal off from around his neck, and flung it into the Ohio River.
This is where the story becomes blurred, because doubts exist as to the validity of the boxer’s claim about what he did with the medal. Bundini Brown, his corner man and assistant trainer through his career said, “Oh yeah, the white honkies really fell for that one.”
It was Muhammad Ali who released the story, but fifteen years after the alleged incident. People who knew him well said he had never thrown the medal in the river, it meant too much to him, and that it was lost during a house move.
The restaurant where the alleged refusal of service took place has never been named or identified, but then again, it could have gone out of business, or relocated to another town. Ali himself said in later years, “I never knew what I done with that medal.”
Whatever the truth is, or wherever it lies, the International Olympic Committee’s President, Juan Antonio Samaranch, presented Ali with a replacement Gold Medal in Atlanta in 1996. The handover came during an interval at a basketball game, and it was one of the most poignant moments of the Atlanta Olympics, whose Olympic Flame had been lit by Ali himself.