It is not easy to steal the thunder when a humdinger of a cricket match is going on. But in siding with their female counterparts, the Indian male wrestlers managed to make a dent on the Indian sports psyche. The wrestlers have highlighted three points: the apathy of sporting federations, the ambiguity of rules and the need for education and above all, the need for punitive and criminal measures if the charges of sexual exploitation are proven true.

Two years ago, Bajrang Punia was the toast of the country, bringing India its first medal at the Tokyo Olympics 2020, winning the bronze medal in the discipline of wrestling. Given India’s obsession with cricket, it is not surprising that people were made to recall that moment as the wrestlers made another impactful statement yesterday, but not in the arena but rather on the streets of the nation’s capital.

As the Indian wrestlers, male and female, including big names like Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Mallik staged a protest at Jantar Mantar for a second day in a row, stealing the spotlight from international cricket and shocking the WFI (Wrestling Federation of India) and the sports fans, what has become clear is that there is much ambiguity about rules as there is apathy when it comes to mutual respect.

But what is of serious concern is the treatment of athletes and particularly their sense of safety which is paramount if they are to perform at their best. After all, as they allege, it is not just a matter of national or personal honour but also, a matter of their bread and butter and putting their reputation on the line will come with repercussions.

In that light, the allegations of sexual harassment are as insidious if not more than the insinuations of mental harassment and arbitrary enforcement of rules.

What has stunned all and sundry is the fact that the male wrestlers have come out in solidarity with their female counterparts and in unison are drawing attention to a very serious but not uncommon problem ailing federations not only in India but around the world. That this is being made in a public way and that too with big names in the picture, it begs the picture if their allegations are not without merit. If the allegations are proven right, then it is a matter that requires criminal as well as sporting action.

While some have suggested that Punia, who has become the face of the protest overnight alongside other well known names from the women’s game, has a vested interest in that his wife too is a wrestler. He has specifically named his issue being unable to meet her as a family member at the now shut down Lucknow camp.

There are those in the WFI who have brazenly pushed them away saying that the sportspersons have no standing since they haven’t brought any glory to India since the Olympics heroics and that WFI secretary even feigned ignorance about the complaints of the athletes.

Vinesh Phogat spoke out amidst tears at the protest that she was also mentally harassment to the point of receiving death threats, and claims to have even raised the issue with the Prime Minister, even as the sportspersons now want a face to face with the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to ask him to intervene in the matter.

It seems of little relevance what degree of success sportspersons in general have achieved over and above their treatment. The WFI chief, Brij Bhushan, has come out saying that the allegations are baseless and are being made after the amended rules were implemented.

He even went on to say that he would hang himself if the allegations of sexual harassment were proven true. It is a serious statement he has made and must not be taken lightly, one way or the other. “Khel ki umar hoti hain yeh unka gussa hain (Sport has an age. Their anger is stemming from this),” Bhushan went on to allege.

As the night gave way to day, there are now polarising stories about some wrestlers from places other than Haryana who are denying allegations of any nature. While the stories overnight seemed a more organised and cohesive protest highlighting allegations of sexual and mental harassment, and even death threats by the high level officials of the federation, particularly the WFI chief as well as coaches at the camps vis-à-vis the female athletes, it is clear divisions will emerge, to make the waters more murky.

While players like Punia are asking to save the sport, Divya Kakran, a CWG bronze medallist, and Yogeshwar Dutt have claimed ignorance on the issue and are asking for the affected players to speak up in public. Punia even claimed that political parties are trying to get involved and showing support as a way to gain political mileage and give the whole issue a political colour, which would not only overshadow the issue but also, sideline and even dilute the matters at hand.

Ambiguity over amended rules might have created confusion and distress. Education and redressal including feedback might be more to the point if the wrestlers can come to table without a headstrong federation twisting their arm and holding their career on the line.

However, issues of mental harassment and of sexual exploitation and favours are far too sinister to be diffused behind closed doors. There are criminal implications to the allegations which the WFI boss has labelled as “baseless”.

Either way, it needs to be handled from the outside, as is clearly highlighted by the antagonistic stance by the WFI and the adamant but discreet stand from the wrestlers where Punia himself admitted not going into the details of how his female counterparts suffered at the hands of coaches and officials given the sensitive nature of the issue and the culture within the Indian community.

What seems the only way ahead is suspension of the existing WFI, an impartial counsel set up to punish either the falsehood or the malfeasance as the case maybe, taking it to the criminal courts if need be. It is not enough that the sports ministry of India has demanded a redressal within 72-hours which does not seem like an easy solution to what is a very complicated problem.

It is not enough to be singing national anthem and high praises as Anurag Thakur was seen doing, remotely backslapping sportspersons for their successes abroad. He and indeed the sports ministry must be seen taking the upper hand because this is clearly an issue that cannot be resolved at federation level.

What is disturbing is that the allegations are not mild, and neither are they made in isolation. It highlights the underbelly of sports. and irrespective of the sportspersons forming a union for right causes or otherwise, every allegation must be investigated. If even one is true, it seems hardly possible to have been done without knowledge and involvement of more people, or not having been done to more sportspersons. Just like it was with the USA gymnastics association when Dr. Nassar had inflicted immense mental and sexual harassment on even gold medal winning sportspersons over decades. The federation cannot go scot free if the malice is proved.

While the scandal involved Dr. Nassar rocked the world of sport at large given the widespread nature, if there is even a mustard seed of truth in what the protesting wrestlers have been saying, it must be tackled in a similar high profile manner. This is to not only put an end to this problem that they say lesser known girls are suffering but also, to send a loud, thundering message that this will not be tolerated in any sport, when it comes to the Indian context, particularly at a time when this central government has been claiming to have been more sports-centric than any previous government in India’s history.