Cracks appear in wrestlers’ unity as stir loses steam

Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh

Some BJP-backed senior wrestlers have dubbed protestors as Congress puppets.  Also, the exemption granted to agitating wrestlers from the trials for the forthcoming Asian Games has not gone down well with the competing sportspersons. A report by Mudit Mathur

Political machinations have been successful in creating cracks in the unity of wrestlers protesting over the alleged sexual harassment by the Wrestling Federation of India chief and BJP MP, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.

Some BJP-backed wrestlers made an attempt to derail serious issue of sexual harassment by bringing politics into play by alleging that the Congress party was behind the protests. It attracted sharp reactions from protesting wrestlers.

Olympic medallist Sakshi Malik and former wrestler Babita Phogat recently indulged in an unpleasant slugfest on the social media platforms over the wrestlers’ protest against the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. Targeting protesting wrestlers, Babita Phogat wrote in her social media post, “People of this country have understood that you have become a Congress puppet. Now is the time that you reveal your real motive because people are asking questions.”

In the video posted on social media by Sakshi Malik and her husband Satyawart Kadian, narrated how Teerath Rana and Babita Phogat ‘were trying’ to use wrestlers for their selfish motive and how when the wrestlers are in trouble, they have opted to sit in the lap of the government. Babita, it may be mentioned, had mediated between the wrestlers and the government during their three-day protest in January.

Babita tweeted a long reply to Malik and claimed that she had nothing to do with their protest since she was against agitating on the streets on the issue from day one. “From day one, I was not in favour of any protest or demonstration. I have maintained that I have faith in the PM and the judiciary and the truth will come out,” she said, adding, “I repeatedly told you to meet Prime Minister or Home Minister for a solution but you tried to find solution with Deepnder Hooda, Congress and Priyanka Gandhi, who themselves were accompanied by rape accused people.”

Denying such accusations, Olympic medalist Sakshi and her wrestler husband Satyawart Kadian said that their protest is neither politically motivated, nor instigated by the Congress. They said that the wrestlers were quiet for years despite facing harassment because the wrestling fraternity was not united earlier. In a video posted on Twitter, they addressed the allegations made against the wrestlers and presented “real truth” about the wrestlers’ protest against the WFI’s outgoing chief, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.

The country’s top wrestlers including Malik, Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia, have accused Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh of sexual harassment and intimidation. Leaders from different political parties, including Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and former Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik visited the protest site and extended their support to the agitating wrestlers before they were removed from Jantar Mantar on May 28.

Kadian said a false narrative was being created around their protest and they wanted to clear the air. Kadian, while sitting beside Malik, said rumours were being spread about their protest.

“Let me make it clear that our protest is not politically-motivated. We came to Jantar Mantar in January, and police permission for the protest was taken by two BJP leaders,”  Kadian said and asked Malik to show the letter, seeking permission for the protest. It was written by former wrestlers Babita Phogat and Teerath Rana, who are both associated with the BJP.

“This protest is not Congress-supported. More than 90 per cent people knew that for the last 10-12 years, it has been going on. A few people wanted to raise their voice but the wrestling fraternity was not united,” Kadian said. However, Babita denied signing any letter for seeking permission for their protest in Jantar Mantar.

Kadian, who competes in the heavy-weight category, reiterated that their fight is against the WFI chief and not against the government. Sakshi said they were silent for years because wrestlers were not united. “Many individuals within the wrestling community wanted to raise their voice against the problem but they lacked unity and feared negative consequences for their careers,” they further said.

“You have seen that the minor has withdrawn her statement. Her family was intimidated. These wrestlers come from poor families. It’s not easy to muster the courage to take on a powerful man,” she said. “The police brutality they faced on May 28 broke their spirits. The police had detained them and pushed them into buses, an action that faced criticism from all quarters. The wrestlers were booked for violating law and order as they marched towards the new parliament building without permission,” Kadian added, clarifying, “Let me make it clear that the call for ‘Mahila Samman Mahapanchayat’ was given by the Khap leaders and we followed their order and faced police brutality. That broke us.”

Sakshi and kadian said in the video message, “Can’t explain in words what we went through. We won so many medals for our country and our dignity was being trampled. I can’t explain in words what we went through. We then decided to immerse medals in (Haridwar) but one man from the ‘Tantra’ (system) grabbed Bajrang’s arm and took him to a corner and made him speak with many (influential) people.”

“If we had done that (immersed medals), there could have been violence. So, better senses prevailed. We gave the medals to coaches and parents.” “We were not in a mental state to understand if there’s a conspiracy. We had gone then under stress. We have just played sports our whole life, and did not know how to handle such a situation.”

“After that incident, we did not know who was on our side, who was part of the system. We met a lot of people but did not know whom to trust. We were advised to meet the Home Minister, we were told that the solution to our problem lies with him, so we met him to put across our view point.” “If we have done something wrong, we apologise,” they pleaded.

He also appealed to the Khaps, who they believe have got angry with them, not to believe rumours. “If we have done something wrong, we apologise,” he said, and thanked everyone who came out to support them. Towards the end of the 11-minute-long video, Kadian said, “The system takes advantage when we are not united. If you are facing any sort of injustice, do raise your voice and stay united.”

As soon as Olympic medalist Sakshi and her husband’s jointly addressed video appeared on social media, a rift has suddenly emerged between Khap leaders and wrestlers who claimed that the decision to hold women’s mahapanchayat at the new Parliament Building in New Delhi on May 28 was taken by the Khap leaders and not by them. The development has also come as a major setback to the Khap leaders who are now gearing up to hold another meeting of Sarv Khaps (all Khaps) to discuss this latest development and to clear their stand over the issue.

Hitting back at the wrestlers, Ramphal Rathi, general secretary, Maham Chaubisi Khap, said that holding the women mahapanchayat in Delhi was the wrestlers’ decision and the Khap leaders merely endorsed it at a meeting of the 17-member committee that was formed by the Sarv Khap Panchayat in Meham town here on May 21 to decide the next course of action.

At the meeting, the wrestlers told the members that they had already decided on two programmes, a candle march on May 23 and Women Mahapanchayat on May 28. The agitation has been led by wrestlers themselves since the beginning and the committee members endorsed their decision assuring them of full cooperation to make the events successful,” said Rathi. He claimed the wrestlers did not inform the Khaps about their decision of throwing medals into the Ganga.

Coming forward in open support of Sakshi Malik and her wrestler spouse Satyawart Kadian, the Olympian Vinesh Phogat termed the move as an act of oppression by some traitors while reacting to allegations levelled by BJP-supported camps including wrestler Babita Phogat. “As long as Jaichand like Yogeshwar remains in wrestling, surely the spirit of the oppressors will remain high,” she tweeted.

While targeting Yogeshwar Dutt for his alleged act of influencing complainant wrestlers, Vinesh commented, “Wrestling world will always remember you for licking the feet of Brijbhushan. Don’t use so much force to break women wrestlers, they have very strong resolve. Keep in mind that by applying too much force, the back should not break. Your acts have given confidence to Brijbhushan. You are a very insensitive person. Standing in favour of the oppressor, you are flattering him.” Dutt was one of the six members of the oversight panel formed by the Modi government to probe the sexual harassment allegations against Singh. The government has not made public all the findings of the probe.

Vinesh came out with a long hitting statement, “When I saw the video of Yogeshwar Dutt, his obnoxious laugh got stuck in my mind. He was a part of both the committees made for women wrestlers. When women wrestlers were narrating their ordeals in front of the committee, he used to laugh vulgarly. When two female wrestlers came out to drink water, he chased them out and told them that nothing will happen to Brijbhushan. Go and do your practice.”

Vinesh alleged, “Yogeshwar influenced another female wrestler in a very uncouth manner saying these things happen and not to make it such a big issue. After the committee meeting, Yogeshwar leaked the names of women wrestlers to Brijbhushan and the media. He also contacted relatives of many women wrestlers and told them to make their girls ‘understand’ the situation. He was already publicly giving statements against women wrestlers, yet he was kept in both the committees.”

“Yogeshwar earlier made shoddy comments on farmers, jawans, students, Muslims, and Sikhs, and now is engaged in defaming women wrestlers. Because of betraying the society, you have fallen on your face twice in the elections. And I challenge that you will never win an election in your life, because the society is always careful of poisonous snakes and never lets it set foot,” Vinesh’s blistering attack came in reaction after Dutt questioned the logic and criteria behind the exemption granted to Vinesh from participating in trials.

It appears that the agitation of women wrestlers is getting diluted day by day and its momentum is fast diminishing. Many coaches and parents of several established and upcoming wrestlers demanded withdrawal of exemption granted to Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik, Bajrang Punia, Jitendra Kinha, Sangeeta and Satyawart Kadian for Asian Games and World Championships trials, saying the selection for these important events should be fair.

Fathers of Anshu Malik and Sonam Malik, and Vikas Bhardwaj, who coaches U-20 world champion woman wrestler Antim Panghal, have deplored the IOA panel’s decision. Dayanand Kalkal, coach of fast-rising wrestler Sujeet, who is emerging as a worthy opponent to Bajrang in 65kg, also met head of WFI ad-hoc panel, Bhupender Singh Bajwa, and demanded revocation of exemption saying, “Trials should be fair and without any bias.”

The protesting wrestlers on 24th  June hit out at those questioning the exemption granted to them from the ongoing trials for Asian Games and World Championships. Asserting that they didn’t ask the Indian Olympics Association for such a favour. They challenged they would quit wrestling if it was proved otherwise. Tokyo Olympics bronze medallist Bajrang said that he would quit wrestling if it is proved that they had asked for just one-bout trial for the Asian Games and World Championships.

“We did not ask for an exemption from trials, just asked for time to prepare,” said Sakshi Malik, one of the leaders of the wrestlers’ stir against Wrestling Federation of India president, Brij Bhushan Singh, whom they accuse of sexually harassing seven women wrestlers including a minor.