Me Too in Indian Sports

The country’s top wrestlers have come together and taken to the streets over allegations of sexual misconduct against WFI president and its coaches, forcing the government to order a probe, writes Amit Agnihotri

The nation was shocked as India’s biggest “MeToo” movement in sports unfolded with top wrestlers like Bajrang Punia, Sakshi Malik, Vinesh Phogat, Ravi Dahiya and Deepak Punia taking to the streets to level allegations of sexual misconduct against Wrestling Federation of India president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh and its coaches, forcing the government to order a probe.

The wrestlers who protested at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar alleged that both the WFI chief and its coaches had been exploiting the young female players sexually and mentally for years. The wrestlers also alleged financial mismanagement in the WFI and demanded an overhaul of the sports body.

The issue of sexual exploitation in sports is not new in the country. Recently, former hockey captain Sandeep Singh, who is the sports minister in Haryana, had been accused of sexual abuse by a junior coach. He remains a minister with the support of the state government.

In 1990, 14-year-old Ruchika Girhotra, a promising tennis player, was allegedly molested by Haryana tennis association chief SPS Rathore, who was also the state’s Inspector General of Police. She died by suicide but the influential police officer got promoted.

Over the past years, Haryana has earned the distinction of being a state which produces world class sportspersons, including wrestlers, who have brought several laurels to the country. Because of this, the allegations made by the wrestlers against the WFI chief and its coaches shocked the sports lovers across the country.

Public anger mounted over the protests as BBS Singh, a BJP MP, denied the charges and termed the protests a conspiracy hatched by the Haryana Congress leaders. Enraged over the developments, the Congress came out in support of the wrestlers and questioned the silence of PM Modi over the issue.

The government had a tough time dealing with the situation as the protests surfaced amidst PM Modi’s claim that work had been done in the past eight years to create a better environment for sports. “Many talents remained away from the field. But in the last eight years, the country had left behind this old thinking. Work had been done to create a better environment for sports, and now more children and youths were looking at sports as a career option,” the PM said at a public event.

Sensing the public mood over the controversy, the Centre then deployed Union Sports minister Anurag Thakur, who, after talking to the wrestlers over two rounds, announced that a five-member oversight committee headed by Olympic medal winner boxer Mary Kom would look into the allegations and submit a report in four weeks. The minister also said that Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh would step aside as WFI chief till the probe was over.

The wrestlers then called off their protest. “We have received assurances from the respected minister. Thank you. We protested only as a last resort. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has really helped our game,” Bajrang Punia said.

 IOA probe

As the players had also urged Indian Olympic Association chief PT Usha to look into the allegations, the IOA also formed a seven-member committee headed by boxer Mary Kom to probe the allegations against WFI chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh and submit a report in 10 days.

The panel includes Indian Weightlifting Federation of India (IWLF) president Sahdev Yadav, archer Dola Banerjee, and Olympic medallist wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt. The committee will also have two lawyers. The decision was taken during IOA’s emergency Executive Council meeting which was attended by the likes of ace shooter Abhinav Bindra, Yogeshwar Dutt along with IOA president PT Usha and joint secretary Kalyan Chaubey.

In a letter to PT Usha, the wrestlers had alleged misappropriation of funds in the WFI and claimed that the coaches and sports science staff at the national camp were “absolutely incompetent”.

Olympic bronze medalist Yogeshwar Dutt said, “There can be no compromise in the case of sexual harassment allegations. If that happened, it should be probed and the accused should be punished.” “If the allegations are false, it should be probed why they were levelled and what was the motive behind this? We will send the report to both the Sports Ministry and Home Ministry as well as to the Prime Minister,” he said.

The charges

Commonwealth gold medallist Vinesh Phogat levelled the allegations in the presence of several top wrestlers at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar.

“Women wrestlers have been sexually harassed at national camps by coaches and also the WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. Some of the coaches appointed at national camps have been sexually harassing women wrestlers for years. The WFI president is also involved in sexual harassment,” said Phogat.

“This exploitation is happening every day. Why does the national camp happen in Lucknow? We have written to the PM and the Sports Minister. The reason it’s happening over there is because he has a house there and so it’s easy to exploit the girls. They trouble us too much. They get into our personal lives and relationships. They want to know everything,” she said.

Vinesh, who hails from Haryana, said she felt threatened for her life after making the charges. “They have become very powerful. I have spoken today and I don’t know if I will be alive tomorrow because of this. I know about 10-20 girls who have been exploited in the national camp over the past 10 years. Those girls are scared because of their family background. They can’t fight against them because they are not powerful. I can do it because I don’t mind if they stop me from wrestling. I have a house, I have food. I am here because I don’t want the future generations to go through this sadness and pain. Wrestling is our only source of livelihood. They are taking away our livelihood. Our only option is to die, so might as well do good and die,” she said.

Vinesh also flagged BBS Singh’s alleged high-handedness saying, “He mentally tortures me for everything.” “To get any permission, we have to beg the president, and even the assistant secretary. The players give him gifts to get into the national camp. Coaches do the same to get into the national camp.”

India’s only Olympic medallist Sakshi Malik supported Vinesh’s charges. “We have just come to save them. We are fighting for them. When the time comes, we will speak up. We will give the names of those who have been exploited to whoever is doing the probe,” said Sakshi.

Besides Vinesh and Sakshi, world championship winner Sarita Mor, Sangeeta Phogat, Anshu Malik, Sonam Malik, Satyawarat Malik, Jitender Kinha, Amit Dhankar and CWG medallist Sumit Malik were also present at the protest venue where around 30 wrestlers had assembled.

Vinesh Phogat clarified that she never faced such exploitation but claimed that “one victim” was present at the ‘dharna’ at Jantar Mantar. She said that disclosing the names of victims would put them in danger and said that it was one of the reasons for having not yet filed an FIR.

“If we disclose the name of the victims, it would put them in danger, including their families. We can’t disclose their identity as nothing has been put on paper and it has not yet been made official. We came here to fight for our dignity and if that is taken away from us what is the point of us protesting? We can’t share all the intricate details as this is a sensitive matter involving the self-respect of female wrestlers. We will share all the details with you once everything is assured to us,” Phogat said.

“We’re presenting all issues. Had it been only about wrestling the matter would’ve been resolved after a discussion. But it’s a big issue. It’s not about just one but several girls. We can’t disclose their identities, and if we do then it would pose a threat to their lives and families,” she said.

Vinesh, an Asian Games gold medallist and an Arjuna awardee, said she had requested the WFI President Brij Bhushan Saran Singh to meet her after returning from the Tokyo Olympics but he did not entertain her request. “He hasn’t met me since the time I came back from the Tokyo Olympics. Several players wrote to the federation about the harassment they faced but there was no response. If we make our issue public, the WFI chief will try to brush it under the carpet using his influence,” she said.

The denial

As expected, BBS Singh, who was elected unopposed as president of WFI for a third consecutive term in February 2019, denied the charges.

“Is anyone saying that the WFI has sexually harassed a wrestler? Only Vinesh has said it. Has anyone come forward and said that they personally have been sexually harassed? Even if one wrestler comes forward and says that she has been sexually harassed, that day I can be hanged,” he said.

Singh during a press conference in Uttar Pradesh’s Gonda on Jan 21, claimed he will expose the ‘political conspiracy’ behind the allegations. However, on that day his son Prateek, a BJP MLA from Gonda Sadar constituency, turned up to say that the WFI president will issue a statement on allegations of sexual harassment against him after the sports body’s Annual General Meeting on January 22.

“I am here on behalf of my father and I would like to inform you all that we will issue a written statement only after the AGM of WFI on January 22. We want to discuss the issue with members from all across India and then take any decision. Whatever decision we will take, we will inform the press through a written statement,” he said.

However, the AGM to be held in Ayodhya was cancelled after a stern message from the ministry of sports asked the WFI to suspend “all ongoing activities with immediate effect”, including the Ranking Tournament in Gonda, UP, his stronghold. The ministry also suspended WFI’s assistant secretary Vinod Tomar to ensure a fair probe. 

WFI defends itself 

Taking note of the allegations, the sports ministry had sought an explanation from WFI and directed it to furnish a reply within the next 72 hours. In its response, the Wrestling Federation of India said the athletes who had levelled sexual harassment charges against its chief had a hidden agenda.

“The protest is not in the best interest of the wrestlers nor for promoting good wrestling in India, but it has some personal as well as hidden agenda to dislodge the current fairest and strict management of WFI and also by conspiracy to create such adverse atmosphere in public to create undue pressure,” the wrestling body said in a letter to the ministry of youth affairs.

Responding to the charges of mismanagement, the wrestling body said that it has always acted keeping the best interest of wrestlers in mind. “The WFI is managed by an elected body as per its constitution, and therefore, there is no scope for arbitrariness and mismanagement in WFI by anyone individually, including the president,” the WFI said.

“The manner and method of protestors/wrestlers to air their allegation by sitting at dharna and also doing press conference certainly is part of deeper and larger conspiracy for vested interest either by putting pressure on some weak wrestlers for vested interest or for gaining ground for themselves by maligning and defaming the management of WFI or its president or the coaches and not otherwise,” the WFI said.

“Not a single allegation of sexual harassment is accepted nor has ever been noticed nor found nor so far complained nor reported to sexual harassment committee to WFI. Hence allegations to that effect are equally malicious and unfounded without any truth in the matter except to come to public through media for making soft targets of the prestige of the present management of the WFI as well as the sitting president of WFI.”

The WFI added that it has always acted in the best interest of the sportspersons. “The WFI in particular under the sitting president WFI has always acted keeping the best interest of wrestlers in mind along with the best interest of India. Under the sitting president, the WFI has enhanced the image of wrestling nationally as well as Internationally,” the letter said.

Meanwhile, BBS Singh’s cook, Vicky reportedly filed a plea against the wrestlers in the Delhi High Court saying that Vinesh was blackmailing the WFI chief over the protests and that the players had gone to the media instead of the court but the same was later withdrawn.

Politics over charges 

The controversy around WFI chief BBS Singh, BJP MP from Kaiserganj in Uttar Pradesh, soon turned political as the Congress and the AAP attacked him. Out of the six-terms Singh has served as an MP, five were with the BJP and one in 2009 with the Samajwadi Party. Singh has represented Gonda and Balrampur in the past, and now Kaiserganj.

On his part, Singh blamed Haryana Rajya Sabha member Deepender Hooda for plotting the controversy and said that all the wrestlers who had levelled allegations against him were from the same community. Deepender, he said, had hatched the conspiracy to gain in the Haryana elections.

The Congress leader hit back saying that Singh was cooking up stories as he had been accused of sexual misconduct. Hooda also threatened to slap a defamation suit on Singh for naming him in the controversy.

Congress general secretary in charge of UP, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra backed the protesting wrestlers. “Our players are the pride of the country. They bring laurels to the country by their performance at the world level. The players have made serious allegations of exploitation against the Wrestling Federation of India and its president and their voices should be heard,” she said on Twitter.

Congress general secretary in charge of communications, Jairam Ramesh wondered, “Why are all those who oppress women, are members of BJP.” “Kuldeep Sengar, Chinmayanand, father-son duo Vinod Arya and Pulkit Arya… and now this new case! The list of BJP leaders committing atrocities against women is endless.” “Mr PM, was ‘Beti Bachao’ a warning to save daughters from BJP leaders? India is waiting for an answer,” he said on Twitter.

“You had said that a better environment has been created for sports in the past eight years. Is this the ‘better environment’, in which even our daughters who bring laurels to the country are unsafe?,” Ramesh said.

Congress’ media department head, Pawan Khera said BBS Singh’s resignation should have come on day one of the protests itself. “That should have been the first step. Had it been any other sensitive government, it would have happened immediately. Then, the prime minister should issue a statement and restore the confidence of these families. Our families are conservative, it is a difficult choice to send children to train, fight for the country and win medals,” he said.

The Congress also lined up prominent boxer Vijender Singh and discus thrower Krishna Poonia to demand disbanding of the Wrestling Federation of India, sacking of its head BBS Singh and target PM Modi over the recent controversy in the sports body.

“There is an allegation against WFI president and BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh related to sexual exploitation. The allegation has come from a woman player whom PM Modi had described as his daughter. Today the same daughter is saying girls should not be born in this country. What can be more painful than this,” Krishna Poonia, a well-known discus thrower said.

“On one hand the nation expects medals from the players. On the other hand, our daughters suffer sexual exploitation. Will the parents now send their daughters to sports?. When we win medals, everyone wants to get photographed along with us. The slogan of “beti bachao, beti padhao’ is being shredded. The WFI should be disbanded,” she said.

Krishna had a distinguished record in India as a player and is also a Congress MLA in Rajasthan. She is a Padma Shri and an Arjuna Awardee besides having taken part in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

“There are serious allegations on the WFI. The PM’s silence over the issue is shameful. There should be immediate action in the matter under the provisions of the IPC,” said Vijender Singh, who had won a medal at 2008 summer Olympics. “Only the players can understand the feelings of the other sportspersons. When a meeting on boxing is held, the players are not called,” he said.

“Vinesh had apprised the PM of the entire matter in October 2021. She had also talked about the threat to her life. The issue is the PM knew all this but took no action. He is still silent,” Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate said, adding, “The Supreme Court should take suo motu notice of the charges and disband the WFI. What is the National Commission for Women doing which usually takes action over a tweet. There have been several such charges against the BJP leaders but they never take any action.”

The Congress leader further questioned the Centre over the issue of politicians ruling the various sports bodies.

“They used to say that there should be no interference of politicians in sports bodies but many of their leaders hold such positions. For instance, Assam chief minister Hemant Biswa Sarma is head of Badminton Federation, Raninder Singh is head of Rifle Association, Arjun Munda is head of Archery Association, Jay Shah is Secretary BCCI, Dilip Tirkey is head of Hockey Federation and Meghna Chautala is head of Table Tennis Federation,” said Shrinate.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, also AAP founder, said it was “extremely shameful” that no action has been taken against those who have been accused of sexual exploitation by female wrestlers. “From a minister in Haryana to the WFI president, everyone has been accused of serious charges but there has been no resignation nor any action. This party and its government are busy shielding their leaders with respect to the security of women players. This is extremely shameful,” said Kejriwal.

Reacting to the events, Swati Maliwal, chairperson of Delhi Commission for Women, issued a notice against Singh, asking the Deputy Commissioner of Police and Sports Secretary to probe and provide details of the matter.

Former wrestler and BJP leader Babita Phogat warned the Congress against politicising the protests. In a tweet, she pointed out that the fight of the wrestlers is not against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union minister Smriti Irani and the BJP.
Hitting out at the Congress, Babita Phogat, in a tweet in Hindi, said, “The players battle against the Federation and against one individual. I want to tell the Congress party to stop doing petty politics on the sportspersons’ movement for their own benefit,” she further said.

Wrestlers Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik too echoed similar sentiments although they did not name a specific party. “Our fight is not with the government. We are fighting against the players’ federation and its president. No political party should do politics on this movement,” Punia tweeted in Hindi.

Sakshi Malik said the “MeToo” movement was about the players and the future of the game. “Our movement is against the federation and its president. No political party should do politics on this for their own benefit,” she said.