December 31, 2023

Suspension of WFI body: Too Little Too Late

Inderjit Singh and Jagmati Sangwan

TWO pictures carried promptly by most of the national dailies and social media on December 22 last week attracted special attention of the people. One picture shows a heavily garlanded Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) former president Brij Bhushan Singh escorted by his incumbent president elect Sanjay Kumar Singh flaunting a victory sign. In the second picture Brij Bhushan's son was seen displaying a placard in front of his father's Ashoka Road MP bungalow as part of grand celebration of the results of the national body of WFI elections held on December 21. The placard carried a brief but quite a threatening caption in Hindi, 'Dabdaba to hai...dabdaba to rahega'. It means 'we do dominate…we will continue to dominate'.

Why have these two pictures triggered a sharp and angry reaction across the country, snowballing into a significant issue all of a sudden? The reasons are apparent, as the content of the two photos and the accompanying arrogance unveil a multitude of circumstances that compelled Olympic award-winning women wrestlers to resort to a prolonged public protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi a few months ago, putting their professional careers at stake.

It is no exaggeration to state that the reprehensible and obnoxious conduct of Brij Bhushan and his coterie of hooligans in the aftermath of the WFI election results deeply offended the already agitated wrestlers. Their behavior reached an intolerable point, leading Olympian medallist Sakshi Malik to announce her retirement from the beloved sport of wrestling in a moment of heightened emotions. She said goodbye to her cherished pair of sports boots, placing them on a tabletop right in front of the media persons.

This was followed by Bajrang Punia and Virender Singh, also known as Goonga Pehalwan, deciding to return their prestigious Padma Bhushan awards with a strongly worded letter addressed to the prime minister. Following suit, Vinesh Phogat declared her intention to return both her Khel Ratna and Arjuna awards. These symbolic protests had a remarkable impact in creating a strong public opinion that led to an unexpected turn of events. The excessive celebration by the Brij Bhushan camp ended up backfiring on them. Like in wrestling bouts where a specific technique employed against an opponent can inadvertently work against the user, the extravagant actions of the Brij Bhushan faction seemed to have a boomerang effect.

In this situation, the BJP finds it increasingly untenable to defend Brij Bhushan any further, given the potential for a recurrence of a similar agitation by wrestlers so close to parliamentary elections. This appears to be the driving force behind the action taken by a much stubborn and ignominious sports minister, of course with the tacit approval of his top bosses, to order the suspension of the newly elected WFI body until further notice, thereby putting a damper on the victory celebrations within the Brij Bhushan camp. What kind of ad hoc arrangement will be in place of the elected body has not been clarified thus far. The wrestlers however, are not content with this action alone.

It is relevant to briefly recap the events surrounding the popular agitation of women wrestlers at Jantar Mantar. Numerous female wrestlers had made shocking allegations of sexual abuse of female players and accused WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh of running the Wrestling Federation of India in a dictatorial manner. Brij Bhushan is a sitting member of parliament of the ruling BJP from Gonda in Uttar Pradesh and has a history of being implicated in several criminal cases. He had been calling the shots for several years in WFI.

The extent of Brij Bhushan's clout within the BJP and the Modi government becomes evident by the fact that Delhi police had registered an FIR on the written complaints by several women wrestlers only at the direction of the Supreme Court. Neither the prime minister nor home minister has uttered a single word thus far, even in the face of powerful mass protests demanding the arrest of the WFI president who is faced with highly sensitive allegations of sexual harassment, including charges under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act.

The highly contentious WFI elections took place on December 21 after a protracted legal dispute. Sanjay Kumar Singh, a staunch supporter of Brij Bhushan, emerged victorious by defeating Anita Sheoran, a Commonwealth gold medalist, who managed to secure only 7 votes out of 50. The election resulted in the formation of an exclusively male 15-member body, with 13 of them being loyalists of Brij Bhushan.

What does this election really mean? Managing an electoral college of merely 50 odd voters drawn from various states was never a difficult task for the powerful Brij Bhushan Singh, who had solid political patronage readily available. Consequently, the outcome of the recently held election was a foregone conclusion and hardly surprising. Although it is truly worrisome  that Anita Sheoran, a prominent woman wrestler and Commonwealth gold medalist, received only 7 votes out of 50, it is not without significance that, despite all odds, a woman wrestler stepped forward to challenge a well-established lobby intoxicated with unbridled, ill-gotten power.

What truly sparked sharp reactions among the wrestlers and the public at large was not merely the outcome of the election results but the audacious arrogance displayed by the so-called winners, signaling what was to come. It became evident that everything would be taken for a ride, and the Brij Bhushan camp would act vindictively and seek revenge against all those who had challenged his fiefdom.

Now, the current scenario must be examined from the stand point of safety of women, both physically and mentally, in wrestling and the broader arena of sports as a paramount concern.

The unique agitation by the wrestlers at Jantar Mantar has left a profound imprint, standing out as one of the most remarkable protest movements of the year 2023. Its significance lies in its success in bringing the rampant issue of sexual harassment of women to the centre stage, thereby stirring the consciousness of the entire nation. The spectacular determination and courage demonstrated by two women wrestlers, Sakshi Malik and Vinesh Phogat, along with Bajrang Punia, succeeded in garnering unprecedented solidarity from a wide spectrum of groups, including women's organisations, farmers unions, sportspersons, various social outfits, khap panchayats, students, and youth fronts, among others.

As the criminal insensitivity of the ruling establishment and brutal police repression proved ineffective in suppressing the movement, the union sports ministry was compelled to engage in negotiations with the protesting wrestlers. Assurances were provided, committing to filing a chargesheet against Brij Bhushan by June 13. Additionally, measures were promised to prevent his close aides from capturing the WFI in the upcoming elections. Notably, the agitating women wrestlers also wanted a woman to head the WFI.

It was no surprise that on all the above three counts wrestlers and those who supported their struggle found themselves blatantly deceived. The chargesheet was filed against Brij Bhushan Singh under offences of outraging the modesty of women.  But before filing the chargesheet, he was given enough opportunity to influence one of the minor complainant into submission and subsequent withdrawal of her complaint in order to circumvent his arrest under POCSO Act.

Similarly, the second assurance pertaining to keep the WFI free from the clutches of Brij Bhushan and his henchmen also fell flat when seen in the light of the picture that emerged after the recent election results.

The official reason cited by the sports ministry to suspend the elected body was flouting of rules and utter haste in fixing the Junior National Wrestling Tournament at Nandini Nagar in Gonda in Uttar Pradesh, a place that falls within Brij Bhushan’s own parliamentary constituency. This issue was sharply objected to during the agitation also that Brij Bhushan has been holding the events at the places of his own choice with his bad motives. In this context, Sakshi Malik has posted on her social media account that many girls have expressed their fear of going to Gonda  for participation.

Meanwhile, the broad picture that is eventually unfolding now has two contending sets of stakeholders juxtaposed to each other. Brij Bhushan Singh's camp is desperately trying to interpret the WFI election results as a vindication of their claims of innocence. They wanted to make the people believe that the entire episode involving allegations of serious sexual abuse were unfounded and just made out of political motives. On the other hand, amidst an atmosphere of gloom and disappointment looming large on the side of wrestlers, sports lovers and justice loving people, there is a glimmer of morale boosting.

Award-winning wrestlers continue to express their anguish by returning their awards, highlighting that Brij Bhushan valued a medal bringing glory to the country at just Rs 15!

However, a more profound concern in the current tumult is that of the guardians of the girls who have been actively encouraging their daughters to take up sports in recent decades, defying socio-cultural taboos associated with it. In pursuit of better careers and job opportunities in sports, coupled with the pride that accompanies the medals they win, many parents in rural areas, particularly in Haryana, had recently embraced a positive outlook toward their daughters pursuing sports as a professional choice. This positive shift bore fruit as daughters showcased their talent by earning numerous medals in international tournaments.

It is crucial to note that the prime minister had acknowledged the pivotal role of girls in sports by suggesting the extension of the Beti Bachao - Beti Padhao slogan to Beti Khilao, recognising the need to encourage girls to participate in sports. As we enter the new year of 2024, let us collectively ensure that Beti Khilao is not replaced by Beti Rulao!

The recent disturbing events have undoubtedly shaken the confidence of women in the wake of corruption within sports bodies and other workplaces for girls and women. In this context, the mere act of suspending the elected body may prove to be only a superficial attempt to address the issue. Such a measure alone is not going to restore the huge trust deficit regarding the safety of women sportspersons across all games.

Furthermore, the unfolding developments in the ongoing imbroglio need to be closely and vigilantly monitored. Women's organisations played a pivotal role during the wrestlers' agitation, and in this situation, all sections, including the women's movement, must continue to ardently pursue the fight for the safety and self-respect of women, both collectively and independently.

People are well aware that neither the BJP took any disciplinary action against Brij Bhushan nor did the Delhi Police initially register a case until the Supreme Court ordered the filing of an FIR. For a fair trial, it is imperative to cancel the bail granted to the accused to prevent him from influencing the complainants, whose testimony is crucial for a guaranteed conviction.

In the realm of sports, the need of the hour is the implementation of drastic measures for a comprehensive transformation of all sports federations and associations. More specifically, there is a need for an alternative sports policy that focuses on and addresses the facilitation of the encouraging influx of women over recent decades.

These radical changes form part of a policy framework that requires broad-based campaigns involving all stakeholders to make sports establishments genuinely inclusive of women, more democratic, transparent, and accountable. In this challenging scenario, the spirit and strength of the Jantar Mantar wrestlers' agitation need to be consolidated and expanded in various ways.


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