Two of India’s most decorated sportspersons - two-time World Wrestling Championships medallist Vinesh Phogat and Olympic medallist Sakshi Malik - have accused Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president and five-time Member of Parliament Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh and several national coaches of sexual exploitation of a number of wrestlers, including underage athletes, in the national wrestling camp.
“There are many coaches in the national camps who are close to the federation. Not only women coaches, but also a number of girls at the national camp have been sexually exploited by them. The WFI president has himself exploited so many girls in the national camp,” Phogat alleged.
Phogat was speaking at a protest organised at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar by several of India’s top wrestlers that included Olympic medallists Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik, world medallists Anshu Malik and Sarita Mor and junior world champion Sonam Malik among others. They were protesting what they termed the dictatorial attitude of the WFI and seeking the resignation of the federation president. They also raised several issues including the inability to seek private sponsors, unqualified coaching, bad scheduling, and poor management.
Phogat alleged there were victims of sexual exploitation among those protesting at Jantar Mantar. “Among the girls who are here, there are a couple to whom this incident has happened,” she said adding the number of victims was many times more.
“We will not take the name of who among us this has happened to because we have izzat (honour). I can take the name of at least 10-20 girls in the national camp who have told me their stories... ki hamare saath aise aise hua hai (that this has happened to us). There are many girls I know who have sat in front of us and cried telling their stories of what happens in the national camp but what can we do?” Phogat said.
According to Phogat, the alleged abuse has been going on for many years. “It has been going on for as long as we know the president. It has been happening in the cadet (U-17), junior (U-19), and senior camps.”
Phogat added the girls were afraid of naming the WFI president in the past. “You all know how powerful he is and how many times he has been an MP. We have received threats ki woh jaan se maar denge (that he will get us killed.). A number of these girls don’t have the courage to come forward because they aren’t from influential families and these are powerful people.
Phogat added that the authorities had been approached in the past but the matter was hushed up. “Two girls approached the police in Lucknow but the matter wasn’t taken up and evidence was destroyed,” she told ABP News.
Phogat added she was stepping forward only now after the federation had struck her name off the national camp for not competing at the 2022 Nationals (before eventually letting her join). “ Paani sir ke upar nikal gaya hai (the water has gone over the head). Right now, we only live for wrestling and they aren’t allowing us to do that. What is only left for us is to die and if we have to die, we might as well do something good. Luckily, by the grace of God, I have roti to eat and a roof over my head, but I don’t want that the coming generation to step through this daldal (quicksand),” she said.
Phogat admitted she was fearful of what would happen to her following the allegations. “We didn’t raise our voice before because of how powerful these people are. Today I have spoken... who knows tomorrow whether I will have my life or not,” she said.
Sakshi, India’s lone woman wrestler to win an Olympic medal, backed Phogat’s allegations. “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,” she said.
Phogat said she would name the girls who had allegedly been exploited but only to Prime Minister Narendra Modi or Home Minister Amit Shah. “When I am asked to name, I will name. Our request is with the PM and HM. We will put all the names in front of the PM and only he can solve this,” she said.
Brij Bhushan, meanwhile, denied the allegations against him. “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.
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