A day after top Indian wrestlers accused Wrestling Federation of India president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh of the sexual exploitation of young athletes at the women’s national camp, Olympic bronze medallist Bajrang Punia claimed that several more wrestlers were willing to step forward.
Punia referred to Singh’s defence a day ago wherein the six-time Member of Parliament had said that he would ‘hang himself if even one girl came forward’ to accuse him.
“Yesterday there were two girls. Now we have five-six girls who are willing to step forward with proof,” Punia told the media at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar where he and several international Olympic and world medallists had gathered in protest since Tuesday.
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Two time World medallist and three-time Commonwealth Games champion Vinesh Phogat added that if their demands were not heard, they would have to approach the police.
“Earlier we had two girls and now we have 5-6 girls who are willing to step forward with proof. If we are not heard, we will go to the police and take the matter forward,” she said.
However Phogat said that while they had individuals willing to step forward publicly, she hoped it would not come to that. “Do not force us (the alleged victims of exploitation) to come in front of everyone. We are fighting to save our atma samman (self respect). We don’t want to come forward and say this is what happened to us. If we are forced it will be a shame that India’s daughters have to come forward with proof in front of the media that this is what happened to us. We hope we will not see this black day. We will step forward with 5-6 FIRS if we have to. When that day comes, it will go down in India as a black day, and I say this with so much shame, that if people like us can go through this, I can say this with surety that no woman anywhere in India is safe. Women and daughters should just not be born in India,” Phogat added.
Punia and Phogat’s statement about approaching the police came a few hours after they and Rio Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik met representatives of the Sports Ministry to present their demands.
“In the meeting, they only gave us assurance that our concerns will be looked into but we are not satisfied with what they are saying. There has been no satisfactory answer,” Malik said.
“Everyone knows a wrestler missing a days training is like losing 100 years of practice. Today is the second day of our protest and it is our misfortune that we haven’t got a suitable answer. The accusations were made because we had truth on our side,” Phogat said.
While their demands were not met, the wrestlers insist they are not backing down.
A resignation is not enough. We want the federation to be dissolved. We want to shut this down.
— Bajrang Punia
“The question is not of his (WFI President’s) resignation. That we will take anyway. If we are provoked more we will send him to jail. We want his resignation and proceedings carried out. The longer this gets delayed the worse this will get for the WFI president. Yesterday there were 2 girls who were willing to step forward. Today there are five. Tomorrow it will be ten and then 20,” Phogat said.
“We are not fighting the government. We are fighting for justice. Our fight is with the federation not the government. We are appealing to the PM, the Home Minister, the Supreme court to hear us. Doodh ka doodh pani ka pani ho jayega (the truth will be clear). But at least let him (The WFI President) resign first,” she said.
Phogat further added “If we are forced to do it, we are ready to file an FIR tomorrow. He (The WFI President) finished wrestling in UP due to the exploitation. Now we’ve been getting calls from girls in Maharashtra and Kerala, congratulating us for taking a stand and asking us to continue to fight for them. Imagine, if we’re hearing from states that don’t have such a wrestling legacy, how far does this federation’s influence go?,” she added. “If there is no solution and world medallists and Olympians are not being believed then it is sad,” Phogat said.
However Phogat added that the wrestlers would stay on protest until their demands were met. Indeed the protests gathered steam with many wrestlers absent a day before making their presence felt. Punia added that the vast majority of India’s wrestlers were on the side of the protesters. Indeed,Tokyo Olympic silver medallist Ravi Dahiya, and World silver medallist Deepak Punia and Amit Dahiya – who had been absent on Tuesday -- joined the protests on Wednesday. “Yesterday you (Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh) had said only 3 percent of the wrestlers were protesting and 97percent were on your side. Today your office is shut (the Wrestling Federation of India office is situated at Singh’s New Delhi residence just down the road from the protest site at Jantar Mantar) and we are still here,” he said.
Sakshi also weighed in: “We have only been given assurance, but we are not satisfied. We want the whole federation ended.”
Asked why the wrestlers did not approach the Sports Authority of India (SAI) earlier, Phogat remarked: “If we ask for a coach, physio, it manages to find its way to the federation. The more this matter gets delayed, the more girls will come forward. Kam se kam pad chod de, hum apna kushti chod baithe hain (He can at least let go of his position, we have stopped wrestling).
“Why doesn’t the president sit before me, look me in the eye for a few minutes and tell me he and the federation have not done anything wrong?
“We didn’t seek police protection, but we were worried after yesterday as we didn’t know who was following us where. The president’s premises are under lock and key, but we are still here. Abuse happens behind closed doors, there’s no camera there. The girls coming forward are the biggest proof of abuse here. I don’t want their identities revealed, but if we are forced to, it will be a dark hour for India.”
Sports Ministry issues statement
The Sports Ministry released a statement late on Wednesday, saying: Taking cognizance of the protest staged by wrestlers, including Olympic and CWG medalists, in Delhi today and a press conference in which wrestlers have levelled serious charges of sexual harassment of women wrestlers by the President and coaches of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) and of mismanagement in the functioning of the federation, the Sports Ministry has sought an explanation from WFI and directed it to furnish a reply within the next 72 hours on the allegations made. In its communication to WFI, the Ministry has stated that “since the matter pertains to the well being of athletes, the Ministry has taken a very serious view of the matter.”
The Ministry has further stated that if WFI fails to respond within the next 72 hours, the Ministry will initiate action against the federation in terms of the provisions of the National Sports Development Code, 2011.