Vinesh Phogat admits she was a little thrown off when she, on the morning of 18th of January, made her way to Jantar Mantar in Central Delhi. In a few hours she and several other top Indian wrestlers would be part of the biggest protest by Indian athletes against sports administrators in recent memory.
But as they placed mattresses around the pavement at a site that has been demarcated as a venue for protests in New Delhi, the 28-year-old says she was a little underwhelmed. “It’s not like we had any knowledge of what to expect. We didn’t even know exactly what you were supposed to do at a protest. I had heard about Jantar Mantar on TV. I knew that’s where people go to protest in Delhi, but I didn’t even know exactly where it was,” the two time World medallist tells Sportstar.
“I actually had this image in my head that we were going to be on some sort of stage and giving bhashan (speeches) like a politician. Then on the first day I saw that we were going to be protesting on the pavement. I realised we weren’t even carrying microphones. Luckily we had got some mattresses,” she says.
On that first day of what would be a three-day long sit in, Vinesh sat next to Olympic medallist Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik, World medallists Sarita Mor and Anshu Malik, junior world champion Sonam Malik and Asian medallist Jitender Kumar.
At this stage, there was still little to mark out the wrestlers’ protest from the dozens that routinely go on at Jantar Mantar. The wrestlers shared space on that first day with striking aanganwadi workers from Kerala and a group of nurses who had been laid off from their jobs in New Delhi hospitals.
Prior to arriving at Jantar Mantar though, Vinesh alongside Sakshi and Bajrang had sent out identical social media posts that read “Athletes win medals for the nation with their hard work but the federation doesn’t do anything but try to bring them down. Players are being harassed by imposing arbitrary laws.” The posts also had the hashtag #boycottWFIpresident.
As word spread of some of India’s most accomplished athletes on the road in New Delhi, media began to trickle in, the wrestlers were tight lipped only saying they were protesting against what they termed the dictatorial nature of the Wrestling Federation and the WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh who had been in that position since 2011. They only said they would speak at 4 p.m. that day with the promise that what they said would create a ‘ dhamaka’ (explosion).
It was as they said. At 4 p.m. the wrestlers accused Federation officials and coaches of financial impropriety, unsympathetic planning and mental harassment. They’d then drop the biggest bombshell of all, accusing the Federation President and national camp coaches of sexual exploitation ( yaun shoshan) of female athletes going back a decade. The accusations — particularly of exploitation — against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, a powerful Member of Parliament from the ruling BJP who had won the WFI elections uncontested three times — were particularly seismic. They took the protest beyond purely a sporting one.
It is however learned that it wasn’t the alleged harassment that had been the sole breaking point for the athletes. According to Vinesh, anger had been building up for a long time. “There wasn’t that something happened to me or anyone and we decided to protest. But things had been getting intolerable,” she says.
In Vinesh’s case the immediate trigger had been the federation’s initial refusal to include her at the national camp and the first international competition of the season — the Croatia Ranking Series in the first week of February. Ostensibly Vinesh had been excluded since she didn’t participate in the national championships — something that the Federation had mandated for all athletes last year. Vinesh’s reasoning though was also not without merit — she had been injured at the world championships (where she had won a bronze) just a few months earlier. Vinesh had requested for an exemption. Just a few days before the start of the protest, Vinesh had to plead her case for inclusion before a government panel. This was ultimately granted.
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This wasn’t the first time Vinesh and other senior athletes had been made to run through hoops. “Each of us had our own problem. Each of us had been dealing with something. Everyone was being troubled in some way,” says Vinesh.
Apart from not being called up for camps, there was disagreement over coaching. The Federation had banned Surjeet Mann — Bajrang’s coach for the previous year — from the camp owing to disciplinary charges after he had stepped onto the mat at the 2022 nationals following a disagreement with a referee’s decision. After the Tokyo Olympics, the WFI ended the contracts of all foreign coaches working privately with wrestlers. This affected Bajrang (coached by Shako Bentinidis), Vinesh (coached by Woller Akos) and Ravi Dahiya (coached by Kamal Malikov).
Akos’ exit was particularly bitter with the highly-rated Hungarian coach accused by the WFI president of misusing funds. “It was so humiliating. With what face could we go and ask someone to work with us again?” Vinesh says.
Then there was the question of what was seen as meddling by the federation in commercial partnerships the wrestlers had. At the start of last year, wrestlers in India were sponsored by multiple entities. Over the last year, the WFI had got into a partnership with one of them and had been pressing wrestlers signed by other contractors to sign with the first. The WFI also made it clear that all sponsorships were to be channelled through them alone.
The decision to protest was made at a meeting in Sonepat, just a day before the wrestlers actually gathered in Jantar Mantar. Only a few senior wrestlers who were present on the opening day knew about it. “The more people knew about this, the more chances of it being leaked. And we also knew we had to be there together. In the past we had heard that one or two had come forward but they got cowed down,” Vinesh says.
Once they showed up at Jantar Mantar though, the protesters wondered whether they were up for what they were going to talk about. “It wasn’t embarrassing to be sitting on the ground. We have come from the ground only ‘mitti’. Slowly as the media gathered, we started getting a little nervous on whether we were up for this. Everyone was scared. Everyone knows what he (WFI President) is capable of doing. We came in knowing that we would be as good as dead if this protest didn’t work out,” Vinesh says.
That was because of all the complaints they planned to bring up, it was the issue of sexual harassment that was the most emotive. It was also one that many female wrestlers were particularly wary of addressing. “You have to understand the background of these girls. They are mostly from rural families where such issues mean beizzati (loss of honour). It’s not so easy to come up and say all this happened to me. Because then you will have to face people who will say this is what will happen when you wanted to play sports,” says an individual associated with the protesters and didn’t want to be named.
Back in 2012, an official complaint of harassment had been made against a male coach by girls at the junior national camp in Lucknow. This particular coach was initially suspended and the matter was investigated by a SAI (Sports Authority of India) committee. However no final report was made after one of the complainants withdrew her accusation and claimed her signature on the complaint was forged.
According to those at the protest, this was one of the reasons why the accusations were only made some way into the first day’s press conference, after issues of financial impropriety and lack of coaching support were raised.
It was finally Vinesh who broached the topic. “Everyone was wondering who would be the first to speak up,” she says. “It’s not like no one knew what was going on in the camps. It was to protect girls that parents would come with them to the camp. But the problem was the trouble was happening outside India as well. Paap ka ghada bhar chuka tha. (Vessel of sin had become full already). Everyone was aware of it, but no one had the courage to say something. I am happy that I had the courage to step forward and tell the truth,” Vinesh says.
According to a source close to another athlete who wasn’t present at the protest and asked not to be named, some of the harassment was done with the promise of favours, international tours and sponsorships. “I am a strong-willed girl, so I was never going to be swayed. But there are so many girls who don’t have that ability to say no,” says Vinesh.
Even Vinesh wasn’t sure about speaking out until she thought of a young relative who wants to take up wrestling. “My career is anyway established. But I was thinking about the juniors. I have a young relative who is just starting to wrestle. I was thinking about her. I might have come through what had happened but if nothing changed, the system would just eat her alive,” Vinesh says.
The protests gathered steam following the allegations. As the protests continued, more wrestlers joined from the akhadas in the capital as well as towns around Delhi. The wrestlers got more comfortable with sitting in public. “At first we were nervous about what to expect but that went away. Some people were wondering if we were embarrassed to sit on the ground in front of everyone but we have all started our pehelwani in mitti (the driven earth in which traditional kushti is played ). So we were returning to that,” says Vinesh.
With police permission given for the protest between 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. each day, the wrestlers spent as much time as they could at the protest site. Women wrestlers used a Sulabh toilet complex some 50 metres away from the site where they would change their clothes and freshen up. Other non-worldly support came a little further away. “There is a famous Hanuman temple in Janpath. We go and pray in the morning but before that we manage to take a bath at the premises,” said Asian medallist Jitender Kumar.
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While simply taking the first step to protest had been a major step for many, it was not enough to get what they wanted — the resignation of the WFI president. With Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh denying the charges and refusing to step aside, the matter was at loggerheads. On the second day, the players said they would seek the registry of an FIR regarding their accusation of harassment if their demands were not met over the next few hours but that deadline came and went.
Meanwhile there was a push back from the other side. Several female wrestlers made videos — some obviously coached — where they spoke in favour of Sharan Singh. Others pointed out that the most serious accusation of harassment was brought up far later than other charges. Others pointed out that one of the protesters — Sakshi Malik was a member of the WFI’s own sexual harassment committee. Others wondered what was the role of Babita Phogat, a member of the ruling BJP who is also Bajrang’s sister-in-law and Vinesh’s cousin. Babita had showed up on the second day and said she was speaking to the government on the players’ behalf.
“People are going through what we spoke. Dissecting everything we spoke. But we never prepared how we were going to speak. None of us have trained for this. We are wrestlers, we barely know how to speak and put our point forward. We hadn’t planned anything. We hadn’t spoken to any lawyers. We just assumed that people will believe us. Why would we risk our careers if we didn’t believe what we were saying was the truth,” says Vinesh.
In the meantime, the Ministry of Sports got involved. On the first day of the protest, the Ministry issued a letter to the WFI, requiring them to answer the charges put forward by the protesting athletes within three days. The players met representatives of the Ministry of sports on the second day without resolution and then went to the home of the Sports Minister Anurag Thakur later that night. It is learned that several women athletes repeated their claims of harassment at that meeting. However that meeting, too, ended without a solution.
It was only on the night of the third day that the deadlock was broken. The Sports Minister addressed a meeting with five others — Bajrang, Vinesh, Sakshi, Ravi and Babita.
The minister stated that Brij Bhushan would step aside for a month while a five-member oversight committee would investigate the charges. In turn Bajrang said the protest would be called off.
A day later the WFI assistant secretary Vinod Tomar was also removed from his post. While that and the suspension of the activities of the federation seems to be a step forward, it also raises several other questions says Supreme court lawyer Rahul Mehra. “There’s no doubt the government has the right to suspend the working of the federation if there is violation of the National Sports Code. You have to specify what is the specific violation and then you can proceed with the suspension. Ideally it is through a show cause notice. Once the reply is not satisfactory you can derecognise the body,” he says.
Mehra raises the specific example of the WFI’s own sexual harassment committee. “What is most problematic is the fact that the WFI’s internal complaints committee on sexual abuse violates the Vishakha guidelines. This is in direct violation of the National Sports Code 2011 which obliges federations to implement it. In such a situation, the intervention of the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and IOA is necessary,” says Mehra.
According to the Vishakha Guidelines for Cases of Sexual Harassment of Women at workplace, the chairperson of this committee has to be a woman and more than half of the members of the committee will also be women.
None of this though was followed in the WFI’s committee, notes Mehra.
But there is another issue says Mehra. “While there was a clear violation of the code, the Ministry has been looking the other side. In this case it was the MP from the ruling party so there was no question of derecognising or suspending this body. The problem with the violations of all these issues is not so much in the federation who are anyway at fault but with the Government of India and Ministry of sport which has chosen to look the other way,” says Mehra.
As it stands the WFI has still not been derecognised or suspended. Neither has the WFI president stepped down — he has merely ‘stepped away’ from handling the day-to-day functions of the federation. While the five-member committee has said they would speak to the alleged victims of harassment, there have been questions raised on the neutrality of the committee which is headed by Olympic medallist Mary Kom — who was elected to the Rajya Sabha by the the ruling party. Another member — Olympic medallist Yogeshwar Dutt — has also contested State elections on a BJP ticket and had also raised the possibility of the allegations being fake.
“When the matter is of such a magnitude, you want the committee to be as neutral as possible and one in which the athletes will have complete confidence in testifying to. This doesn’t seem like that,” says Mehra.
Indeed it is learned that at least one wrestler who says she was harassed and was initially adamant she would tell her story has now taken a step back. The prospect of public scrutiny and a potentially long media trial, she says, has caused her to change her mind.
The protesting wrestlers, too, said that they were not taken into confidence by the government when the committee was being formed and asked the government to include two members of their choice, one of whom it is learned was Babita Phogat. On January 31, a week and a half after first announcing the formation of the oversight committee, the Sports Ministry did finally include Babita Phogat.
While she had once hoped for a quick resolution, Vinesh doesn’t regret going down this path. “It’s not as if I’m sleeping well. In fact I’ve been barely able to sleep since the first day. But the arrow has already left the bow and now there’s nothing else to do but see whether it hits the target,” she says.
The wrestlers themselves have made their peace with the knowledge that the battle will be a long one. Vinesh, who had initially been upset over not being included in the team for the Croatia Ranking Series, has pulled out of the competition. Bajrang, Ravi Dahiya and Sakshi have done the same as well. “Initially we had protested because it was a question of our wrestling careers. But now we know that the matter is much bigger than that. Our wrestling career is not the first priority right now,” says Vinesh.
Vinesh says alongside the messages of support there have been those, including some close to her, who question the wisdom in going up against a powerful politician.
“Even now we have family members telling us maybe we shouldn’t have done this. There is so much at stake here. But there was no option but to go ahead. At the end of this only one of us — us or Brij Bhushan is going to be standing. But regardless of what happens, at least there will be a sense of fear in people so that all that had happened doesn’t happen again”.
Nervousness has given way to wry humour. Vinesh compares the situation to that of a wrestling competition. “He (WFI president) thought athletes would never speak up. Normally what are we in comparison to a big neta (politician ). Agaryeh competition hota, he must have seen us and thought he was in an easy bracket. He thought he had a bye. He didn’t realise he was up against us,” she says.
WRESTLERS’ PROTEST: A TIMELINE:On January 18, 2023, several of India’s top wrestlers sat on a public protest in New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar against the Wrestling Federation of India and it’s president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. The protesters raised several issues from sexual exploitation of women athletes, mental harassment, death threats as well as the poor planning of competition and training. The protests eventually led to the government to appoint an oversight committee to look into the charges, take charge of the functioning of the WFI and also have Brij Bhushan Sharan step aside from the day to day working of the organisation.
Problems between the players and the WFI had been simmering for several years and had surfaced publicly on a few occasions. Here is a look back: