India’s top wrestlers have taken to the streets to publicly denounce their federation’s chief.
The athletes have accused Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh—who is also a lawmaker for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—and other coaches of sexual misconduct spanning several years. They started a protest outside New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar observatory on Wednesday (Jan. 18), which continued today (Jan. 19).
“Coaches are harassing women and some coaches, who are favorites of the Federation, misbehave with women coaches as well,” said Vinesh Phogat, an Olympian and the first Indian woman wrestler to win gold medals at both the Asian and Commonwealth Games—part of India’s famed Phogat sisters, whose story inspired Aamir Khan’s film Dangal. She added: “They sexually harass girls. The WFI president has sexually harassed many girls.”
Phogat clarified that she herself was not sexually abused but she knows “10-20 girls in the national camp” who were, including at least one who was present at the protest. She explained she’s advocating on behalf of those who are too scared to take on an influential politician. Phogat also claims she has received death threats from people who are “close to the WFI president,” and is not sure if she “will be alive tomorrow” after making these revelations.
Hundreds of wrestlers and their family members have joined the sit-in protest, known as a dharna, including female wrestler Sakshi Malik, who earned a gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and male wrestler Bajrang Punia, who won the bronze medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Olympic silver medallist Ravi Kumar Dahiya and international athlete Deepak Punia also turned up to show solidarity.
Besides Singh, no other WFI officials have been named yet. “When the time comes, we will speak up,” Malik said. “We will give the names of those who have been exploited to whoever is doing the probe.”
On Jan. 18, India’s sports ministry gave WFI 72 hours to respond to the accusations, or otherwise face action.
A budding wrestler who joined student politics in the 1980s, Singh is a six-time member of parliament. Part of India’s ruling BJP, he’s currently the MP representing Kaiserganj in Uttar Pradesh. The 65-year-old, who has been the WFI chief since 2011, has said he’s “willing to be hanged” if even one wrestler comes out and says Singh has harassed them.
A powerful politician, the sexual miscount allegations add to a list of misdeeds Singh has been embroiled in. To sum up a few:
- Slapped a young wrestler
- Accused of dacoity, attempt to murder and rioting
- Named as an accused in the Babri Masjid demolition case
- Had a case against him for terrorist and disruptive activities for harboring associates in the underworld in the mid-’90s
In light of the ongoing protests, the Women National Wrestling Coaching camp, due to start in Sports Authority of India’s National Centre of Excellence (NCOE) in Lucknow from Jan. 18, 2023, has been canceled. The 41 wrestlers that were meant to start training are now in limbo.
“I’m a wrestler first. The BJP government is with the wrestlers. I will make sure that action is taken today itself. I’m a wrestler, and I’m in the government as well, so it is my responsibility to mediate. I have heard instances of abuse in my career as well. There is no smoke without fire. These voices are important,” —Babita Phogat, Vinesh Phogat’s sister who is a member of the BJP and part of the Haryana state government
India’s #MeToo movement started in 2018 with Bollywood actresses speaking out against sexual misconduct in their workplace. The movement quickly spread as a rallying cry tearing through industries—journalism, comedy, and corporate settings—but it also quieted down rapidly. Survivors saw little merit in continuing to speak up when punishments and reforms were few and far between.
A director accused of harassing nine women was recently part of India’s iteration of reality TV show Big Brother. Another one was exonerated following an internal review, although some suspected it was because the victims weren’t able to mount a legal battle.
More than four years later, outside of a handful of small startups and not-so-high-profile individuals choosing to step away from the limelight, there’s been little accountability and action against those accused of sexual misconduct. The wrestling case could be a chance to change that record. Until then, the wrestlers are fighting this match on the streets of Delhi.