Several of India’s top wrestlers, including Olympic medallists Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik, have been detained while trying to march to the new parliament building in New Delhi as they intensify their protest demanding the arrest of their federation chief over sexual harassment allegations.
The wrestlers detained on Sunday have been protesting in the capital for a month over the lack of action against Brijbhushan Sharan Singh, a member of parliament belonging to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
The protesting athletes have demanded his “immediate arrest” and sought the intervention of the Supreme Court, which directed the police to register a case against the 66-year-old. The MP has been accused of harassing several female athletes while leading the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) and has denied all the allegations.
Protest during parliament inauguration
The wrestlers tried to march to India’s new parliament building as Modi was inaugurating it, but they were stopped by hundreds of police officers. Among those detained and hauled away in buses were Olympic bronze medallists Malik and Punia.
The two wrestlers are national heroes in a country that has long yearned for mostly elusive Olympic success. Modi congratulated them when Malik won her medal in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro and Punia won his at the 2020 Tokyo Games. Now, the wrestlers are accusing the Modi government of ignoring complaints that are embarrassing for the prime minister, who has portrayed himself as a champion of women’s rights.
“They broke the barricades and didn’t follow police directions,” senior Delhi Police officer Dependra Pathak told local media, speaking of the wrestlers. “They broke the law, and that’s why they were detained.”
Malik, who medalled in the women’s 58kg freestyle event, shared photos and video of the wrestlers being dragged away by police.
“This is how our champions are being treated. The world is watching us,” she tweeted
— Sakshee Malikkh (@SakshiMalik) May 28, 2023
Security in the capital was tightened ahead of the new parliament’s inauguration, and personnel also stood guard on the outskirts of Delhi as a group of farmers tried to enter the city to support the protesting wrestlers.
This month, dozens of farmers broke down police barricades in the city to join the protest.
‘This is the culture’
Olympian Vinesh Phogat, one of the athletes leading the protests, told Al Jazeera that several sexual harassment cases have been reported in the past but Singh succeeded in either making the charges disappear or made sure the complainant did not compete again.
Recently, Phogat said, she received a phone call from young female wrestlers from a state in eastern India. “They had complained to the WFI in writing about sexual harassment by a coach,” she said. “The coach was banned for 10 days but returned in seven days as head coach. This is the culture [of the WFI]. When the head himself is like that, what action will he take against others?”
The protesting wrestlers have refused to share the names of the women who have complained and will not let them come forward.
‘Biggest culprits are sports officials’
Wrestling is arguably India’s most successful Olympic sport. In the 76 years since India’s independence, it has won 21 medals in individual sports, seven by wrestlers.
Most wrestlers come from villages, many of them from poor families and the bulk of them have been from Haryana, an agrarian and highly patriarchal region with high rates of female foeticide and murders of women known as “honour killings”.
Female athletes have long complained of sexual harassment in their sports although they have been reluctant to speak out publicly.
“Many athletes have told me about being subjected to various kinds of exploitation, but they don’t want to come out in the open when they are in their prime,” sports lawyer and activist Saurabh Mishra told Al Jazeera.
“Seeking favours is not rare – financial, sexual,” Mishra added. “In my view, the biggest culprits are sports federation officials who are running their fiefdoms.”
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