Sexual harassment of women in Indian sports is a serious and widespread problem that violates their dignity, safety and human rights. It also undermines their potential and performance as athletes and discourages many young girls from pursuing sports as a career or a hobby.
According to a report by the Global Observatory for Gender Equality and Sport, female athletes in India are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment because of the hierarchical and patriarchal nature of the coach-athlete relationship, the lack of awareness and reporting mechanisms, and the culture of silence and impunity that prevails in the sporting ecosystem.
Imagine being a woman wrestler in India, training hard to represent your country in national and international tournaments, only to face sexual harassment and coercion from the very person who is supposed to support and guide you. This is the nightmare that some women wrestlers have alleged they have been living under the presidency of Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the chief of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) and a BJP MP from Uttar Pradesh. In this article, we will look at the details of the allegations, the protests, the response and the criticism that have emerged around this issue.
The Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are facing criticism for their apparent indifference and inaction over the serious allegations of sexual harassment against the president of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who is also a BJP MP from Uttar Pradesh.
The allegations against Singh first surfaced in January this year, when seven women wrestlers, including a minor girl, filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking the registration of an FIR against him for sexually harassing them and demanding sexual favours from them in exchange for selection in national and international tournaments.
The petitioners also alleged that Singh had threatened them with dire consequences if they did not comply with his demands or spoke out against him.
The Supreme Court took cognizance of the matter and said that the allegations were “serious” and required its consideration.
The Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) also sought a case against Singh and another man who revealed the identity of the minor complainant on social media.
According to a report, there have been 125 people across four states whose statements have been recorded in relation to the charges against Singh made by at least three female wrestlers. Four people including two Indian female wrestlers – an Olympian and a Commonwealth Games medallist – have corroborated the accusations.
In April, some of India’s most prominent wrestlers such as Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik, Sumit Mallik and Bajrang Punia staged an indefinite dharna at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi to demand justice for the victims and action against Singh.
They also alleged that several coaches at the national camp in Lucknow had exploited women wrestlers and demanded a probe into their role. The government constituted a three-member committee headed by former Supreme Court judge Justice A K Patnaik to investigate the allegations. However, the protesters expressed dissatisfaction with the committee and said that they wanted an independent inquiry by a women’s commission or a special investigation team (SIT).
They also accused the BJP-led government of shielding Singh and not taking any action against him despite having enough evidence.
Singh has denied all the allegations and claimed that he was being framed by some disgruntled elements who wanted to tarnish his image and that of the WFI. He also said that he was ready to face any inquiry and that he would commit suicide if the charges were proved against him.
He also claimed that he had tried to contact the protesting wrestlers but they did not respond to his calls. The BJP has not taken any disciplinary action against Singh or asked him to step down from his post as the WFI chief or as an MP. On the contrary, Singh has been seen addressing BJP rallies in Uttar Pradesh as part of the party’s campaign for the 2024 elections.
The Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not made any public statement on the issue or met with the protesting wrestlers to hear their grievances.
The Congress party has slammed the BJP-led government for its silence on the issue and said that its slogan of ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ (Save daughters, educate daughters) has now become ‘Beti BJP ke netaon se bachao’ (Save daughters from BJP leaders).
The Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said that Modi had failed to protect the dignity and honour of women wrestlers who had brought laurels to the country. He also said that Modi had betrayed his promise of zero tolerance towards crimes against women and demanded his resignation.
The Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav also accused the BJP of being insensitive towards women’s issues and said that Singh should be arrested immediately. He also said that the BJP was trying to divert attention from its failures by raking up communal issues.
The issue has raised serious questions about the safety and security of women athletes in India, especially in a male-dominated sport like wrestling. It has also exposed the lack of accountability and transparency in the functioning of the WFI, which is the apex body for the sport in the country.
It has also exposed the reputation and credibility of the BJP, which claims to be a party that respects and empowers women.
It has also put pressure on the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is seen as the face and leader of the BJP, to take a stand on the issue and ensure justice for the victims.