Olympic medal-winning Indian wrestlers have accused the chief of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) and its coaches of sexually harassing female players and have vowed to protest until the sports body is disbanded and an independent probe initiated.
WFI chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh is not only a member of both the BJP and Indian parliament but also the president of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI). The wrestlers, led by Olympic bronze medalists Sakshi Malik, Bajrang Punia, and Commonwealth Games women’s gold winner Vinesh Phogat, started protesting in the nation’s capital New Delhi on January 18.
Phogat, a veteran Indian wrestler, made a startling accusation against Singh, saying the WFI chief sexually abused female wrestlers. She also claimed that Singh had passed a nasty jibe at her during the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, calling her a “khota sikka” (fake currency) after she lost a game.
“The Federation mentally tortured me. I even thought of ending my life. If anything happens to any wrestler, the WFI president will be to blame,” she said on the sidelines of a sit-in protest in New Delhi.
Phogat further claimed that WFI coaches assigned to national training camps had also abused and exploited female wrestlers.
In a media interaction, she further added that at least 10-20 women wrestlers told her about the sexual exploitation the WFI president subjected them to. “I can reveal their names if we get to meet the Prime Minister and the Home Minister of the country,” she said.
“Wrestling is our only livelihood, and they are not letting us do it. Our only option is to die. So might as well do good before dying,” she added.
The 2016 Rio Olympics bronze medalist Sakshi Malik tweeted in support of the protesting female athletes, tweeted “Athletes work hard to win medals for the country, but the federation has done nothing but let us down.”
Some of the country’s top male wrestlers, including Bajrang Punia, have expressed solidarity with the protesters. Punia referred to Singh as a “dictator,” slamming the WFI for lack of accountability.
65-year-old Singh has been leading the WFI since 2011. He also served in the parliament six times, previously holding the seats of Gonda, Kaiserganj, and Balrampur.
He won five of the elections on a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ticket, with the sole exception of the 2009 election, when he briefly backed the Samajwadi Party, a regional party that sits in opposition.
Narendra Modi’s administration has long advocated for women’s safety and criticised the previous Congress-led government for not doing enough in that regard.
But the ongoing protest and sexual assault allegations from female wrestlers have left the BJP in a difficult situation, with critics punching holes in Prime Minister Modi women safety promise.
Singh was appointed to the position for the third time in a row in February 2019. No stranger to controversy, he had previously been seen on camera slapping a juvenile wrestler in 2021 at the Under-15 Nationals in Ranchi.
According to his election affidavit for the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, he is facing four litigations, all pending, in Ayodhya and Gonda. The charges range from rioting and dacoity to attempted murder. Singh, however, denies them all.
In light of fresh sexual harassment allegations, Singh recently told Indian media that the victims “should have approached the federation with their names earlier.”
“If such a thing has happened, I will hang myself,” Singh said in a press conference.
“97 percent of players are with the WFI. I am hurt by the sexual harassment allegations. Not a single player can bring such charges against the chief coach or me. Some wrestlers have been pressured to participate in the protest”.
Other protesting wrestlers also shared their testimonies with media channels.
“When we went to the Olympics, we did not have physio or a coach. After we started raising our voices, we were threatened,” added another wrestler without clarifying the exact nature of the threat.
Recognising the gravity of the situation, senior BJP member Anurag Thakur said the Indian government has sought a response from the federation within 72 hours.