India’s female wrestlers protest sexual harassment and are crushed


SONIPAT, India — Ever since Sakshi started wrestling six years ago, the 13-year-old has tried to mimic how her idol, Vinesh Phogat, a medalist in last year’s Commonwealth Games and in two World Championships, would take out her opponents at the legs.

Then last month, she was stunned by photos of police pinning Phogat against the pavement as she clutched the national flag. Police also dragged India’s sole female Olympic wrestling medalist, Sakshi Malik, by her arms and legs into detention.

“I was wondering what did they gain from winning all these medals for the country when they were being humiliated like this,” said Sakshi, who goes by only one name and, like many of the country’s wrestlers, is from the northern state of Haryana, where she trains.

A caste survey in India could upend politics in world’s largest democracy

Fellow wrestler Deepika Saroha, 19, who had closely followed the drama of the nation’s top female wrestlers, explained to Sakshi that these trailblazers have accused the chair of India’s wrestling federation of repeatedly touching, groping and stalking young women for the past decade. Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, a powerful member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and six-term member of Parliament, has denied the allegations.

In a society where women face immense barriers, the treatment of some of India’s rare international medalists is a shock to the young athletes hoping to follow in their footsteps and represent the nation abroad.

India’s social divisions erupt on flights, and women bear the brunt

As the young women competed in a hall named after Malik, Rajesh, Saroha’s father and the wrestlers’ coach, talked about how two prospective students gave up their wrestling aspirations after the protests began. He worries that these scenes of government crackdown will dissuade young girls from wrestling. Families, often of modest means, send their children across the country to him in the hopes that sporting success might translate into a much-coveted government job and a better future.

“Rich families go into archery, shooting, table tennis, or badminton,” said Rajesh, whose roughly dozen female students pay about $200 a month to be housed in his wrestling center. “These families get into it for the respect of winning a big medal. The government has obliterated that respect. Why else would they drag an Olympian through the streets?”

Malik, the wrestler, told The Washington Post that young girls have also expressed doubt to her about a wrestling career since the protest.

“When the government isn’t listening to us, how will the common people, the common women trust that their voice will be listened to?” Malik said. “When we get medals, everyone comes to take photos with us. Now that we are fighting for justice, no one is listening.”

In two police reports from late April, seven female wrestlers, including Phogat, accused Singh of over a dozen incidents from 2012 to 2022, including offers of free medical care in exchange for sexual favors and threats if they refused. After repeated unwanted physical contact from Singh, the young women began moving around in groups out of fear of being alone around him, according to the complaints.

In a meeting with the wrestlers Wednesday, the sports minister said police would file charges by June 15. The wrestlers have paused their protest, but they continue to press for Singh’s arrest.

India cracks down on critics of coal

When their protest began in January, they were still wearing winter jackets, but their demands remained unfulfilled. Instead of training for next year’s Olympics in Paris, they slept in tents for more than a month in New Delhi at a designated protest site through April. When they tried to march to the inauguration of the Parliament in May — which Singh was attending — police swooped in, tackled them, and cleared away their cots and tents.

Three wrestlers responded by staging a protest on the banks of the river Ganges. They planned to toss away their hard-earned medals, mirroring the widely circulated story of American boxer Muhammad Ali, who allegedly threw his Olympic gold into the Ohio River to protest racism in the 1960s. At the last minute, they were dissuaded by a community leader.

In an emailed statement, the International Olympic Committee called the scenes in May “very disturbing” and said the wrestlers’ allegations should be investigated. “The IOC also urges the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) to take all necessary actions to protect the athletes.” United World Wrestling also issued a statement of condemnation.

Several Indian athletes have spoken out to say the moment shows the need for stronger institutional safeguards. Olympian Shiva Keshavan, who is a member of the Indian Olympic Association’s Athletes Commission, said most sporting bodies don’t have the legally required committees to handle sexual harassment claims.

“Because of a lack of that, we have arrived at this situation,” he said. “This is probably not the first time this is happening, but it’s the first time it’s coming out. … As an athlete, it is difficult to see these scenes.”

India’s #MeToo movement hits roadblocks

Part of the problem is that in many cases, he said, powerful politicians with deep support in the halls of government are the ones who hold the top positions of these athletic bodies.

Singh, the accused head of the Wrestling Federation of India, is a major political player in a region important to the ruling party. He had a key role in the movement that led to the demolition of a mosque in Ayodhya, the purported birthplace of the god Rama, by a Hindu mob in 1992 — a major milestone in the BJP’s rise. He previously was involved in a string of other court cases, including murder charges, he once admitted in an interview.

Sports journalists have described seeing him furiously shouting on the sidelines and at least once slapping a wrestler. “These are all strong men and women,” he said in a 2021 wrestling competition in Agra, according to the Indian Express. “To control them, you need someone stronger. Is there anyone stronger here than me?”

Neelanjan Sircar, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, said the government is taking a hard line toward the wrestlers and backing Singh because “the BJP is wary of showing weakness in the run-up to the general election,” especially after conceding to the demands of a massive farmers’ protest from 2020-2021.

In one of the rare setbacks to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rule, a year-long protest by farmers forced the government to backtrack on agricultural legislation. Many of those farmer groups are from the same community as the female wrestlers and are backing their protest, giving the movement extra weight.

Back at the wrestling competition in Haryana, 450 girls — nearly all with closely cropped hair — warmed up for the trials to see who would be heading to the competitions abroad.

“I want to tell them don’t give up until you get justice. If my didis are saying something, then they would not lie,” said Saroha, the 19-year-old, using the term for elder sisters to describe the protesting wrestlers, Malik and Phogat.

The day began in high spirits. In four large rings, faces crushed into thighs in human pretzels. As the day dragged on, the pungent smell of sweat deepened, banana peels covered the mats, and more girls threw up or cried into each other’s shoulders.

Coaches, mostly men, shouted in various Indian languages into the rings. Bittu Pehelwan, whose last name means wrestler, screamed at his niece, “What is wrong with you? Grab her leg!”

Collapsing into a seat, Khushi Rani Singh described herself as “physically broken” after she lost her semifinal round. Looking down at her from the walls were photos of top wrestlers holding their medals — including Bajrang Punia, one of the male wrestlers at the forefront of the protest.

While her own uncle insists the protesting wrestlers are “useless girls” who will destroy his niece’s future, Khushi was adamant in her support.

“If you listen to them, you will understand how difficult it is for women in wrestling,” said the 20-year-old from Haryana, whose father is a farmer. “If [Singh] is not brought down and didis are forced to step back, that will be a loss for me.”


Related Posts

Next Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *