India’s women wrestlers grapple with sexual harassment claims

By Murali Krishnan - RFI
FEB 5, 2023 LISTEN

Indian wrestlers staged a sit-in protest near the parliament building in New Delhi over three days late last month, accusing the president of the wrestling federation of sexually and mentally harassing young female athletes.

Athletes have accused several officials, including the president of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, of sexual misconduct.

India's biggest names in women's wrestling led the protest demanding his dismissal, including Sakshi Malik, the only Indian woman to have won an Olympic medal for the sport, and Vinesh Phogat, who took gold at both the Commonwealth and Asian Games.

They were joined by men's Olympic bronze medallist Bajrang Punia.

The government has removed Singh while it investigates the allegations against him, which also include financial mismanagement and administrative failings.

High-profile protest

Singh, a politician for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, was accused of sexually harassing women wrestlers at national training camps.

Head of the WFI for over a decade, the 66-year old refused to resign, and alleged there was a conspiracy against him.

“It took a lot of courage to come out in this manner and organise a protest. But I know of several wrestlers who have told me that the WFI president sexually exploited them,” Phogat told RFI.

“This is serious and needs resolution at the earliest.”

Many said they would not take part in any tournaments until action was taken and the wrestling federation was disbanded.

Punia, who won bronze at the Tokyo Olympics, said the protest was to save the future of the sport and the future of women wrestlers.

“Many are treated shabbily and badly by the Federation,” Punia told RFI.

The wrestlers did not reveal the identity of the athletes making the harassment allegations. In an open letter to India's Olympic Association, they referred to complaints by "several young wrestlers".

The high-profile protest at the heart of the capital forced the government to act.

Sports Minister Anurag Thakur announced that Singh had been asked to step aside and a committee will have four weeks to conduct an inquiry.

“An oversight committee has been formed and legendary boxer Mary Kom will head the committee, which will also manage the day-to-day affairs of the sports body. For the coming month, the committee will investigate the allegations made by the wrestlers,” Thakur told the media.

The committee is expected to carry out an inquiry into allegations of sexual misconduct, harassment, intimidation, financial irregularities and administrative lapses of the WFI and its chief.

Widespread problem

Insiders say that sexual harassment has long been rumoured in Indian sport, but it is unusual for a suspected perpetrator to be publicly identified.

“This is a rare occasion when a person has been named and shamed. There are a lot more complaints against those who mentor, teach and train athletes,” said India's former cricket captain, Mohammad Azharuddin.

“Athletes have to train in safe and secure environments.”

According to a parliamentary response in July last year, 30 complaints of sexual harassment against coaches and staff have been received by the Sports Authority of India since 2017, of which two were anonymous complaints.

However, the authority did not specify what actions were taken against the accused.

According to unofficial estimates and sports activists, the real number of offences is much greater.

A report published in August 2021, "Dangers lurking for sportspersons in India", indicated that there could be nearly 200 perpetrators and 10,000 victims across 53 major sports in India.

Popular sport

Women's wrestling in India made headlines at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, when Geeta Phogat made history by becoming the first female Indian wrestler to win gold. Her sister Babita won the silver medal.

India has won at least one medal for wrestling in each of the last four Olympics.

The sport has become popular in recent years, especially among women, after a run of successes at the Olympics, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games.

Many of the wrestlers hail from the northern state of Haryana and several athletes come from humble backgrounds, which may be another factor making it harder to report misconduct by powerful officials.