Wrestlers’ Protest: Struggle for Gender Justice
by Shivani Nag

A fair and just workplace where each person would have an equal access to the space and the opportunities it contains without having to face discrimination, harassment, prejudice or any unfair expectations that render invisible the various unequal contexts many come from, is not a utopia. It is an idea that needs to be upheld, normalised and ensured. In fact it is an idea that should have become normalised and established by now. Unfortunately the wrestler’s protest that have shook the world of sports and the country in the recent days is a harsh reminder of how far from this idea we are. Such is a the state of affairs that the battle for justice for the victims and survivors of abuse does not begin with investigation in a due process, but they are forced to wage a battle to even get the abuse acknowledged and registered.

On January 18, 2023, several wrestlers in India who have earned accolades for the country in various world championships gathered at Jantar Mantar bringing to light accusations of sexual harassment against the now former Wresting Federation of India (WFI) President and a Parliamentarian belonging to the Bhartiya Janta Party, Brijbhushan Sharan Singh. The sportspersons shared that the harassment had now been happening for long and some of the sportspersons had also faced intimidating threats for having raised their voices. The spirit of justice demanded that the then WFI President be immediately relieved from the position, especially given that concerns around intimidation were shared, and a democratic and a transparent inquiry process immediately set up as per the Vishakha guidelines (1997) and the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act (PoSHA) (2013). The initial WFI submission to the Sports Ministry plainly denied the allegations and Oversight Committee formed to look into the complaints was constituted without consulting the complainants. In fact the committee formed included Babita Phogat, a member of the BJP to which the accused also belongs. The report submitted by this committee to the ministry was not made public. There was no action taken against the accused. Till April, while wrestlers including a minor had filed complaints with the police, no FIR had been registered forcing the wrestlers to return to Jantar Mantar and begin a long sit in in peak North Indian summers as the government of the day completely failed them. While speaking to the Telegraph, Vinesh Phogat, one of the wrestlers leading the protests shared her anguish, “We waited for three-four months but when nothing happened, we came to Jantar Mantar. When we met the sports minister, the women wrestlers shared individual incidents related to sexual harassment. The girls were crying before him, but no action was taken. The sports minister tried to hush up the matter yet again by forming a committee. We have tried to raise this issue at every level but the matter was always suppressed”.

As the protests continue and gain strength, the hollowness of the Union Government’s women empowerment slogans stands thoroughly exposed. To begin with, nearly ten decades after coming to power and having its appointees in most sporting bodies, there has been no attempt by this government to ensure establishment of ICCs mandated by PoSHA in the sporting bodies of the country. Refusal to acknowledge the necessity of establishing such redressal systems in institutions is to be complicit in creating a hostile working environment for women. It is a way of telling women that they themselves are responsible for their own safety and that the workplace will do nothing to facilitate an environment of equality and justice. In case of vocations like sports where women already find it difficult to make their mark given the existing biases and prejudices, an unsafe training and sporting environment will only make it more difficult for women to claim their space in this field. There needs to be strong actions against all institutions including sporting bodies that do not have ICCs. Unfortunately, the hollowness of women empowerment slogans does not end here. In the past few weeks, we have witnessed how those close to the ruling party- members as well as sympathisers, have consistently tried to undermine the protests and shame the sportspersons fighting for gender justice. One can only imagine the intensity of the blow that the protesting sportspersons would have experienced when the President of one of the top most sporting bodies of the country the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), far from voicing concerns over the nature of alleged harassment, instead tries to shame the protestors by indicating that they are tarnishing the country’s image. From a former sportsperson who herself inspired several woman to take up athletics, this is shocking, but perhaps not so much when one also realises that she the ruling party’s nominee to the Rajya Sabha. The protesting wrestlers have been subjected to not just such shaming  and shameful remarks but also the extreme high handedness and brutality of the police who have made several attempts to disrupt the protests. On the midnight of 3 May 2023, the police lathicharged the protestors and stopped several people from reaching the protestors to express solidarity. While on one hand this is the treatment meted out to the protestors, we see every now then Brijbhushan Sharan Singh enjoying the felicitation by party MLAs in Uttar Pradesh as they declare him innocent.

For months now we have seen not just the apathy but rather the sheer hostility of the government towards the wrestlers demanding justice. Any steps taken so far have been too little, much delayed and with an aim to buy time and let the issue die a slow death. To their dismay, the protesting wrestlers and all the people supporting them have refused to move back an inch and stay persisting in their demand for justice. They have played a stellar role in mobilising several communities to come out and speak in support of women’s right to enabling, just and safe working environments, including the field of sports.  The current events, besides pointing towards the apathy of the government towards gender justice, also once again highlights the undermining of sports culture in India by turning sporting bodies into fiefdoms of leaders of political parties. Several sports federations and associations are headed by politicians and their kin, who far from a genuinely engaging with sports, use these to build their political and financial clout. While this by itself has a damaging impact on running of sporting activities, an act of any wrongdoing by such people becomes much more difficult to call out and bring to justice, given their political backing. The need of the hour thus is so to ensure all solidarity and support to this inspiring movement for gender justice and also a sustained campaign to free our sporting bodies of such ‘un-sporting’ figures.

On May 16, hundreds of women and farmers from Punjab, Haryana, UP and Bihar as part of national call by All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA) and All India Kisan Mahasabha (AIKM) reached Jantar Mantar to stand in solidarity with the wrestlers protest for justice.

"The patronage and impunity extended to the likes of Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh by BJP is only going to strengthen the resolve and support for the wrestlers’ battle for justice. The Prime Minister is busy campaigning in Karnataka elections at a time when our women wrestlers’ are fighting for justice and people in Manipur are suffering and BJP government in centre does not have time for its own people."

- Dipankar Bhattacharya, General Secretary of CPIML in solidarity with the wrestlers’ protest at Jantar Mantar on May 7.

Struggle for Gender Justice