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On the day India’s foremost wrestlers decided to protest against the wrestling federation chief, it was as if they were preparing to die. “They tied shrouds to their heads,” said Geeta Phogat, India’s first woman wrestler to qualify for the Olympics. The ongoing protests began in January after seven women wrestlers, including a minor, accused the president of India’s wrestling federation, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, of sexual assault and harassment. The 30 wrestlers — both men and women — included Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia. Between them, the three have won two Olympic medals, six world championship medals and four Asian Games medals for India. Geeta’s younger sister, Sangeeta Phogat, a wrestler and Punia’s wife, has also played a visible role in the protests. (In India, the supreme court has barred the media from sharing the names and identities of victims of rape and sexual assault.)
Singh, who is also a prominent politician in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and a member of the Indian Parliament, possesses immense wealth, influence and popularity. The accusations against him have alleged a pattern of sexual assault, harassment and intimidation between 2012 and 2022, during several championships abroad and in India. Furthermore, one of the victims said that she had informed Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the harassment in 2021. The wrestlers petitioned at India’s supreme court in April to get the first step of a criminal probe carried out — a First Information Report (FIR), after which Singh was named in two of them, including one under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act.
Sexual harassment is not uncommon in sport. It thrives on a culture of silence. That some of India’s most elite athletes have been vocally supportive and actively involved in the protests has been unprecedented. It is the first time in the history of Indian sport that Olympic and world championship medalists have taken to the streets to protest against sexual harassment and confronted their federation chief.
Coaches, referees and medalists have corroborated the accusations against Singh. A physical therapist who was present at a 2014 national camp claimed that three junior wrestlers confided in him about Singh’s harassment. An international referee said on record that he has witnessed Singh’s inappropriate behavior. A Commonwealth Games gold medalist has testified before the Delhi police about being privy to one of the complainant’s accounts. There are over 125 potential witnesses in the police probe.
Geeta, no longer an active athlete, told New Lines that she first heard allegations of harassment around a decade ago. “It was sometime around the London Olympics, if I recall correctly. Wrestlers would talk amongst themselves but nobody protested out of fear. [The] situation had worsened so much in recent times that there was no other option but to say it out loud. The support of our families and medals they’ve won gave them courage.”
Initially the government set up an oversight committee — headed by six-time amateur world champion boxer and member of Parliament, Mary Kom — to investigate the allegations. This put the protests on hold for a few months. Since the report was not made public and no action was taken against Singh, the wrestlers returned to protest in April.
The protests saw their most stirring moment on May 28, when the wrestlers led a march to the new Parliament building in New Delhi on the day of its inauguration. The Delhi police stopped and detained protesters, many of whom were charged with rioting, unlawful assembly and use of criminal force to deter public servants from discharging their duty. Photographs of India’s finest athletes being yanked and peeled off the streets and stuffed into police vans appeared around the world. All of this happened while Singh was a few yards away in the Parliament building.
The scenes drew sharp criticism from individuals and organizations the world over, including from the International Olympic Committee. Abhinav Bindra and Neeraj Chopra — India’s only individual Olympic gold medalists — were the first to offer public support to the protests, along with tennis champion Sania Mirza. Apart from a few former players, the current lot of Indian cricketers — the country’s most revered and influential athletes — remained silent, and matches continued to be held just two miles away from the protest site in Delhi.
The optics of that day forced a climbdown from the government, after months of indifference, and the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports invited the wrestlers for talks. Yet it was only last week, after the meeting, that the Delhi police submitted its charge sheet against Singh. This charge sheet, however, was accompanied by a report recommending the cancellation of the POCSO case against Singh, since the police could find no “corroborative evidence.”
Ordinarily, those charged under the POCSO Act are arrested. “While not compulsory, arrest is usually carried out in such cases to shield victims. In Singh’s instance, this norm seems to have been breached,” the senior supreme court advocate Sanjay Hegde told New Lines. “The administration’s response has been to, first, view the matter through a political prism and do as little as possible in the hope that it will resolve itself.”
Head of the federation since 2012, the 66-year-old Singh is known to have treated it as his personal fiefdom, calling the shots and filling its positions with family members and minions. He stepped aside after the protests began in January, and elections to replace him are due in July. The government has promised wrestlers that none of Singh’s family members will be allowed to contest them.
While Singh is not going to be president of India’s wrestling federation, his political clout remains undisputed. A six-time member of Parliament, he’s also one of many “bahubalis” (strongmen) in UP. His empire includes over 54 educational institutions spread across a 60-mile belt in eastern UP, a hotel, a shooting range and a national wrestling academy in Nawabganj. Apart from this, a string of schemes targeted at the youth and farmers has earned him unflinching loyalty among locals.
The strongman culture allows individuals to operate with impunity. UP has seen gangster-turned-politicians contesting elections from prison and winning. Singh has faced at least 38 criminal cases and been booked under various charges, including terrorism, armed theft, murder, criminal intimidation, attempted murder and kidnapping. He was only once sent to jail (for three months) for sheltering associates of the underworld don Dawood Ibrahim in the aftermath of the 1993 Bombay blasts.
While the protests were paused, Singh led a cavalcade of SUVs on a 15-mile-long roadshow through his eastern UP turf earlier this month. Dressed in saffron, standing out of the sunroof of his moving vehicle, he waved at supporters and stopped to receive garlands. It culminated in a rally to mark nine years of Modi in office, and Singh announced that he would contest the 2024 elections once again. He also declared that he is willing to be hanged if a single allegation is proved.
Hegde points out that the extreme political polarization in the country has affected public discourse on this case. “The general sense of right and wrong today is determined by what is politically convenient or inconvenient. I wouldn’t be surprised if matters are eventually orchestrated to offer the guy a quiet exit out of this.”
The former head coach of the Indian wrestling team, Gian Singh Sehrawat, believes both the wrestlers and the government grossly miscalculated each other’s earnestness. “The wrestlers were confident that the government would take serious steps to address the matter back in January, and the government was perhaps certain that the protest wouldn’t last long enough to cause them trouble.”
The wrestling community was largely united and offered their public support when the protests started. But things have changed in the months since. “Many who are in government jobs received letters which asked them to stay away from the protest,” said a coach, who did not wish to be named. “Most of them are from poor families, they can’t afford to lose their jobs.” Several state governments in India have policies under which athletes are given direct appointments to government posts.
The case is now on hold until next week, when it will be heard in a Delhi court. Whether or not the court takes further action will indicate the seriousness with which the judiciary now views the case. If there is no action, some of India’s top sports stars may find themselves once again scrapping with police on the streets.
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