The sports ministry has sought a response from the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) “within the next 72 hours” after top wrestlers including Olympian Vinesh Phogat, Olympic medallists Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik alleged gross misconduct by the sports body’s coaches and president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. Vinesh Phogat, the first Indian woman wrestler to win gold in both the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, said that “national coaches molested female wrestlers over the years and were given death threats by WFI officials.” She along with other top Indian wrestlers sat a massive protest at the Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on Wednesday. The wrestlers have called for the removal of the WFI president from the post.
The centre, in a statement, has made it clear that if the WFI does not respond in the next three days, the sports ministry “will proceed to initiate action against the federation in terms of the provisions of the National Sports Development Code, 2011.”
“Taking cognizance of the protest staged by wrestlers, including Olympic and CWG medalists, in Delhi today and a press conference in which wrestlers have levelled serious charges of sexual harassment of women wrestlers by the President and coaches of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) and of mismanagement in the functioning of the federation, the Sports Ministry has sought an explanation from WFI and directed it to furnish a reply within the next 72 hours on the allegations made. In its communication to WFI, the Ministry has stated that “since the matter pertains to the well being of athletes, the Ministry has taken a very serious view of the matter.” the sports ministry said in the statement.
“The Ministry has further stated that if WFI fails to furnish the reply within the next 72 hours, the Ministry will proceed to initiate action against the federation in terms of the provisions of the National Sports Development Code, 2011.”
Vinesh, Bajrang’s allegations
Rio Olympic medallist Sakshi Malik, world championship medallist Sarita Mor, Sangeeta Phogat, Anshu Malik, Sonam Malik, Satyawart Malik, Jitender Kinha, Amit Dhankar and CWG medallist Sumit Malik were among 30 wrestlers who assembled at the famous protest site.
“It’s better to die once rather than slowly dying everyday. We are not able to sleep at night as we have no idea whether we are going to participate in the competition or not. Whether we will be going to the national camp or not. We doubt that these coaches and their supporters may spike our food and we may get positive during the doping test,” Vinesh Phogat told NDTV.
“So we are worried about all these things. As the president Brij Bhushan ji was saying that he is innocent, I am telling you that we have sent numerous mails to him but he never replied to any of them. Now do we have to go to his room for each and everything?”
Vinesh, a world championship medallist and Olympian, also claimed that several coaches at a national camp in Lucknow have exploited women wrestlers, adding that there are a few women at the camp who approach wrestlers at the behest of the WFI President.
“Some coaches are close to the national federations. Those coaches have exploited young girls. Don’t know how many young girls have suffered due to them,” Vinesh stated.
The 28-year-old though clarified that she herself has not faced such exploitation but claimed that she had received death threats at the behest of WFI president from officials close to him because she dared to draw Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attention to several issues plaguing Indian wrestling when she met him after the Tokyo Games.
“I know at least 10-20 women wrestlers who have told me about the sexual exploitation they faced at the hands of (the) WFI President. They told me their stories. I can’t take their names now but I can definitely reveal the names if we get to meet the Prime Minister and the Home Minister of the country,” Vinesh said addressing the media after staging a four-hour ‘dharna’ at Jantar Mantar.
“I have received death threats from people who are close to the WFI President. If anything happens to any of us sitting here, only the WFI President will be responsible.”
Sitting beside Vinesh, Tokyo Olympics bronze medallist Bajrang Punia said the federation is being run in an arbitrary manner and they will not compete in any international competition unless the WFI President is removed. “Our fight is not against the government or the Sports Authority of India (SAI). This is against WFI. ‘Yeh ab aar paar ki ladai hai’ (It’s a fight to the finish). We will continue this protest until WFI President is removed,” Bajrang Punia told news agency PTI.
WFI refutes claims
WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh has responded to the allegations. “I came here as soon as I got to know the wrestlers are protesting. Is there anyone on record who can say the Federation has molested us?” he said at a press conference. “If you had such issues with the federation, then why did nobody raise them for 10 years? Issues come up whenever rules are formed.”
“No truth in wrestlers’ allegations against me, I am ready to be hanged even if one sexual harassment case is proved,” the WFI chief Brij Bhushan added. “I will not quit as WFI President but I am ready for investigation by CBI or police.”
“An industrialist is behind this conspiracy against me. Why Vinesh did not approach police if she received death threats,” he further alleged.
Wrestling camp cancelled
The ministry has also cancelled an upcoming wrestling camp for women wrestlers. “Further, the Women National Wrestling Coaching camp, which was due to start in Sports Authority of India’s National Centre of Excellence (NCOE) in Lucknow from January 18, 2023 with 41 wrestlers and 13 coaches and support staff, has been cancelled,” the statement stated.
“The Executive Director of NCOE Lucknow has been directed to provide all facilities to national campers who have already reported and likely to report, till the campers depart from the centre. Necessary information regarding cancellation of the National Coaching Camp has also been sent to all campers.”
Yogeshwar Dutt, 2012 London Olympics bronze medallist wrestler, has said that the allegations of sexual harassment need to be thoroughly probed.
“There should be a proper investigation of the entire matter. As I can see that the top wrestlers of the country have gathered at the Jantar Mantar so, I think the entire matter should be investigated. I think the victims should come forward and raise their voices otherwise there will be no proper conclusion,” Dutt told NDTV.
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