Last week, prominent Indian wrestlers launched a demonstration at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, calling for the dissolution of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI). Wrestlers from the states of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, and western parts of Uttar Pradesh were among those participating.
On the third day of the protest, posts that seemingly sought to represent the demonstration as a conspiracy by "Jatt" wrestlers against "Thakur" dominance in the WFI started doing the rounds on social media.
Allegations On The WFI President
Woman wrestler, Vinesh Phogat, flanked by Olympic medalists Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik alleged sexual harassment of junior female wrestlers by the WFI Chairman and BJP MP, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.
A memorandum submitted to the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) by a group of protesting wrestlers, stated that Vinesh Phogat was subjected to mental torture by the WFI President, to the point that she considered taking her own life.
Singh has been on the post since 2011.
Brij Bhushan Singh's Declining Influence
Once considered among the top Thakur leaders in Uttar Pradesh, Singh has appeared to lose his influence in the last few years.
He is a five time-MP, with his first foray in 1991 on a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ticket. Singh joined the Samajwadi Party (SP) in 2008 and even got elected on an SP ticket in 2009 from Kaiserganj constituency. He again jumped the ship to join the BJP in 2014. He fought again in 2019 from Kaiserganj and won.
However, the sway he had once enjoyed within the party, seems to be waning of late. In 2021, he openly criticised his own party's government in the state and charged it for not doing enough to prepare for floods. He alleged that speaking out would lead to being labeled a dissident.
His hostile attitude suggested that he had fallen out of favour with the Yogi government.
Swift Response By Sports Ministry
With the current controversy erupting, Bhushan found it difficult to continue his reign as the head of the WFI.
In response to the demonstration by top Indian wrestlers, the government has taken swift action. Following discussions with the protesters, it announced the suspension of all ongoing activities, including the Ranking Tournament in Gonda, Uttar Pradesh, which is a stronghold of the federation president.
On Sunday (22 January), the Sports Ministry, led by Anurag Thakur, suspended WFI Assistant Secretary Vinod Tomar and called for Singh to resign within 24 hours.
Manufacturing Caste Angle
The government's actions seem to have come in time to prevent the issue from taking on a 'caste dimension'.
Singh belongs to the Thakur community. After the controversy broke out, some Twitter accounts had attempted to frame the wrestlers' demands as a "Jatt vs Thakur" conflict.
A campaign with hashtag 'Stand with Singh' was also started in support of the former WFI President. This portrayed him as a victim of caste politics.
Trying to turn the protest into a 'caste conflict' could be an attempt to undermine the genuine concerns of the Indian wrestlers.
There were also reports of Haryana's Khap panchayats joining the protest. That could have further inflamed the situation and potentially done more harm than good for the cause.
Wrestlers Keeping Politics Out
The wrestlers, however, have so far successfully avoided any political or casteist association with their protest. Athletes like Bajrang Punia have made appeals to refrain from politicising the issue and have expressed trust in the government to address their concerns.
They have also actively prevented political figures, such as Brinda Karat, from using the protest as a platform for their own motives.
For now, the wrestlers assured by the government response have called off their agitation.
A five member Oversight Committee has also been constituted to investigate sexual harassment charges against the WFI president.
MC Mary Kom, a renowned boxer, will head the committee, which will also manage the WFI's daily operations for the next month.
Other members of the panel include Olympic medallist wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt, former badminton player and Mission Olympic Cell member Trupti Murgunde, ex-TOPS CEO Rajagopalan, and former SAI executive director - teams - Radhika Sreeman.
(with inputs from PTI)
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