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Wrestling in India: Unveiling the Dark Underbelly of Mismanagement and Misconduct

Unveiling the entrenched power dynamics, systemic failures, and the relentless quest for integrity and justice in wrestling in India. From the corridors of authority to gritty competitions, the sport is dominated by stories of struggles and cover-ups.

By Prema Sridevi
New Update

The Indian Olympic Association (IOA) dissolved the ad-hoc committee for wrestling on Monday, citing its redundancy following the reinstatement of the national federation. The ad-hoc committee was established after the sports ministry suspended the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI). However, with the lifting of the suspension imposed by the global governing body, United World Wrestling, the WFI received a much-needed boost. The latest decision reinstates the WFI's control over wrestling in India, led by Sanjay Kumar Singh under the influence of Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. Despite numerous allegations of sexual harassment against Brij Bhushan, the new developments once again places him unofficially at the helm of wrestling affairs in India.

In January 2023, a seismic wave of protest surged through the heart of New Delhi as top Indian wrestlers voiced their demand for a thorough investigation into allegations of sexual harassment of women wrestlers by BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who then served as President of the Wrestling Federation of India. Jantar Mantar became the epicentre of this movement, with top players like Sakshi Malik, Vinesh Phogat, and Bajrang Punia amongst others taking a stand against WFI through a sit-in protest. Despite initial promises from the government to address the issue, concrete action, including the lodging of FIRs, only came through in the case following the Supreme Court's intervention. Eventually, the IOA stepped in, dissolving the WFI's executive body and installing an ad-hoc committee to oversee operations. Now, with the dissolution of this ad-hoc committee, WFI, under the continued influence of Brij Bhushan's confidante Sanjay Singh, regains full control over wrestling in India. 

"The betrayal felt by women wrestlers in India is so deep and this is compounded by what seems like a calculated disregard from both the government and revered sporting figures, like PT Usha" says Chander Shekhar Luthra, a seasoned sports journalist. "While the political manoeuvring ahead of elections might explain the government's lacklustre response, the silence of PT Usha, a legendary sporting icon and President of the Indian Olympic Association is deeply disappointing. As a beacon of sports in India and with all her power, Usha should have stood by the women wrestlers," adds Luthra. 

PT Usha came under fire when protesting wrestlers found themselves without support from a figure of her stature. Usha chastised the wrestlers for their protest tactics, suggesting they should have first approached the IOA. She said such an open protest on the streets amounted to 'indiscipline' and only tarnished India's sporting image in the world. 

The stain of sexual harassment within wrestling in India isn't a new development but rather a festering issue that has been concealed for far too long. Luthra, shedding light on the matter, recalls an incident dating back to 2014 during his tenure at DNA, where complaints from women wrestlers to their coach Kuldeep Malik and physio Paramjeet Malik were made about sexual harassment. However, the complaints went unheeded and what followed was a coverup. "It's a testament to the entrenched power dynamics at play," remarks Luthra. "I vividly recall these women confiding in their coach and physio, detailing how they were coerced into meeting Brij Bhushan Singh in the night at his room. Despite their complaints, the story was swept under the rug by much of the media, until the coach himself corroborated their accounts later. With the resurgence of Brij Bhushan's influence within the WFI, what message are we sending to women wrestlers across the nation? Are we telling them that their dignity and safety matter little in the face of entrenched power structures?” asks Luthra. 

The apprehension looming over the protesting wrestlers now revolves around the potential obliteration of their careers at the hands of the WFI. The influence of politics over the sport will continue to threaten to dictate opportunities, favouring those who remained aloof from the protests while marginalising those who dared to speak out. The upcoming Paris Olympics will serve as a crucible where the fallout from these controversies will inevitably unfold. It will perhaps show us in terms of on-the-ground impact on how the sport of wrestling has been marred by the protection of tainted figures, at the cost of its integrity and the well-being of its players. 

Wrestling in India has long been hailed as the "poor man's game," owing to its deep-rooted history and accessibility to individuals from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Unlike several other sports that demand expensive gear and facilities, wrestling requires minimal equipment and thrives in humble settings. This inherent accessibility has allowed individuals with limited financial resources to actively participate, thus democratising the sport in more ways than one. Ranked second only to hockey, wrestling stands as a pillar of Indian sporting success, boasting an impressive tally of Olympic medals. While traditionally male-dominated, the landscape of Indian wrestling underwent a sea of change around 2005, witnessing a huge influx of talented female wrestlers into the sport. 

The emergence of notable figures such as Sakshi Malik, the Phogat sisters, Divya Kakran, Alka Tomar, and numerous others left a huge impact on the sport, defiantly challenging entrenched gender stereotypes within the game. However, this important shift also served as a backdrop to a darker narrative within the corridors of power governing the sport. The large-scale entry of women into wrestling came to be exploited by high-ranking officials, leading to a disturbing pattern of internal complaints by wrestlers and subsequent cover-ups by the governing body. For years, this toxic dynamic simmered beneath the surface until it reached a tipping point, forcing the wrestlers to take to the streets in protest against the very federation entrusted with their well-being and fair treatment.

The taint of deep seated resentment towards players and mismanagement within the sporting authority was so much that Luthra says that he had witnessed it first hand along with six other journalists during the Rio Olympics. "Amidst a backdrop of back to back losses and despondency plaguing Indian sports at Rio, Sakshi Malik's wrestling match emerged as a beacon of hope. While many journalists hesitated to witness yet another Indian get defeated, a handful of us persisted and waited to watch Sakshi’s match, only to be rewarded with history in the making as she secured victory against the odds. What followed should have been a moment of celebration of Sakshi as she brought the medal to the nation but instead as we were approaching Sakshi and she was moving towards us to talk to us, the moment was interrupted by Brij Bhushan and his cohorts. They started shouting at Sakshi and she was brought to tears. They attempted to seize the spotlight for themselves and we journalists protested this ill-treatment of Sakshi,” recounts Luthra. 

As the narrative of wrestling in India unfolds, it becomes increasingly evident that the sport stands at a crossroads, grappling with issues of integrity, accountability, and gender equity. It's high time for stakeholders to step forward and safeguard the sport's integrity. Ultimately, our success in the sport isn't solely measured by medals won, but by the values we uphold to preserve its integrity and the legacy we leave for future generations.