India’s opposition leader meets wrestlers amid row over election of federation chief

Wrestlers return national awards over election of new Wrestling Federation of India chief

Alisha Rahaman Sarkar
Wednesday 27 December 2023 11:20

Related: Indian wrestlers protesting sex abuse stopped from reaching country’s new parliament

Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi met with wrestlers in Haryana, days after the athletes returned their national awards in protest against the election of a new federation chief.

Olympic bronze medallist Bajrang Punia last week returned his Padma Shri (fourth highest civilian award) after Sanjay Singh, a close aide of the predecessor who has been accused of sexually harassing athletes, was elected as the president of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI).

The move was followed by wrestler Vinesh Phogat, who announced she’d also return her Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna and Arjuna awards.

The election also saw Sakshi Malik, a 2016 Olympics bronze medalist, hang up her boots in protest.

Sanjay Singh is a close aid of Brij Bhushan Singh, who is a six-time lawmaker from prime minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He was charged in June with sexually harassing six female wrestlers during his tenure following weeks of protests led by Malik.

Mr Gandhi, a lawmaker and member of the Indian National Congress, met Mr Punia at the training facility in Haryana on Wednesday in a show of support for the protesting wrestlers.

“With years of relentless hard work, patience, and unparalleled discipline, an athlete brings medals for his country by nurturing the soil with his blood and sweat…

“There is just one question – if these athletes leave their training grounds and if India’s daughters have to fight for their rights and justice on the streets, who will encourage their children to choose this path,” Mr Gandhi wrote in a post on social media X, formerly known as Twitter.

He continued: “These are steadfast, honest, and straightforward people from a farming family; let’s give them the opportunity to serve the Tricolour [Indian flag].

“Let’s elevate their status with full respect and honour, making them a pride of India.”

Mr Gandhi also shared images of him training and wrestling with Mr Punia.

Wrestlers at the training facility said they weren’t informed about the political leader’s visit, who walked in while they were practising at 6am local time. “He exercised with us. He has a lot of knowledge about wrestling. He spoke about Jujutsu and showed us some moves,” an unnamed wrestler was quoted by NDTV as saying.

Following a massive uproar over Sanjay Singh’s election, the federal sports ministry on Sunday suspended the new wrestling federation over the hasty announcement of the junior nationals.

The sports ministry in a statement said the wrestling body showed “blatant disregard for the established legal and procedural norms”.

Brij Bhushan Singh at a press conference on Sunday claimed that he had “nothing to do with the sport now”.

“I have other responsibilities to focus now. I will be away from the politics of this sport,” he added.

The wrestlers began their protest against Brij Bhushan Singh in January by camping in the streets of the capital New Delhi. They later called off the protests after talks with the federal sports minister on the promise of action against the lawmaker.

But the protests resumed in April due to government inaction alleged by the wrestlers, leading to dramatic scenes of them being briefly detained by Delhi’s police as they tried to march to the new parliament building.

United World Wrestling (UWW), the game’s governing body, had suspended the WFI after the scandal.

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