Sandeep Sahu

As was only to be expected, a well-oiled, organized vilification campaign has been launched by the ‘establishment’ to discredit the champion wrestlers who, instead of fighting opponents in the ring, are braving the scorching April heat in Delhi just to be heard. Stories are being planted in the media insinuating about the source of the money being spent to keep the protest going. Purported leaks, real or cooked up, are being made on Twitter about the alleged ‘findings’ of the yet to be released report of the oversight committee set up by the Union Sports ministry after the first round of protest in January this year to show the agitating wrestlers in poor light. Old videos of Tokyo Olympics bronze medalist Bajrang Punia, who is among the protesters, praising Singh for his contribution to Indian wrestling, are being fished out as ‘proof’ of his ‘duplicity’.

Political motives are being imputed to the protest by all and sundry in the establishment. A triumphant sounding Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the ‘sidelined’ president of Indian Wrestling Federation (IWF) who stands accused of sexual harassment by top female boxers of the country, is leading the charge against the protesting wrestlers and has the temerity to accuse the protesting wrestlers of being backed by ‘one family’, ‘one akhara’ and funded by an industrial house.

Even the venerable PT Usha, who became an icon for a whole generation of Indians without ever winning an Olympic medal, chose to join the bandwagon and dubbed the protest by the wrestlers, among them Olympic medalists, an act of ‘indiscipline’ that had allegedly ‘tarnished’ the image of India! Really, Usha? As a woman and a champion athlete of yesteryears yourself and as the head of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) now, the nation expected much better from you. We do know how Indian sporting federations work and understand that deal-making with the powers that be is an essential part of the ‘art of survival’ in such high posts. But there are certain non-negotiables even within this murky, behind-the-scene deal-making in sports bodies and an allegation of sexual misconduct must stand at the very top of any list of such non-negotiables. What makes the legendary athlete’s disparaging remarks against the protesters worse is the fact that they came after a Supreme Court bench, headed by no less than the Chief Justice of India (CJI) DY Chandrachud, found the allegations ‘serious’ enough to take up the case for hearing on an urgent basis and issue a notice to the Delhi Police to register an FIR against Singh.

On its part, the Delhi Police ended up with egg on its face when it was forced by the apex court to file a case (it filed two, as if to make amends!) after stonewalling the attempt by the athletes to lodge an FIR for nearly a week on the specious ground that the charges required preliminary inquiry before an FIR was registered! The apex court may have restrained itself from passing any strictures against Delhi Police at this stage. But it is obvious to anyone who has been following the events at Jantar Mantar, that Mecca of Protesters in the national capital, that it is acting at the behest of powerful forces to deny the protesters their rights to be heard as citizens of the country, and more so as athletes who have brought glory and medals for the nation.                      

Amid all the muck-raking aimed at painting the protesters as mere pawns at the hands of political parties opposed to the Modi government, some fundamental questions are either not being asked or, if asked, are not being answered. First and foremost, why did it take a week of protest by the wrestlers followed by a Supreme Court directive, just short of a reprimand, to Delhi Police to merely register a case against Singh? If some political parties, sensing an opportunity in the case, misuse the protest site to raise slogans like “Modi teri kabar khudegi”, can we blame the athletes for that and believe everything that their tormentors say about them, especially after the athletes have clearly emphatically and unambiguously disowned such elements? It would be a classic case of ‘throwing the baby with the bath water” if we do. For all knows, that could well be the whole idea behind the efforts to infiltrate the protest and discredit it in the public eye.

After having unwittingly allowed politicians to use their platform to indulge in their dirty politics, the wrestlers appear to have belatedly realized the need to appear unaffiliated and apolitical. They must now guard against all attempts by politicians to fish in troubled waters and stand firm on the one issue that has brought them to the streets: fighting sexual harassment in Indian sporting federations.

It is a matter too serious to be left to politicians!

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)