There seems to be no end to controversies in Indian wrestling as Olympic medallist grappler Bajrang Punia on Friday returned his Padma Shri award to the government in protest against the election of Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh loyalist Sanjay Singh as the president of Wrestling Federation of India (WFI).
On Thursday, Sanjay Singh was elected as the president of the WFI after the panel led by the close aide of Brij Bhushan won 13 of the 15 posts.
The wrestlers had demanded that no close associate of Brij Bhushan should enter the WFI.
Bajrang was conferred with the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian honour in the country, in 2019 after a consistent run on the mat that saw him win laurels at top international events.
He posted a letter on X after making an attempt to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Parliament but was stopped at Kartavya Path by the Delhi Police.
The Tokyo Games bronze winner placed the Padma Shri on the letter he had written to the prime minister, and put it on the pavement.
"I had received this honour from the government but I feel despite this honour I could not protect the honour of the daughters of this country, so I do not deserve to keep this award," Bajrang told reporters.
"The adminstration is right in saying that I have not taken prior permission to meet the PM, so I could not meet him. I have kept the Padma Shri here on top of the letter because I can not put it on the floor," he said adding that he will not take it back home.
Asked what his message to the prime minister was, Bajrang said, "If the voice of women wrestlers has not yet reached you and if it reaches you in future please help them in getting justice." Later, Bajrang posted his letter on X with a message, "I am returning my Padma Shri award to the Prime Minister. This is just my letter. This is my statement." The 29-year-old world championship medallist wrote: "Dear PM Ji, hope your health is well. You must be busy in many work but I am writing this to draw your attention to the wrestlers of the country.
"You must be aware that the women wrestlers of the country started a protest in January this year against Brij Bhushan Singh accusing him of sexual harassment. I too joined their protest. The protest stopped after the government promised strong action." Expressing his disappointment, the star wrestler added, "But there was no FIR against Brij Bhushan even after three months. We again took to the streets in April so that the police at least file an FIR against him.
"There were 19 complainants in January but the number came down to 7 by April. This means Brij Bhushan exerted his influence on 12 women wrestlers." Sakshi Malik, Bajrang and Vinesh Phogat had addressed media after Sanjay Singh's election in which Sakshi, a bronze medallist at the 2016 Rio Olympics, announced that she would quit the sport as a mark of protest.
The three top wrestlers had accused Brij Bhushan of sexually exploiting several women wrestlers.
The aggrieved wrestlers had taken to the streets, did sit-in protests, forcing the government and the judiciary to intervene and resolve the matter, which included the formation of special panels to look into their complaints and grievances against Brij Bhushan and the federation he was leading, even as the grapplers contemplated throwing away their medals into river Ganga on May 19 in Haridwar.
In his letter to the PM, he further wrote, "Our protest went on for 40 days. There was much pressure on us during those days. Our protest site was vandalized and we were also not allowed to protest any more. We did not know what to do next so we went to immerse our medals in the Ganga.
"Then we were stopped by the farmer leaders and coaches. At that time a minister from your cabinet called us up and assured us justice. We also met the Union home minister who also promised us of justice. So, we stopped our protest." Meanwhile, the Sports Ministry said Bajrang's decision to return the award is a personal one but it will still try to convince him to rethink the move.
"It is Bajrang Punia's personal decision to return Padma Shri. The WFI elections were held in fair and democratic manner," a ministry official told PTI.
"We will still try to persuade Bajrang to reverse his decision to return Padma Shri," he added.
In the letter, a day after the WFI elections, Bajrang continued, "But in the election of the WFI on December 21, the federation came under Brij Bhushan once again. He himself said he would prevail over the federation like he did always. Coming under tremendous pressure, Sakshi Malik announced her retirement from wrestling." "We shed tears the entire night. We did not understand what to do, or where to go. The government has given us a lot. I was conferred with the Padma Shri in 2019. I also received the Arjuna, Khel Ratna award.
"When I got these awards, I was on cloud nine. But today the sadness weighs more. And the reason is a woman wrestler left the sport because of her security," the wrestler added.
The wrestler said sport has made a big difference to the lives of girls in the country but the situation is not ideal right now.
"Sport has empowered our women athletes and changed their lives but the situation is such that the women who could have been the brand ambassadors of beti bachao, beti padhao are now leaving the sport.
"And we, the wrestlers who were awarded could not do anything. I can't live my life as a Padma Shri awardee while our women wrestlers are insulted. Hence I return this award to you," Bajrang said.
Sanjay was elected as the president of after he beat Anita Sheoran 40 votes to seven. Prem Chand Lochab was elected as the secretary-general. PTI AH AT .
(Except for the headline, this story, from a syndicated feed, has not been edited by Odishatv.in staff)