Facing sexual harassment allegations from the country’s most-decorated wrestlers, the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, has been asked to step aside. After a late night meeting with protesting wrestlers, Sports Minister Anurag Thakur announced that a probe panel, with a four-week deadline, has been set up to look into the allegations of sexual harassment and financial irregularities against Singh.
This ended the three-day-long protest that had seen World Championship medallists Vinesh Phogat, Deepak Punia and Olympics podium finishers Ravi Dahiya, Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik lead a sit-in at the Jantar Mantar.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting Thakur said, “We are setting up an independent committee to look at all the allegations that the wrestlers have levelled against WFI. The committee will file a report in four weeks and till this time Brij Bhushan will step aside.” He said that during this period, the committee will run the “day-to-day affairs of the WFI”.
Sitting next to him, Bajrang Punia said, “We are calling off the protest as the government and the Sports Minister have promised us justice.”
The Sports Ministry’s probe panel – the names of its members will be announced Saturday — will be the second formed to probe the WFI and Singh. Earlier in the day, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) formed a seven-member committee to probe the allegations.
The IOA, in a statement, said that following its executive committee meeting, it was decided to form a committee in “accordance with the prevention of sexual harassment of women act of 2013” that would hear both sides and submit its report at the earliest. IOA members including Olympians boxer Mary Kom, archer Dola Banerjee and wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt were named in the probe panel.
The IOA’s announcement assumes significance given that it is the umbrella organisation of all national federations of Olympics sports. The Sports Ministry funds the activities of federations and grants them recognition. The IOA and Sports Ministry, therefore, work in tandem to facilitate the participation of Indian athletes in multi-discipline sporting events.
The day had also seen the protesting wrestlers up the ante. The two prominent faces of the protest, wrestler Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik, had dug their heels in and threatened to practice on mats at their protest venue at Jantar Mantar from Saturday if the Sports Minister did not accept their demands.
The global body, United World Wrestling, too has reacted to the protest. In an email to The Indian Express, UWW’s communications director Gordon Templeman said: “UWW has learned with great concern via the media about these serious allegations. We will closely follow the cases and will take any necessary measures that are warranted by the outcome of the investigations. We have contacted the federation, as well as made efforts to contact athletes directly to better understand the situation.”
The wrestlers’ letter to the IOA mentions that Vinesh was “mentally harassed” and “tortured” by the WFI president after she returned from the Tokyo Olympics without a medal, which resulted in her “contemplate suicide”.
Along with the sexual harassment complaint, the wrestlers accused WFI of financial misappropriation of funds and claimed that the coaches and sports science staff at the national camp are “absolutely incompetent”.
In their letter, the athletes wrote: “It has taken a lot of courage for us wrestlers to come together and protest against the WFI president. We fear for our lives. If he is not sacked then the careers of all the young who joined the dharna will be over.” They ended the letter saying: “We will not budge until the WFI President is sacked”.