Protests continue to intensify in India after one of the country’s most decorated athletes accused the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president and ruling party MP of sexually exploiting women wrestlers.
Vinesh Phogat, a medalist at the World Championships, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games, revealed that at least 10 woman wrestlers confessed to her that they were sexually exploited by WFI president Brij Bhushan Singh.
“Women wrestlers have been sexually harassed at national camps by coaches and also the WFI President Brij Bhushan Sharan,” Phogat said during a protest against the WFI in Dehli Wednesday. “Some of the coaches appointed at national camps have been sexually harassing women wrestlers for years. The WFI president is also involved in sexual harassment.”
Phogat was joined by Olympic medallists Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia, the latter of whom accused Sigh of exploitative behaviour. Not present, however, was two-time Asian champion Divya Kakran, who videos to Twitter backing the WFI President.
“Since 2013, when I was 14, I have been going to camp and I attend it even now,” Kakran said in a since-deleted video. “Till day, he has done nothing wrong with me or any woman for that matter.
Despite Kakran’s claims that the allegations were false, Phogat revealed that she continues to fear for her life since speaking out against Singh, and that she has personally received death threats from officials close to the WFI president after she first broached this subject with incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2021.
“They have become very powerful,” Phogat said. “I have spoken today and I don’t know if I will be alive tomorrow because of this. I know about 10-20 girls who have been exploited in the national camp over the past 10 years. Those girls are scared because of their family background. They can’t fight against them because they are not powerful. I can do it because I don’t mind if they stop me from wrestling. I have a house, I have food. I am here because I don’t want the future generations to go through this sadness and pain.
“We have only wrestling as our livelihood. They are taking away our livelihood. Our only option is to die, so might as well do good and die.”
On Friday, the protesting wrestlers sent a letter to the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), demanding formation of an enquiry committee to probe the allegations against Singh. The wrestlers have also boycotted all future competitions and are continuing their sit-in in Delhi until action is taken on the matter.
Singh, who is also an MP from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—the ruling party in India under Modi—has denied the accusations levied against him.
“Is anyone saying that the WFI has sexually harassed a wrestler?” Singh told the media. “Only Vinesh has said it. Has anyone come forward and said that they personally have been sexually harassed? Even if one wrestler comes forward and says that she has been sexually harassed, that day I can be hanged.”
While no action has been taken against Singh, Phogat’s accusations have made headlines across India and drew responses from various members of government. Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said it is “extremely shameful” that no action has been taken against the WFI.
Meanwhile, Indian congress has questioned why prime minister Modi remains silent on the WFI scandal. “The PM had publicly claimed that Phogat is like her daughter and that he knew Phogat’s family very well. So why did PM Modi do nothing against the Wrestling Federation and remain silent for so long?” Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate said on Friday.
Singh, 66, is currently serving his third consecutive term as WFI president, having been elected unopposed in 2019. He is one of several BJP party members currently at the helm of sports federations in India.
About the author: Karim Zidan is an investigative reporter for Bloody Elbow focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. His is also a contributor to The New York Times and The Guardian. (full bio)
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