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India’s Politics Has Betrayed its Wrestlers, Its Civil Society Cannot

| Updated: June 28, 2023 7:11 pm

It is incumbent on civil society to stand by them as they now take on this legal struggle which may well turn out to be a marathon.

Read the following conversation between a young woman, nine days short of her 27th birthday, born and brought up by a single, widowed, cancer-survivor mother in a village in Haryana, a graduate from the Maharishi Dayanand University, Rohtak, on national television, with the Prime Minister of a country with the second largest population in the world and the fifth largest economy in the world:

Prime Minister (PM): “और विनेश, ये तो मेरे ही परिवार की है (laughs) क्या बेटा, बहुत तुम, गुस्सा आ गया तुम्हे…अपने आप पर गुस्सा क्यों करती हो?”

(So Vinesh, you are from my family itself…so child, looks like you got very angry…why do you get angry with yourself?)

Vinesh Phogat (VP): “सर, इतनी मैं…”

(Sir, so what happened…)

PM: “देखिये, तुमने बहुत अच्छा खेला है और तुमने, तुम्हारे परिवार ने, पूरे परिवार ने, बहुत कुछ अच्छा दिया है. ये बात नहीं चलेगी. मैंने सुना है आने के बाद भी तुम किसी से मिलती नहीं थी. ये क्या तरीका है?”

(See, you have played very well and you, your family, your whole family, have given a lot of good things. This won’t do. I have heard you did not meet people even upon returning. What is this?)

VP: “सर, इतनी मेहनत के बाद भी जब मेडल नहीं आता है, तो दुःख होता है काफी.”

(Sir, when a medal doesn’t come even after so much hard work, the sadness is immense)

PM: “नहीं, ऐसा नहीं होता है. अरे, खिलाड़ी की ज़िन्दगी में हारना तो बाएं हाथ का खेल होता है.”

(No, that doesn’t happen. For a player, isn’t losing an everyday thing?)

VP: “सर …”


PM: “वो हारने से कभी चिंता नहीं करता है.”

(A player would never worry about losing)

VP: “हार accept करने में थोड़ा सा time लगता है मेरे को.”

(I need some time to accept a loss)

PM: “नहीं, नहीं, देखो मन से निकाल देना चाहिए … देखो जैसे मैंने नीरज से एक बात कही, मेरा मत है कि जीत को कभी सर पर चढ़ने मत दो, और हार को मन में बसने मत दो (clapping) ये मंत्र जीवन में बहुत ज़रूरी होते हैं. जो जीत में, उसके दिमाग में अगर जीत भर गई, तो भी वो निकम्मा हो जाता है, और अगर हार उसके मन में भर गई, तो भी यही हाल हो जाता है. तो, विनेश, मैं तो पूरे परिवार को तेरे जानता हूँ, तुम्हे निराश नहीं देख सकता. वरना, ऐसा करो, हफ्ते दस दिन के बाद, मम्मी, बहनें, सब मेरे यहाँ आओ. मैं आपके साथ बैठूंगा, आधे-पौने घंटे, और लोगों को छोड़ो.”

(No no, you need to dispel these from your mind…like I told Neeraj, don’t let a victory get to your head and don’t let a loss sit in your mind. This mantra is essential in life. The one who wins, if his head is full of victory then he becomes useless and the one who loses, if his heart is full of the loss, then he too suffers the same fate. So Vinesh, I know your whole family, I cannot see you disheartened. Do something, after a week or ten days, bring your mother and sisters to my place. I will sit with you for 30-45 minutes. Leave everyone else.)

VP: “Thank you, Sir.”

PM: “ये नहीं चलेगा.”

(This won’t do)

VP: “आपने जो ये बात बोली है सर, मेरे ख्याल में सभी athlete उससे motivate होंगे जिनका मेडल नहीं आया है.”

(The fact that you said this, I think this will motivate all athletes who have not won medals)

PM: “चलिए.”

(Let’s go)

VP: “ये बहुत बड़ी बात है, सर.”

(This is a very big thing you have said, sir)

This conversation took place in August 2021. In less than two years, on May 28, 2023, the same young woman was being dragged on the road in New Delhi by police personnel against her will and passive resistance, to be bundled into a police van to be taken away to an undisclosed destination.

Between these two events lies a tale of betrayal of innocents.

The tale

The story is much too well known to be repeated here but a brief timeline is in order to put it in context. What I am putting forward is my understanding of what might have happened behind the scenes.

The wrestlers thought of bringing their grievances out in the open in December 2022. The time line since then appears to be the following:

January 18, 2023: Wrestlers begin sit-in at Jantar Mantar.

January 21, 2023: Sit-in ends after talks between the protesting wrestlers and the Union sports ministry.

January 23, 2023: Sports ministry sets up Oversight Committee, with four weeks to complete probe.

April 16, 2023: Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) announces new elections to be held on May 07, 2023.

Oversight Committee submits report to the sports ministry. The report is not made public.

April 23, 2023: Wrestlers return to Jantar Mantar. They say that seven wrestlers, including a minor, file sexual harassment complaints against the president of WFI, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. Delhi Police does not register FIRs.

April 25, 2023: Wrestlers move Supreme Court with request to direct Delhi Police to file FIRs.

April 28, 2023: Two FIRs are filed by Delhi Police, including one under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO). Wrestlers’ sit-in continues demanding the arrest of Brij Bhushan.

May 23, 2023: One of the protesting wrestlers tells the media, “Earlierwe were like pawns in a political game”.

 May 28, 2023: Protesting wrestlers attempt to proceed to the new parliament building to hold a women’s mahapanchayat. They are detained with force by police, put into vans and taken away.

May 30, 2023: Wrestlers go to Haridwar to immerse their medals in the Ganga but do not do that.

From June 02, 2023, the news cycle has moved on. The Balasore train accident has happened, Manipur has continued to burn, the build up to the combined opposition meeting on June 23 began, and Prime Minister Modi’s US visit approached.

The Delhi Police filed two charge sheets on June 15, 2023 as the sports minister had promised, writing in favour of exonerating Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh of the POCSO offence because the father of the complaining minor had reportedly withdrawn the POCSO charges, and presenting some evidence in the other sexual harassment cases.

On June 17, 2023 came the following tweet which seemed like a denouement:

Then on June 25, 2023, Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia said their fight will continue in the “court and not on the streets.”

So what happened?

Perhaps someone had advised the wrestlers that given their international achievements and status, the powers-that-be will be sympathetic to their demands and will take quick and appropriate action based on their complaints. The actions that were taken between January 18 and 23 must have reinforced that mindset.

It is possible that when things started turning out differently after four weeks had passed, some misgivings may have started germinating among the wrestlers. It is not impossible that the wrestlers got different and possibly conflicting advice at the end of January and the middle of April.

The time between April 23 and 28, when the wrestlers began another sit-in at Jantar Mantar, moved the Supreme Court, and the police registered the FIRs were eventful, providing mixed signals to the wrestlers who came across as lonely in their fight.

The period from April 28 to May 23 was possibly one of discovery. It was around this time that they were visited by several politicians such as Priyanka Gandhi, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Chandrashekhar Azad ‘Ravan’, among others, and also a large number of supporters. It must have been the period when they started wondering how serious these shows of support were. This may have also been the time that the support of Khap Panchayats and various farmers’ organisations proved valuable to them because of their social heft.

It is very revealing that one of them said on May 23 that “we were like pawns in a political game.” However, they were perhaps so trapped in that game by then that they may not have been able to see a way out.

The events of May 28 were, perhaps, of the most intense shock to them. This possibly caused intense emotional disturbance that led to their deciding to immerse the physical symbols of their most precious achievements in the Ganga.

It was possibly after this that they became pawns in a much larger, complex, and unpredictable game from which they have still to recover.

Where do they go now?

This is even more difficult to comment on than speculation about the past. However, the most plausible prognosis seems to be that the wheels of justice will start grinding, possibly at an agonisingly slow speed. The available information indicates that they are in extremely capable hands of advocate Rebecca John, as was suggested by Priya Ramani in an open letter to the wrestlers.

As the legal battle goes on, the wrestlers have to take solace from wherever they can get it. These brave young women have taken on a task that is far bigger and more complex than they could have imagined. They are masters of the mat but are not familiar with the ‘cut and thrust’ of politics, public protest and public movements with all the attendant manoeuvres and manipulations. They did it because they were innocent about what it entailed and they seem to have been betrayed by a diverse set of political and other partisan and vested interests.

It is incumbent on civil society to stand by them as they now take on this legal struggle which may well turn out to be a marathon. Eight hundred and forty eight civil society members have already signed up to support them. It is hoped that many more will join them.

These brave young women cannot be let down.

Jagdeep S. Chhokar is a concerned citizen.

This article was first published by TheWire and written by Jagdeep S. Chhokar

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