The protest by several leading wrestlers, some of whom have won medals for the country, demanding action against the Wrestling Federation chief and BJP Member of Parlia- ment, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, could become a ma- jor political issue, unless the government steps in, without any further delay, to resolve the matter.
The impression, rightly or wrongly, that is doing the roundsis that the BJP leader was being shielded, since he has con- siderable clout in Uttar Pradesh, particularly in the Ayodhya region and adjoining areas, and his arrest could impact the party’s prospects in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
The Centre, which appeared to be very receptive initially, and had constituted a panel to examine the charges made against Singh, has also hardened its stand. The government is in no mood to give in, and has criticized the wrestlers for trying to interfere with the due process of law. The argument is that how can any action be taken until the investigation is complete, and the police arrive at some conclusion regarding the serious allegations with wide-ranging ramifications.
Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh is an influential politician, who was at one point, suspected of having links with the Dawood Ibrahim gang. In the latest instance, the wrestlers have claimed that he had used his position, to sexually harass and intimidate fellow sportspersons, and in some cases, had actually groped or inappropriately touched women, after promising them a bright future.
The wrestlers who include Olympics medal winners, Sakshi Malik, Bajrang Punia and Asian Games gold medalist, Vinesh Phogat, were sitting peacefully on a dharna at the Jantar Mantar for several weeks. However, on Sunday last, they were detained when they attempted to march towards the new Parliament building, which was being inaugurated following multiple ceremonies.
The Delhi police, which have now registered FIRs against them on several charges, also allegedly used “excessive” force to evict them from the area. The videos of the arrests went viral, and members of civil society joined sportspersons in condemning the assault on wrestlers, who had brought glory to the country on numerous occasions.
Humiliated and feeling let down by the system, the Olympi- ans decided to go to Hardwar, to immerse their medals in the Ganges, since they said that “they were of no use” given the kind of treatment meted out to them. They charged that the police were quick to register FIRs against them but in case of Singh, the FIRs were lodged only following the intervention of the Apex Court.
The decision to immerse the medals was a replication of a story that is often quoted regarding Mohammad Ali, one of the greatest athletes of all times, who had thrown his gold medal, won in the 1960 Rome Olympics, into River Ohio at Louisville, his hometown, in Kentucky, to protest against racial discrimination.
Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, had won the gold in the light heavyweight category, and beside his excellence in boxing, was also known for taking up socio-political causes. Many sports historians later disputed the Ohio river incident but the International Olympics Committee did replace the medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where the torch was lit by the legendary pugilist.
So far as the Indian wrestlers are concerned, they were stopped from doing so by influential members of their com- munity, as well as farmer leaders, who volunteered to take up their cause. On Friday, the khap panchayats met in Haryana in support of the wrestlers, and served an ultimatum to the government for resolving the issue by 9 June. Otherwise, they have warned, that the farmers would march in large numbers to the national capital to demand justice.
Even as Singh remains defiant and the BJP leaders have been stating that action could only be taken after the completion of the probe, the wrestlers have also got international support. The world wrestling body as well as the International Olympics Committee have taken a strong view of the treatment meted out to the sportspersons after watching “disturbing visuals” of the incident. The IOC has warned that what was depicted in the footage was totally unacceptable.
The 1983 World Cup winning team, which comprised top cricketers like Kapil Dev, Sunil Gavaskar, Roger Binny, Madan Lal, Dilip Vengsarkar, Ravi Shastri, K. Srikanth and Mohin- der Amarnath amongst others, has also in a joint statement, extended its support, while urging the wrestlers not to im- merse their medals in the Ganga. Earlier, Olympics gold med- alists, Abhinav Bindra and Neeraj Chopra besides a number of other famous sportspersons including Virender Sehwag, Irfan Pathan, Sania Mirza and Rani Rampal had also backed the protesting wrestlers.
Singh, on his part, has claimed that the medals were won by India and the wrestlers had no right to throw them in the holy waters. What he tends to forget is that they were indi- vidual medals, won through the steadfast determination of the sportspersons, who also benefitted from the support they received.
Also, the protest is not confined to the Jat community. What needs to be understood is that sportspersons have no caste creed or colour, and any caste label would insult them and their accomplishments.
The Centre must ensure that this matter does not assume casteist overtones and if this happens, there would be com- plete chaos. Appropriate action must be initiated without any further delay. Between us.