Indian wrestlers halt protest after minister assures swift probe

Wrestlers have postponed protest after Sports Minister Anurag Thakur promised them a swift end to investigation into sexual assault charges against WFI chief and BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.

Phogat Malik Indian wrestlers protest
Indian wrestlers, from left, Vinesh Phogat, Sangita Phogat and Bajrang Punia led a protest march towards the newly inaugurated Indian parliament in New Delhi [Shonal Ganguly/AP]

Top Indian wrestlers have postponed an upcoming protest after Sports Minister Anurag Thakur promised a swift conclusion to the investigation into sexual assault allegations against the country’s wrestling body chief.

Olympic medallists Sakshi Malik, Bajrang Punia and Asian Games medallist Vinesh Phogat have been leading protests over government inaction against Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who is also a member of parliament from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

He has denied the allegations against him involving sexually assaulting seven female athletes, including a minor.

“We were told that police investigation will be complete by June 15. We have been asked to wait and suspend the protest until then,” Malik told reporters at the end of a five-hour-long meeting with Thakur at his residence in New Delhi on Wednesday.

“If no action is taken by 15th June, we will continue our protest,” added Punia, who won the men’s 65kg (143 pound) freestyle bronze medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Thakur, who is also a member of Modi’s party, said the police would file a charge sheet by June 15, and that the wrestlers had assured him they would not hold any demonstrations until then.

“They have asked us to complete the investigation and file the charge sheet by June 15. We will do that,” the minister told reporters.

The wrestlers were charged with rioting and disorder by police on May 28, after they were briefly detained during a march to the country’s new parliament building shortly after Modi inaugurated it in an elaborate ceremony.

Last week, Punia, Malik and Phogat had threatened to toss their medals into the Ganges River over inaction before being talked out of it by prominent farmers’ leader Naresh Tikait.

Following the meeting with Thakur, the wrestlers said they had been reassured that the charges against them would be dropped and the criminal complaint would be withdrawn.

“Those moments when we were dragged and roughed up by the police were deeply humiliating for all the wrestlers as all we want is justice for seven female victims of sexual abuse,” Punia said.

The prominent athletes at the heart of the scandal also met with India’s Home Minister Amit Shah last week, and demanded that neither Singh nor any members of his family be allowed to contest WFI’s upcoming election. Singh is serving his third term as WFI’s president after winning re-election in 2019.

India’s Tokyo Olympics gold-medal-winning javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra and former Olympic sport shooter Abhinav Bindra, also a gold medallist, have led condemnation of the government’s handling of the scandal and the protesting wrestlers.


Last week, wrestling’s world body United World Wrestling (UWW) urged Indian authorities to ensure a “thorough and impartial investigation” into the allegations against Singh and threatened to suspend WFI if it failed to hold elections at the end of a 45-day deadline.

‘This is the culture’

Vinesh Phogat told Al Jazeera in March that several sexual harassment cases have been reported in the past, and accused Singh of either making the charges disappear or making sure the complainant did not compete again.

Phogat said she received phone calls from young female wrestlers from a state in eastern India.

“They had complained to the WFI in writing about sexual harassment by a coach,” she said. “The coach was banned for 10 days but returned in seven days as head coach. This is the culture [of the WFI]. When the head himself is like that, what action will he take against others?”

The protesting wrestlers have refused to share the names of the women who have filed complaints.

Source: Al Jazeera