How WFI Failed Indian Wrestlers – and India
United World Wrestling (UWW), the global governing body for wrestling, has suspended the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) for failing to hold elections on time in the aftermath of the sexual harassment allegations against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, reported PTI. As a result of the suspension, Indian wrestlers will have to compete as ‘neutral athletes’ in the upcoming Olympic-qualifying World Championships to be held in Serbia in September. The wrestlers will not be competing under the national flag – in case an athlete finishes on the podium, the tricolor will not go up and the national anthem will not be played. The decision deals a massive blow to not only the sport and wrestlers’ prospects, but to India on the international stage as well.
UWW’s decision was conveyed to the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), whose ad-hoc committee is currently overseeing WFI affairs, reported The Hindu. In May, the UWW had condemned the arrest of renowned wrestlers for leading a protest march, and had warned the WFI of suspension if polls were not held within the given time period. “The 45-day deadline that was initially set to hold this elective assembly shall be respected. Failing to do so may lead to suspend the federation, thereby forcing the athletes to compete under a neutral flag,” the UWW had said at the time, according to The Hindu.
WFI’s elections were first scheduled for May 7, but were stayed by the Sports Ministry in the wake of renowned wrestlers – including Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik – renewing their protest accusing Singh, the outgoing WFI-chief, of sexual exploitation and harassment. The protests first began in January. The elections were postponed to June, then July and finally to August 12, witnessing further delays as state associations filed cases in court seeking the right to participate in polls. The final stay came on August 11 by the Punjab and Haryana High Court, a day before the polls were to be held.
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The controversies surrounding WFI have shed light on the abuse of power and the injustices prevalent when it comes to addressing gender-based violence. “In this country, gender justice is the least prioritised. It comes last and it should not be shocking yet, it is. If today, top Olympians have to take to the streets for this long to demand justice, imagine what happens to those from the rural areas. Young women are denied their rights and access to justice every day,” Mandira Sarma, a member of the Teacher’s Association at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNUTA) said at the one-month mark of the wrestlers’ protest.
Despite multiple calls for Singh’s arrest, the wrestlers had earlier expressed their disappointment over the inaction on their complaints, alleging that Singh – who is also a six-time Bharatiya Janata Party MP – was being protected by the government. In June, Vinesh Phogat told PTI, “You have to ask Amit Shah, why he (WFI chief) is not being arrested. He is such a powerful man that the government is trying to shield him. So getting him arrested is not easy but we are continuing our fight.” Though the protests began in January, the Delhi Police finally filed a charge sheet against Singh only in July, following which he was granted bail by a Delhi court.
The wrestlers themselves have faced a series of trials in their fight for justice – from the distress over the lack of support and silence from the government, violent altercations with the police to now being forced to compete as neutral athletes. The events of this year then show how WFI, and the government’s long silence, has failed its athletes by refusing to promptly act on their complaints and safeguard them from exploitation, leading to the conclusion where an international body has had to step in. Following the news of the suspension, political leaders from opposition parties lashed out against the government’s inaction against Singh. Mahua Moitra, Trinamool Congress MP, posted on X (formerly Twitter) that the government and the youth affairs and sports ministry had allowed a “sexual predator to bring sport to its knees,” reported Hindustan Times. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee posted that it is a matter of “grave embarrassment,” which sparked criticism from BJP leaders wondering whether Banerjee was placing “politics above national interest.”
While the sexual harassment case registered by several wrestlers is still being heard in court, the international body UWW, true to its previous warnings, is holding the sports federation accountable. However, the fallout is one borne by the wrestlers, who will be unable to participate under the national flag on the international stage, now forced to forego the glory they have brought to the country on multiple occasions. According to India Today, the wrestlers will, however, be allowed to compete under the national flag in the upcoming Asian Games since it is not the WFI but the IOA sending entries.