Indian track star says wrestlers protesting sexual harassment are ‘tarnishing country’s image’

Former Indian track athlete PT Usha is facing backlash after she said the ongoing protest by the country’s most decorated wrestling stars over sexual harassment allegations against the chief of the wrestling body was “tarnishing” the country’s image.

Wrestling stars, including Olympians, have resumed a sit-in protest in capital New Delhi on Sunday and alleged that dozens of women in national camps faced harassment at the hands of Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh and other coaches.

Olympians Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia, and Commonwealth and Asian Games medalist Vinesh Phogat, are among those taking part in the sit-in at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar – the designated site for protests in the capital.

The protest comes months after the wrestlers called off a three-day protest in January after talks with the federal sports minister.

The athletes said that they have been forced to resume their protests due to government inaction.

In a press release accessed by The Independent following an executive committee meeting of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) on Thursday, Ms Usha, who now serves as the body’s first woman chief, said that she was “disappointed over the protesting wrestlers’ attempt to give this a political colour”.

“Those protesting are renowned wrestlers who brought laurels to the country. They have an equal responsibility of safeguarding the interest of our sports, sportspersons and also the image of our country,” she said.

“However, I’m disappointed by the way they are sitting on dharna, asking political parties to join them etc.”

On Sunday, Punia had said that unlike their January protest when they did not want political parties to be involved, this time they have invited all political parties to join their cause for justice.

The January protest was called off after a meeting with the federal sports minister Anurag Thakur.

The government had appointed an oversight committee that promised to look into the allegations. While the committee submitted its report earlier this month, the wrestlers are demanding the contents of the report be made public.

The wrestlers said that they had approached the Delhi Police to file a formal complaint against the sexual harassment allegations made by seven athletes, including a minor, but the police had failed to do so.

Meanwhile, India’s Supreme Court on Friday while hearing a plea filed by Phogat, Malik and others on the non-registration of the First Information Report (FIR) in the case asked the Delhi Police to provide security to the minor girl who had accused Mr Singh of harassment.

An FIR is a document prepared by the police in India when they receive information about the commission of a cognizable offence.

The Delhi Police also said to the court that it has decided to file an FIR against Mr Singh.

The matter will come up for hearing again next week.

Mr Singh, who has remained the WFI’s chief since 2011, is a Bharatiya Janata Party strongman elected as a Member of Parliament from the northern Uttar Pradesh state six times, five of which were from the ruling BJP.

In a statement to PTI on Thursday he said: "Friends, the day I reflect on my life, what I gained or lost, the day I feel I don't have the strength to fight, the day I feel helpless, I won't like to live a life like that. Instead of living such a life, I would wish that death embraces me."

Ms Usha’s comments come almost after a week of protest by the athletes, and in the absence of any support from the government to probe the allegations against Mr Singh.

Wrestlers have condemned Ms Usha’s comments.

“Being a woman athlete, she (PT Usha) isn’t listening to other women athletes. Where’s indiscipline here, we are sitting here peacefully,” Malik said to ANI through tears on Thursday evening.

Punia said that the athletes were hurt by the statements made by the icon.

“PT Usha has been our icon. We felt hurt by what she said. I want to ask her - when her academy was being demolished and she had raised her concerns on social media, then was that not tarnishing India’s image?”

Ms Usha, who is also a Rajya Sabha (upper house of Indian parliament) member, has faced criticism from opposition parties members who have accused her of creating a “political environment”.

Congress parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor hit out at her for disparaging “the justified protests of your fellow sportspersons in the face of repeated & wanton sexual harassment”.

“Their standing up for their rights does not ‘tarnish the image of the nation’. Ignoring their concerns - instead of hearing them out, investigating them & taking just action - does,” he said.

Shiv Sena MP Priyanka Chaturvedi said: “Country’s image is tarnished when we have MPs accused of sexual harassment going scot free while the victims have to struggle for justice.

“Am sorry Ma’m we must collectively speak up for our sportswomen not accuse them of tarnishing image when they are the ones who won laurels for our country and gave us reasons to be proud!”

Trinamool Congress Party MP Mahua Moitra also tweeted a clip of Ms Usha when she had complained against not receiving proper services from her academy.

“Madam was crying on National media when she was not given accommodation and other services, She felt she was humiliated. But protesting against sexual Harassment is INDISCIPLINE,” she said.

Despite not receiving support from the IOA, India’s only two Olympic gold medal winners Neeraj Chopra and Abhinav Bindra have extended their solidarity with the protesting wrestlers.

“They have worked hard to represent our great nation and make us proud. As a nation, we are responsible for safeguarding the integrity and dignity of every individual, athlete or not,” said Tokyo medalist Chopra in a statement on Twitter.

Bindra, India’s only other Olympic gold medalist, said: “As athletes, we train hard every day to represent our country on the international stage. It is deeply concerning to see our athletes finding it necessary to protest on the streets regarding the allegations of harassment in the Indian wrestling administration.”

On Thursday Phogat had lamented that India’s cricketing stars have failed to offer their support even though they are worshipped by the country.

“The entire country worships cricket but not even a single cricketer has spoken up. We aren’t saying that you speak in our favour, but at least put up a neutral message and say there should be justice for whichever party. This is what pains me… Be it cricketers, badminton players, athletics, boxing…,” she was quoted as saying to The Indian Express.

The athletes have also found support from tennis player Sania Mirza who wrote on Friday: “As an athlete but more as a woman this is too difficult to watch.”

Boxing World Champion Nikhat Zareen has also tweeted noting that it breaks her heart to see bright sportspersons “in this state”.