India’s top wrestlers accuse wrestling body chief of sexual harassment

India’s most decorated wrestling stars, including Olympians, are on a silent sit-in protest in the national capital alleging sexual harassment by the federation chief, a lawmaker from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as well as other coaches.

At least 200 wrestlers, including Olympians Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia, and Commonwealth and Asian Games medalist Vinesh Phogat have been sitting at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar – a common protest site – demanding action against federation chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.

Addressing the media after the protest on Wednesday, Phogat, who has won gold medals at both the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games, accused Mr Singh of sexually harassing several women athletes.

“Women wrestlers have been sexually harassed at national camps by coaches and also the WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan. Some of the coaches appointed at national camps have been sexually harassing women wrestlers for years. The WFI president is also involved in sexual harassment,” she said.

While she said she had not faced sexual harassment herself, she “knows of dozens of women who have come up to her with their accounts”.

“I know at least 10-20 girls in the national camp who have come and told me their stories,” she said.

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Malik, who won bronze in the 2016 Rio Olympics, said: “We have just come to save them. We are fighting for them. When the time comes, we will speak up.

“We will give the names of those who have been exploited to whoever is doing the probe.”

The women wrestlers have been joined by their male colleagues, including Tokyo Olympics medalist Bajrang Punia.

“The federation’s job is to support the players, and take care of their sporting needs. If there is a problem, it has to be solved,” he said in a tweet.

Phogat also highlighted the high-handedness of the federation under Mr Singh.

“He mentally tortures me for everything. To get anything (permissions), we have to beg. The assistant secretary also. The kids are giving him gifts (cash, milk, ghee) to get their name into the national camp. Coaches too do the same to get into the national camp,” she was quoted as saying by The Indian Express.

“When we win medals for India everyone celebrates but after that nobody cares about how we are treated, especially by the federation,” Punia told the outlet.

Later on Wednesday, amid nationwide outrage, India’s federal sports ministry asked the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) to respond to the allegations within 72 hours.

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Federation president Mr Singh, however, denied the allegations against him and said that he will kill himself if they are found to be true.

“All the sexual harassment allegations are false, and I will commit suicide if they are found to be true. I tried to get in touch with the wrestlers, including Bajrang Punia, but was unable to do so,” the 66-year-old BJP MP was quoted as saying by news agency ANI.

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Mr Singh is a BJP parliamentarian from northern Uttar Pradesh state’s Kaiserganj.

He is a six-term MP, five as a BJP candidate and one as a candidate from the Samajwadi Party.

He has held the post of the wrestling federation chief since 2011.

On Thursday, Babita Phogat, a former wrestler who is now a member of the BJP, met the protesting wrestlers and promised to be their messenger to the government.

“I am a wrestler first. The BJP government is with the wrestlers. I will make sure that action is taken today itself. I am a wrestler, and I am in the government as well, so it is my responsibility to mediate,” she said.

Delhi Commission for Women, the Delhi government’s nodal body for women’s issues, has also issued a notice to the federal sports ministry to take action.

While the wrestlers resumed their protest on Thursday, later a meeting was held with the sports ministry on Thursday afternoon with the athletes presenting their grievances.

After the meeting the wrestlers said that their protests would continue demanding Mr Singh’s removal as they did not get a satisfactory response from the government.

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Last June, India’s national cycling team coach RK Sharma was sacked after allegations of sexual harassment by a top woman cyclist.