Sutanu Guru

It is never a happy sight to see champions sob and break down in public. It is even more sad when an athlete who has brought Olympic medal glory to India do that in full glare of TV cameras. Like millions of others, the author too was morose for a while after 2016 Olympic wrestling Bronze Medal winner Sakshi Malik wept in public and announced that she is quitting the sport that has given her so much joy, money and fame.

Her reason? A victory of sorts for Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, BJP MP and former president of Wrestling Federation of India who has been accused by many female wrestlers of sexual harassment and molestation. After a prod from the Supreme Court and prolonged protests, the Delhi Police did file an FIR and has also filed a chargesheet in a court against Singh. The trial is going on.

In the meanwhile, almost all the candidates “loyal” to Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh have won elections to posts in the Wrestling Federation of India. It seems that acted as the last straw, prompting Malik to tearfully bid adieu to wrestling, claiming their prolonged fight against the powerful and the mighty had gone in vain.

Like many Indians, the author too had the deepest of sympathies for Sakshi Malik. After all she represents hundreds of Indian athletes and sportspersons whose careers are at the mercy of powerful political figures who run almost all the sports bodies in the country. The sympathies are still there. But subsequent events have tinged it with a dose of cynicism. Another star wrestler Bajrang Punia was present in the press conference where Malik had dramatically announced her exit from the sport. Punia has gone a step further.

In the presence of TV cameras, Punia went to the residence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to “return” his Arjuna Award. Since there was no way he could enter the residence given the security involved, Punia created a spectacle by leaving his Arjuna medal on the road. Whatever may be the grievance of some wrestlers, the author found this gesture in poor taste. More events that transpired between Malik’s public tears and Punia’s theatrical gesture made the author think if the whole thing was not a shadow political war.

For one, Malik met Bhupinder Singh Hooda, former Congress chief minister of Haryana and his politician son Deepender Hooda. They have been rivals of Brijbhushan Sharan Singh over who gets to lord it over the Wrestling Federation of India. For almost a decade, there has been a fierce war between the “Haryana” camp led by Hooda and the “Uttar Pradesh”camp led by Singh over control of the sport. To top it all, another Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi met Sakshi Malik to express “solidarity” with her. With all this going on, there is little doubt in the mind of the author that the battle is as much political as it is about the dignity of females.

No sensible and responsible Indian believes that the female wrestlers who have accused Singh of sexual harassment are lying. There have been too many instances of powerful men misusing their positions to exploit vulnerable girls and women. It is equally true that a lot of these men have gotten away with their brazen misbehavior because the “system” grinds down the victims who gather up the courage to resist and complain.

To that extent, a majority of Indians wholeheartedly supported the protests of Malik and other fellow wrestlers. Flawed as the system is, the police have filed a chargesheet against Singh and a trial is going on. Who knows when the trial will conclude and when the verdict will come given the ways of Indian judiciary? In any case, for all talk of him being such an authoritarian figure, can Narendra Modi “order” the trial judge to convict Singh within, lets say six months? We all know how preposterous that sounds.

And yet, the chatter among opposition politicians and their supporters is a direct assault on Modi. We’re it not for the suspension of a record 146 members of parliament during the recently concluded winter session, the Sakshi Malik story would have dominated the news cycle.

That brings us to the election of Sanjay Sigh, a protégé of Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh as the new president of the Wrestling Federation of India. He defeated a former champion wrestler Anita Sheoran who sort of represents the Haryana lobby. Sanjay Singh won 40 votes while Anita managed just 7. There is little doubt that Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh must have used his power and connections.

But then, this a democracy and members of the wrestling body have voted. You might be upset your preferred candidate lost; but does that give you the right to negate the entire process? And what possibly could Narendra Modi have done? Did you expect him to go around asking members of the wrestling body to not vote for the protégé of Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh?

I still have sympathies with Sakshi Malik. We all know how powerful politicians like Singh control sports bodies. But that has been the case since 1947.

(Author has been a media professional for over 3 decades. He is now Executive Director, C Voter Foundation. Views are Personal)