In Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s highly-publicized 100th edition of the radio talk show Mann Ki Baat aired on April 30, he recalled how he started his Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (Save the girl child, Educate her) campaign in 2015 from the north Indian state of Haryana and how he was drawn to the “selfie with daughter” campaign started by Haryana resident Sunil Jaglan.
Jaglan’s personal initiative got Modi’s endorsement and wide publicity back in 2015. On Sunday, he missed no chance to express his gratitude to the prime minister when he joined him in a telephonic conversation on the Mann Ki Baat program. Haryana is infamous for its abysmal female sex ratio.
Eight years after Modi publicized his support for Jaglan’s initiative and launched his own scheme – both celebrate daughters – his government is ignoring the protest against sexual violence by some of Haryana’s most-acclaimed daughters. These women from Haryana have earned India medals and other recognition on the global stage in the field of wrestling. They are now sitting on an indefinite agitation in New Delhi, sweating it out under the scorching sun of the capital’s brutal summer.
The women wrestlers from Haryana are demanding the sacking and arrest of 66-year-old Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the head of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) on charges of serial sexual harassment. Seven women wrestlers and a minor girl have accused him of sexual harassment.
A former wrestler himself, Singh belongs to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and is a member of the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament from Uttar Pradesh state, where he holds significant political influence in some pockets, thanks largely to his “bahubali” or strongman image and Hindu far-right networks. The six-term parliamentarian has been serving as the president of WFI since 2012.
The allegations against him first emerged in January, when three of India’s top female wrestlers, including Rio Olympics bronze medalist Sakshi Malik, Commonwealth and Asian Games gold medalist Vineesh Phogat and World Championships silver medalist Anshu Malik launched an agitation in New Delhi seeking action against him.
They found support from some of the top male wrestlers, including Tokyo Olympic bronze medalist Bajrang Punia, who is also the first Indian wrestler to rank world No. 1 in any category.
Singh rubbished the charges instantaneously and refused to step down. The government, under pressure from the wrestlers, constituted an oversight committee led by boxer Mary Kom, who became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic gold medal in any category in 2012.
The oversight committee submitted its report on April 5. Although it has not been made public, media reports claimed that Singh was exonerated in a 5-1 verdict of the six-member committee, which also included wrestler-turned-BJP leaders Yogeshwar Dutt and Babita Phogat.
The wrestlers’ agitations resumed on April 23, alleging gross irregularities in the investigation and demanding that the report of the findings of the oversight panel be made public and action be taken against Singh. The situation was further complicated when Phogat went to the protest site and claimed that a member of the oversight committee had snatched the report from her before she could read it in full.
Comments by sprinter P. T. Usha, known as “the queen of India’s track and field” who missed the 1984 Olympic bronze medal in the 400-meter hurdles by a whisker, only added fuel to the fire. Usha, the first woman to head the Indian Olympics Association (IOA), is currently a BJP-nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament. While suggesting that the agitating wrestlers should have first trusted the IOA, she said after an IOC meeting, “This kind of agitation is not good for the country’s image and amounts to indiscipline. This negative publicity is not good for the country.”
Usha’s comments have evoked much shock and frustration among the protesting wrestlers. “I have been hearing since my childhood that a politician can’t be trusted. They (Usha and Mary) have proved it. These are the people I grew up watching and aspired to become,” Sakshi Malik told the media.
After the wrestlers approached the Supreme Court, the Delhi police, which operates under the Union home ministry, filed two cases against Singh on April 28.
Amidst all these happenings, the BJP and the Union government have maintained a stunning silence. Modi, too, had no message for the Haryana wrestlers in his Mann Ki Baat talk.
The question that troubled many political observers during the entire episode was why the Modi government was backing the WFI chief despite the protest gaining solidarity not only from opposition parties but also from other leading athletes, including javelin thrower and Olympics gold medalist Neeraj Chopra, tennis star Sania Mirza and former captain of the Indian cricket team, Kapil Dev, who led India to its first World Cup victory in 1983.
“We know that we have taken a big risk (by speaking against Singh) and it may last a lifetime. The administration, the sports ministry, the IOA, and other federations — everyone is trying to protect one man. All crooks have come together to shield one man,” Vinesh Phogat alleged.
Singh has a long history with the Hindu right and faces multiple criminal charges as well. He was named as one of the accused in the Babri Masjid demolition case in Ayodhya in 1992 and faced charges of murder, attempt to murder and illegal possession of weapons, among others. However, he has not been convicted in any case.
Most of the news reports contended that it is the BJP’s electoral equations in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state with 80 Lok Sabha seats, that keep the party and the Modi government from asking Singh to step down.
Singh holds sway over five Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh, one report pointed out. Irking Singh could potentially damage the party’s prospects in those constituencies.
“Singh wields clout via a chain of nearly 50 educational institutions run by him, spread across a 100-km belt from Ayodhya to Shravasti. In his wake, his relatives have also established such institutions, and local BJP sources say that Singh’s poll machinery is run almost entirely by this set-up, independent of the party,” said another report.
Usha did try to bridge the gap by visiting the protest site, where she told the protesting wrestlers that her comments were misinterpreted and reportedly expressed solidarity with them.
However, the government’s confusion over how to deal with the protests became quite evident when, only a few hours after her visit, a scuffle broke out between the police and the wrestlers at the protest site on Wednesday night, when the police allegedly tried to stop the wrestlers from bringing in more mattresses. The protesters wanted to replace the existing mattresses, which got wet in the rain.
Opposition parties, expectedly, upped the ante. “Don’t dare to hurt our wrestlers, the nation is watching their tears and the nation won’t forgive you. I urge our wrestlers to stay strong, I share all my strength with them,” said Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal state and a prominent opposition leader.
It remains to be seen how long the BJP continues to see the extension of support to Singh as politically beneficial. One thing is certainly going in their favor as of now: in a country where cricket is almost a religion, none of the active cricketing stars have spoken a word in support of the protestors yet.