Top Indian wrestlers demand arrest of ex-federation chief

NEW DELHI (Agencies): Top Indian wrestlers, including Olympians and Commonwealth Games champions, were on the streets of New Delhi on Monday to demand the arrest of the sport’s former federation chief over allegations of sexual harassment and intimidation.

The wrestlers, both men and women, mounted protests in January demanding an investigation into then Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. The Indian Olympic Association formed a panel to investigate, but the athletes say there has been insufficient action since then.

“Some people manipulated our minds and damaged our protest,” Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik told reporters at the protest on Monday.

“Now we will not repeat that. Now we appeal to all the sportspersons, political parties and elders of the wrestling world join us.”

The athletes, including an underage wrestler, filed a complaint with police on Friday demanding a case of sexual assault be registered against Singh and their allegations properly investigated. Police have not registered a case against Singh so far.

“If it goes on like this it obviously breaks the athletes’ spirit,” Tokyo Olympics bronze medallist Bajrang Punia, who is male, told AFP at the protest. Both Malik and Punia said the protest would continue until Singh, an MP for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, was arrested.

He has denied the allegations, saying they were a conspiracy to replace him in the legislature. Singh “is a powerful parliamentarian of the ruling party”, said Punia. “The athletes are fearful for their lives but despite that they have shown courage and still no action is being taken. This is very saddening.”

Broadcaster NDTV reported that the government was to disband the WFI and hand its affairs to a new panel to hold board elections, where Singh would not be allowed to stand. Last year India’s national cycling team coach was sacked following sexual harassment charges.

India is a deeply hierarchical society, and some wrestlers say they were earlier intimidated into not coming forward because of their humble origins.

India’s #MeToo movement gathered momentum in 2018 after a Bollywood actress accused a senior actor of sexual harassment.

Soon after, other women came forward with multiple allegations, including against a former government minister, but activists say there has been little fundamental change.