Ending Sexual Harassment in Sport: The courageous struggle of India’s women wrestlers

Jan 01, 2024
By Kavita Srivastava

On December 21, 2023, a tearful Sakshi Mallik, India’s first Olympic woman  medallist in  wrestling  said in a press conference that she was quitting wrestling in protest, against the election of Sanjay Singh as the President of Wrestling Federation of India. Sanjay Singh is a well-known loyalist and business partner of Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, Former President, WFI and Member of Parliament. 

The fact that WFI would continue to be in the control of Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh was a publicly acknowledged reality. While Brij Bhushan Singh was garlanded, the newly elected president, Sanjay Singh was merely relegated to the background. 

In the run up to the election of the wrestling federation of India, which had been kept in abeyance for more than eight months, renowned woman wrestler, Commonwealth games gold medalist, Anita Sheorana decided to contest the election, with her agenda being, cleaning up the federation of corruption and giving women a safe space. However, the old powers drawing on caste loyalties  returned, with former president Brij Bhushan’s loyalist winning majority of the posts, including that of the president. After the victory, it was Brij Bhushan Singh’s house on Ashoka Road, which became the arena of celebrations, and it was Brij Bhushan who was garlanded and he who made the speeches. Slogans “hamara dab daba bana rahega”, our domination will continue to prevail, were raised by his supporters, which clearly established for the women wrestlers that they had no space and say in the federation. 

Sakshi Mallik’s resignation expressed frustration that, justice within the Federation, and the guarantee of freedom  from sexual harassment would continue to be elusive. For her in particular, it would mean continuing humiliation. It would be impossible to compete in the sport at the highest level  if women wrestlers  had to practice their sport  in an intimidating atmosphere of sexual harassment.  

Sakshi’s gesture was followed by Olympic medallist Bajrang Punia, returning the Padmashree award, which he said was now a suffocating symbol as the powers that be who had conferred this honour were really not interested in ensuring justice. Similarly Vijendra Singh also an Olympian gold medallist, gave a call that all sportspersons must return their honours, if justice has to accrue to the women community in wrestling and sports at large.

The strangelhold of Brij Bhushan Singh represented by his proxy Sanjay Singh, was underlined by the unilateral announcement (without consulting the executive committee as mandated by law) that the nationals for under 15s and under 20s wrestlers would be held in Nandini Nagar, Gonda, UP, the fiefdom of Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. In his tenure of 12 years as President, all nationals were always held there, further affirmed by Sakshi that out of the 18 years of her sports career for 12 years she only went to Nandini Nagar for wrestling Nationals, despite, several other cities having excellent facilities.

When there was a strong expression of outrage against the election of Sanjay Singh, the sports Ministry on the 24th December 2023 announced that they were suspending the new committee (not termination) till further notice.The reasons given were that the committee had  not given adequate notice to the participating wrestlers for the nationals and had not followed due process  by bypassing the executive committee in  taking the decision of holding nationals in Gonda, UP.

It is important to note that while the ministry of Sports has acted promptly for not showing due diligence, it has  never suspended a single federation even  when the implementation of the POSH law was violated, showing the lack of concern vis a vis the rights question of sexual harassment.  Even on the 24th December, it did not bother to reassure the women wrestlers in the same press note or otherwise, that a sexual harassment free workplace was their fundamental right and that this was a non-negotiable in all sports bodies and arenas. This only shows the contempt in which the real  concerns of women wrestlers are held by the ministry.

Despite detailed instructions by the ministry of youth and sports affairs dated 12.08.2010 and the POSH law coming into force from December 2013, data shows internal complaint committee platforms for sportswomen in either the wrestling federation of India or any dozens sports bodies nationally and in the state’s is non-existent. For the first time the silence on sexual violence within sports bodies was broken by Olympic Medallists Sakshi Mallik and Bajrang Punia and Commonwealth and Asian Games Gold Medallist Vinesh Phogat, renowned player Sangeeta Phogat and other women wrestlers, by coming out on the streets of the capital of the country. This was the first historic struggle for the recognition that sexual harassment in sports bodies is rampant and should be addressed.

The protest that began with more than twenty women wrestlers in the month of January, 2023 did result in both the Sports ministry and the Indian Olympic Committee take cognisance of their problems, and constituting investigation committees at the federation level and the level of the IOC, however both were at variance with the POSH law. Under the law, any complaint against the employer, and Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who as the President was the employer,  must be examined by the Local complaints committee in the district, set up by the district collector.  In a further violation of the principles of natural justice,  both the investigation committee of the IOC and over sight committee of the WFI did not make available their reports to the complainants. The main accused the president of the wrestling federation continued being the President, although the complaints were against him.

In frustration seven of the twenty players including a minor, lodged individual complaints of sexual harassment and assault at the Connaught place police station in Delhi, which were not converted to FIRs. The Players sat on a peaceful protest at the Jantar Mantar in Delhi and moved the SC, which ordered the lodging of FIRs. FIRs, u/s 354 A, (sexual harassment), 354 D (stalking) and 34 (common intention) of the IPC were lodged for the six adults and in the FIR lodged by the minor’s father  section 10 of the POCSO act was added. However  Brij Bhushan Saran was not arrested, which resulted in the protest continuing with even wider public support. 

The wrestlers’ dharna gathered massive people’s support with many  social and political groups coming out  in solidarity, The khaps who have had a anti- women role in the past, took positions against sexual violence and said that they were happy that their daughters had broken their silence on sexual violence in the federation and named Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh as the violator. The kisan sabhas decided to participate in the dharna in large numbers. There was support by women and human rights organisations, trade unions, academia, students, common persons all of whom came and sat with  the wrestlers at the protest site, literally around the clock.

Village after village in Haryana, Punjab and western UP rose to the occasion and held solidarity meetings. Women’s organisations also held solidarity meetings. Finally, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh was charge sheeted and is facing prosecution under  sections of the IPC, but the POCSO charges were not proceeded with. This is because  the minor wrestler and her father, unable to bear the pressure  changed their statement leading to the case being closed.

The six top young wrestlers who broke the male bastion of wrestling in sport repeatedly asserted that  that it was easier to fight in the arena and win, but fighting for dignity and equality in the wrestlers federation, seemed to have become impossible. This should have been a matter of shame for our government. 

Even while public revulsion against  Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh was growing, these just demands were completely ignored by the Indian State. It is a supreme irony that a  Government which is never tired of proclaiming its slogan, “beti bachao” refused to take note of the women wrestlers struggle.  After sitting in a peaceful protest at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar for more than 36 days, the wrestlers  were called anti nationals, were dragged on the streets of Delhi, with their tents being torn to the ground their  belonging thrown onto the roadside and an FIR was registered against them. This happened just when there was a public call by all Kisan groups to join the Mahila Samman panchayat , proposed to take place outside the new building of the parliament, on the day of its inauguration on 28th May, 2023.  It was a paradox that the champions demanding justice were beaten up, while the perpetrator of the sexual violence sat inside the parliament. Democracy was killed twice that day.

The bitter  irony  of the entire episode is the real fear that the federation will be in control ( de facto or de jure) of  a sexual predator at a time when celebrations of ten years of the implementation of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, popularly known as the POSH law, are underway all over the country.

Despite 27 years, since the historic Vishakha guidelines were issued by the Supreme Court, which gave the framework on POSH, institutional structures are still denying the existence of sexual harassment in workplaces and perpetrators of violence  continue to occupy  privileged positions. The Vishakha judgement placed sexual harassment at workplace in the realm of “human rights abuse”. The protection of the human rights of these players and the  question of protection of their dignity remained a far cry in the WFI. 

The preamble of the 2013 POSH  law which stated that sexual harassment is a violation of fundamental rights embodied  in the Indian Constitution in particular, the right to equality, right to live with dignity, and the right to practice any profession which includes the right to a safe environment, free from sexual harassment, remained a guarantee  only in paper with serious lapses in implementation as observed  by the Supreme Court of India, in its May 15th interim order in a PIL on the enforcement of this law.

The 2013 law clearly defines workplace, employer, and employee, widely, which includes, any sports complex or stadia, including residential spaces in them and the term employers includes those responsible for supervision, management and employees includes trainees and informal sector workers.

Even though the Vishakha guidelines and the POSH law have been in place for years together, according to the Indian Express report of May, 5th 2023, it observed that of the

30 national Sports bodies, less than 50 % of the bodies had cared to implement the law and where implemented, it was inadequately done. According to an RTI of the sports ministry, that in the decade from 2010 to 2020, only 45 sports women had filed complaints of sexual harassment. To a question in the Rajya Sabha on July 19th 2023, the Sports Minister stated that in the last three years, only four National sports federations registered complaints, although  all sports federations are duty bound to implement it. 

The last 31 years has seen India’s pioneer of the sexual harassment at workplace law, Bhanwari Devi, a gangrape survivor, struggle for justice from the Indian Courts. Despite committees being in place in some establishments, justice has eluded women across the spectrum from the judiciary to sports to academia to entertainment to the media. In 2018 the Me too movement, had young Indian women preferring to name and shame, rather than go in their opinion to  the “unjust” Internal Complaints committees which never delivered justice.  The Supreme Court as recently as October 2023, reiterated in Initiatives for Inclusive Foundation Vs Union of India,  that the Internal Complaints Committee were most crucial for addressing and reporting instances of sexual harassment in the workplace. They also issued a comprehensive set of directions to all Government and Union Territory administrations for the compliance of the POSH law, including suggesting amendment to the rules for better and uniform implementation. 

But will the political executive put its weight towards promoting a safe and inclusive environment  for women? Unless that affirmation comes from the top, the commitment to combat sexual harassment at the workplace for all women will be only on paper.