Women Wrestlers Accuse India’s Powerful Wrestling Federation Chief of Sexual Abuse

“We’re here to save wrestling and women”
Pallavi Pundir
Jakarta, ID
india, sports, sexual abuse, harassment, gender, women's rights, vinesh phogat
Top Indian wrestler Vinesh Phogat (in the middle) protesting with other wrestlers in New Delhi on Jan 19. Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Image

Vinesh Phogat is a name to reckon with in India. The 28-year-old is the first Indian woman wrestler to win gold in the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. She comes from an illustrious wrestling family in northern India that inspired a Bollywood movie, and her numerous victories at international wrestling competitions have galvanised a growing generation of women wrestlers in India. 

This week, Phogat stood up for the women she’s inspired and joined dozens of wrestlers—both men and women—in the Indian capital New Delhi for a protest against systemic sexual abuse of young women athletes, allegedly at the hands of coaches and the president of the Wrestling Federation of India.

Advertisement

The federation chief, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, is from India’s powerful ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and has run the organisation for nearly a decade—despite being a suspect in four open murder cases.

“Some coaches in women’s camps sexually exploit women athletes and also groom them to be sexually exploited by our top chief [Singh],” Phogat said at a press conference during the protest on Thursday evening. “We’ve been hearing stories [of sexual abuse] ever since Singh became the chief. At least 100 women [must have gone through this].”

“Even if my career ends, I have a home and food to eat,” Phogat continued. “But I don’t want this next generation of athletes to go through this pain. We’re here to save wrestling and women.” 

The protesting wrestlers are also adamant that the identities of survivors should not be revealed until they’re ready. 

“We will release the names soon, but I personally know at least 20 girls who recounted their stories to me at national wrestling camps,” Phogat said. “But they don’t want to come forward because they don’t come from privileged backgrounds and aren’t powerful enough to fight.” 

india, sports, sexual abuse, harassment, gender, women's rights, vinesh phogat, brij bhushan, bharatiya janata party

Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh (C) arrives to address a press conference in Gonda on January 20, 2023, following allegations of sexual harassment to wrestlers by members of the WFI. Photo: AFP

These latest allegations of sexual abuse and mistreatment in Indian sports have rocked the country, but this isn’t the first time. A 2020 news report found 45 sexual harassment complaints registered at the Sports Authority of India in the past 10 years, 29 of which were against coaches. A 2019 government report on women empowerment  stated that cases of sexual harassment in sports could be higher and,  “many times, cases against coaches also might have gone unreported.” It further added: “The committee finds it quite unfortunate that the mentor and guide himself (is) turning the predator.”

Advertisement

The wrestlers’ protests are a rare act of public resistance against sexism in Indian sports. In India’s deeply patriarchal society, women often deal with negative attitudes and discrimination in their pursuit of sports. Many from underprivileged backgrounds rely on Indian government-owned sports facilities and organisations, which are riddled with nepotism, scams and corruption. 

Phogat added that the accused are “so powerful” she doesn’t know if she will be alive or not after speaking out. The wrestlers say they will protest until Singh is removed and replaced with someone “safe”. 

“There are people in the state wrestling associations too that have links with [Singh],” another wrestler, Bajrang Punia, said at Thursday’s press conference. “We want the [body] to be dissolved and restructured.”

India’s Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports has sought a response from the wrestling federation by Sunday on the allegations made by wrestlers.

Singh, a former wrestler himself, hit back against the accusations on Thursday, saying he’s ready to “hang” himself if they’re true, and won’t quit with the tag of a criminal. On Friday morning, he issued a statement calling the protests a “political conspiracy” that he will soon expose. 

Advertisement

Singh is also an active part of India’s Hindu nationalist movement and has a police case against him for his part in the demolition of a historic mosque in 1992 by a mob who claimed—without proof—that there was a Hindu temple underneath. Singh has been involved in violence over the years, and was arrested for harbouring underworld gangsters in the 1990s. Despite this, he continues to run at least 50 educational institutes across northern India and has immense political clout. 

On Friday, in a letter submitted to the Indian Olympics Association, the wrestlers stated,  “It has taken a lot of courage for us wrestlers to come together and protest against [Singh].”

“We fear for our lives.”

Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.