In an unprecedented development, India's top wrestlers, including Olympic medallists Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik, and double Worlds medallist Vinesh Phogat, have levelled allegations against the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh that include sexual assault on female wrestlers and issuing death threats to athletes.
Singh, who spoke to the media in the evening, rejected the allegations. "Vinesh's biggest allegation - is there any athlete who has come forward with these allegations and says the federation president has done some sort of sexual assault," he said. "Shouldn't there be someone?"
The Sports Ministry has sought an explanation from WFI and directed it to furnish a reply within the next 72 hours, failing which they will take action - it has also cancelled the National Wrestling camp in Lucknow. The Delhi Commission of Women has taken suo moto notice of the allegations, writing to the Sports Secretary, also asking the Deputy Commissioner of Police to divulge details.
The allegations, made at a press conference this evening that was broadcast live, followed a public protest that began in the morning at Jantar Mantar in the heart of New Delhi. "Adhyaksh (President) and a few coaches in the national camp have sexually exploited female wrestlers," Vinesh told the media. "I've openly said it today, I don't know if I will be alive tomorrow. We have requested many times to move the camp away from Lucknow. Why does it happen only there? Because it's easy for him to prey on the women wrestlers."
Vinesh claimed of multiple instances of assault, saying "I know at least 10-12 women wrestlers who have told me about the sexual exploitation they faced at the hands of (the) WFI President. They told me their stories. I can't take their names now but I can definitely reveal the names if we get to meet the Prime Minister and the Home Minister of the country."
Speaking to the media later, Vinesh also added they were ready to fight this case in the courts, saying "We are ready to give evidence to the High Court and will fight this in court. Our aim is to not cause chaos, but to find solutions."
देश का नाम रौशन करने वाले Olympian Wrestler साक्षी मलिक, विनेश फोगाट और बजरंग पुनिया आज धरना करने पे मजबूर हैं। उनका कहना है Wrestling Federation of India प्रेसिडेंट और कोच खिलाड़ियों का यौन शोषण करते हैं। मामले की जाँच हेतु स्पोर्ट्स मिनिस्ट्री और पुलिस को नोटिस इशू कर रही हूँ। pic.twitter.com/BEWeg8BLy2
- Delhi Commission for Women - DCW (@DCWDelhi) January 18, 2023
"We have received death threats," Bajrang had said during the press conference. Vinesh added: "If anything happens to us tomorrow, assume that Brij Bhushan Singh was behind it." Vinesh said their protest would continue until Singh was removed from his post. "We will not participate in any tournament until he is removed. He has been mentally torturing me every day - for the smallest things.. makes us beg for the small things."
Singh responded, claiming that if the death threats occurred, why hadn't the wrestlers reported it to the relevant authorities.
The protest, which also included world championship medallist Sarita Mor and CWG medallist Sumit Malik, began this morning. The wrestlers spoke to the press later in the day, with Sakshi Malik also calling for an investigation while speaking to broadcast media, saying "There should be an investigation. We will [talk] to the Prime Minister and Home Minister. There is nothing political about this... our fight is only with the Federation. The PM always is with us, he always listens to us, he has listened to me personally... we just want justice."
DCW chairperson, Swati Maliwal described the allegations as most shocking and shameful, while offering her support to Sakshi saying "Please tell what should be done, I am here to do whatever is needed. We will make sure justice is delivered."
What they said: Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik's allegations against WFI top brass
Towards the end of the day, Bajrang confirmed that they will hold another press conference at 10am on Thursday.
The Sports Ministry released a statement late on Wednesday, saying:
Taking cognizance of the protest staged by wrestlers, including Olympic and CWG medalists, in Delhi today and a press conference in which wrestlers have levelled serious charges of sexual harassment of women wrestlers by the President and coaches of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) and of mismanagement in the functioning of the federation, the Sports Ministry has sought an explanation from WFI and directed it to furnish a reply within the next 72 hours on the allegations made. In its communication to WFI, the Ministry has stated that "since the matter pertains to the well being of athletes, the Ministry has taken a very serious view of the matter."
The Ministry has further stated that if WFI fails to furnish the reply within the next 72 hours, the Ministry will proceed to initiate action against the federation in terms of the provisions of the National Sports Development Code, 2011.
Further, the Women National Wrestling Coaching camp, which was due to start in Sports Authority of India's National Centre of Excellence (NCOE) in Lucknow from January 18, 2023 with 41 wrestlers and 13 coaches and support staff, has been cancelled. The Executive Director of NCOE Lucknow has been directed to provide all facilities to national campers who have already reported and likely to report, till the campers depart from the centre. Necessary information regarding cancellation of the National Coaching Camp has also been sent to all campers.
Earlier, Bajrang tweeted that the wrestlers were against the WFI president and the Federation's methods of functioning. Singh is a six-time MP with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. He has been the WFI president since 2011.
"The job of the federation is to support the players, take care of their sporting needs," he tweeted. "If there is a problem, it has to be solved. But what if the federation itself creates the problem? Now we have to fight, we will not back down."
फेडरेशन का काम खिलाड़ियों का साथ देना, उनकी खेल की जरूरतों का ध्यान रखना होता है। कोई समस्या हो तो उसका निदान करना होता है। लेकिन अगर फेडरेशन ही समस्या खड़ी करे तो क्या किया जाए?
अब लड़ना पड़ेगा, हम पीछे नहीं हटेंगे । #BoycottWFIPresident#BotcottWrestlingPresident
- Bajrang Punia ���� (@BajrangPunia) January 18, 2023
The relationship between the wrestlers and the Federation has deteriorated for a while, with the Federation coming down hard on a few of them after the Tokyo Olympics. The Federation had temporarily suspended Vinesh Phogat (for not sparring with the Indian wrestlers and not wearing the official singlet of the Indian contingent) and Sonam Malik (for asking a SAI official to collect her passport from the WFI office) after the Olympics. They were later "forgiven".
- Vinesh Phogat (@Phogat_Vinesh) January 18, 2023