Podium to footpath: India's best wrestlers seek support from all quarters

Wrestler Vinesh Phogat during a protest at Jantar Mantar, in New Delhi, on Monday. PTI Photo/Ravi Choudhary

Vinesh Phogat sat there, by herself for a moment. Behind her the dilapidated walls of the Jantar Mantar, that great theatre of India's street protests. In her hand, a phone. Next to her some empty chairs and a few scattered plastic bottles. Just in that instance this powerful, awe-inspiring woman looked so alone, so vulnerable.

In a photograph, the essence of this protest had somehow been captured: small vs big, individual athletes vs. government federation, wrestlers vs. the 'Bahubali' (strong man) and the strange futility of it all. In the end, as always, the athletes have to fight for themselves.

Vinesh had come to Jantar Mantar first on January 18. She had come with Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik and a host of other big-name wrestlers. They had collectively levelled allegation after serious allegation against the strong man who was their federation president, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. The ministry had intervened. An oversight committee with investigatory powers had been formed. Three months later Vinesh and Bajrang and Sakshi find themselves back at Jantar Mantar. Nothing has happened.

And so, these champion wrestlers have decided to go deeper than ever into this endless revolution. They sat down in protest on Sunday evening. They were there through the night, giving us another powerful photograph:

"From the podium to the footpath," reads the caption. "At midnight, under the open skies, in the hope of justice."

They had come prepared to go all in on Sunday, and that's just what they did on Monday.

They dismissed the preliminary findings of the Oversight Committee and responded with a simple message: either file an FIR against Singh based on the allegations or file one against them for raising false allegations. Powerful words that carried the conviction their takedown maneuvers do.

They also invoked the possibility of going to the Supreme Court to force the police to file this FIR -- a sign that they might even play the ultimate card.

And for this they sought support from all quarters. Bajrang asked "all national and international athletes of any sport," to join them in this fight, seeking their support, telling them "this isn't just wrestling's fight, it's a fight for the future of all sport". He then went a step further, asking associations from farmers' to women's to step in and join them.

Last time, the wrestlers had asked political parties and khap panchayats to stay away, asking everyone to keep the fight apolitical, but this time they are doing the reverse.

Sakshi apologised to the leaders they had shunned in January. "We were manipulated, betrayed," she said and asked them all to join the fight. They won't be coming for votes, she said, they will be coming to support us, understanding our plight.

"After all," said Bajrang, "If we don't win, what's happening behind the curtains will happen out in the open."

They didn't shun away from questioning the powers that be either. They said they knew how powerful Singh was, how politically connected the current Member of Parliament from India's ruling party was. And they commented on the silence of the central government on the matter. "When athletes win medals, you give us a lot of love and respect. Why are you silent now when we are sitting on the road, asking for justice?" Bajrang asked.

Sakshi wanted everyone to remember, "When we fight and win, we do it for India -- not for a government, or a person -- for India." Subtle, yet pointed.

As impromptu press conferences go, this was as open and unfettered as they come and carried with it the right mix of emotional and logical appeals. And they were made through both the media and directly through their social media channels. This is the biggest fight of their lives, and these warriors who know nothing about backing down from any fight aren't about to start now.

In doing so they are raising some important questions, none deeper than one that had already been asked on Sunday by Vinesh. It may have been phrased the way it was for dramatic effect, but that didn't change the essential truth of it: "If this is the case for medal-winning, famous, athletes, what of the ordinary woman in this country?"

What indeed.