Wrestlers’ protest turns the spotlight on sexual harassment in sports

Gun Rights
It is a warm May morning and the anguish in the air is palpable. Just across the wall from Jantar Mantar, the 18th century observatory in the heart of Delhi, a high-profile protest is on. It is over 15 days since India’s top wrestlers, among them Olympians, have been huddled here, demanding the arrest of Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, chief of the Wrestling Federation of India and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP, against whom several players have levelled allegations of sexual harassment and intimidation.

As the clock strikes 11.30, they all rise to sing the national anthem. Some days ago, farmers from Haryana had broken through police barricades to join them. Khap panchayats, too, have lent their support. And on the wrestlers’ plea, the country’s top court issued a notice to the Delhi Police after which two FIRs were registered against Singh.

While investigation will take its course, the protest at Jantar Mantar has turned the spotlight on an issue seldom talked about in sports: sexual harassment.

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Ask sportspersons across the playing field and they say sexual harassment in sports is not uncommon but is often hushed.

“It happens at the national and international level,” says Sandeep Dahiya, a wrestling coach from Sonipat, who has been at the protest site since the agitation began.

A national-level athlete, who does not wish to be named, tells Business Standard that there are senior coaches who try to take advantage of young female players.

She narrates an incident of a junior player. Their coach, she says, had called this player to a room on the pretext of announcing the final list of players selected for the team. “We were in the senior team then and we figured out that the coach was up to something fishy because no one else had been told about this announcement,” the athlete says. “We asked her to not go.” The junior player heeded their advice.

The next morning, she says, the coach appeared livid. He rebuked the junior player and made the senior team run an extra 10 laps without any explanation. “I believe it was our instinct that saved the girl from something horrible that day,” says the athlete.

While this matter might be in the realm of speculation, the athlete says in the early to mid-2010s, some six cases of sexual harassment were reported from various federations.

“The onus of reporting such instances is on the women,” says the athlete, adding, “They should come forward and talk more openly about it, though I understand the many reasons they don’t do that.”

Advocate and women’s rights activist Vrinda Grover lists out one of those reasons: While it is true that it is difficult for all women to report instances of harassment, it becomes particularly hard when “there is an element of power involved, where the harasser is in a position of decision-making and authority,” she says.

In Indian sports, where most of the disciplines and federations are male-dominated and where men hold positions of power, speaking out becomes all the more difficult, the players Business Standard spoke to say.

Another athlete, who wishes to remain anonymous, says such instances are common in her field, too. “A lot of the times coaches tell you that an international competition is coming up and insinuate that they want a favour if you want to participate,” she says.

One such incident rocked the cycling world in June last year when a top Indian cyclist accused coach RK Sharma of sexual harassment during a training tour in Slovenia. The Sports Authority of India (SAI) terminated Sharma’s contract.

SAI did not respond to Business Standard’s emailed queries. Nor did most sports federations and associations that Business Standard wrote to for information on sexual harassment complaints received or on whether they had internal complaints committees (ICC) mandated under the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) Act. Among these were the All India Tennis Association, the Cycling Federation of India, Hockey India and Boxing Federation of India. All the major sports federations do have an ICC, according to their websites.

The National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) was the only one that replied. “We haven’t received any complaints in recent times. There is a complaint committee with an external member on it,” NRAI Secretary Rajiv Bhatia said via email. “The committee conducted a workshop at Dr Karni Singh Shooting Range in New Delhi on February 13, 2023 where all athletes, coaches, support staff and federation officials were present,” he said.

One of the athletes quoted above says, “It is really upsetting to see how such complaints are not taken seriously. Top athletes — medal-winning Olympians at that — have been forced to take to the streets to be heard.”

Grover points out that the Vishaka guidelines and the PoSH Act 2013 are structured on an understanding that these cases should be taken up within the office or institution, “where women will be comfortable in reporting them to committees and will get a hearing.” She says, “The difficulties arise, as in the present [wrestlers’] situation, when the allegations are against a person at the top of the pyramid because the mechanism assumes that this person will discharge his duties fairly.”

After the current stand-off, the government has handed over the day-to-day affairs of the Wrestling Federation of India to an ad-hoc committee appointed by the Indian Olympic Association (IOA).

“We are dealing with a dysfunctional system here,” says Grover, adding that, “what we are seeing today is that ‘who the accused is’ matters and the law is neither able nor willing to function the way the legal machinery is envisaged.”

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