Whenever India saw them, prior to their protest at Jantar Mantar, it was in visuals of them taking on tough competitors, smiling after winning medals, doing victory laps with the Indian tricolor proudly spread around their shoulders. Their names were synonymous with stellar physical fitness, awe-inspiring mental strength, a gruelling training regimen and a never-say-die attitude.
Therefore, not everyone was prepared when they saw India’s star wrestlers, who have won innumerable medals for the country at the national and international level, sitting cross-legged on the designated protest site in the heart of the capital of the country, their palpable strength gone, their buoyant outlook — once showing only their determination to win — now replaced by despair, dejection and melancholy.
It took a turn for the worse when they had to ‘grapple’ with Delhi Police on Wednesday night. Their dignity in tatters, their achievements counting for nought — who would have thought that these stellar athletes would one day be treated like common criminals. Hence, when Sakshi Malik cried, many people watching her on the news had tears in their eyes. When she was comforted by Vinesh Phogat, a large number of Indians wished they could be there too, to offer her their commiserations. As Bajrang Punia pointed out how they had been manhandled by the police (all male, not by women police, as is the norm), most of us felt like we had been personally targeted.
The story of the protesting wrestlers is a classic case of what ails the Indian establishment in general and Indian sports in particular. The fact is that these athletes, in the prime of their lives and still reigning in their sporting career, had to resort to a sit-in protest against sexual abuse by the top-ranking wrestling federation official, and then be accused of being anti-national, ungrateful, ‘motivated’, ‘lazy’ and several other such names, while the perpetrator is being shielded at several levels, reciting poems in his own defence, camping out of Delhi while he accused of sexual misconduct and harassment by these brilliant athletes. In this scenario, the onus of proving that the abuse took place at all is on the victims and aspersions are being cast on the character and motivation of the protesting athletes.
All these are symptoms of a deeper rot in our country’s institutions and consequently, in grievance redressal.
It should have been Wrestling Federation of India president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh who should have spent uneasy summer nights under the open skies, not the wrestlers. It should have been Singh who should have faced police action over harmless acts like procuring foldabale cots to avoid their mattresses being sozzled in dirty rainwater, not the medal-winners. It should have been the WFI and its president who should have had to explain why ‘they kept quiet for so many years’ if there was sexual abuse in Indian wrestling, not the athletes who have made India proud on sporting platforms several times, in face of daunting odds. It should have been Singh who should have had to resign immediately on account of the allegations against him instead of the heartbreaking indication from the grapplers they they will return their medals and awards if immediate, strict action is not taken against Singh.
Instead of standing in solidarity with our star, champion wrestlers, we have reduced their achievements to nought and brought their credibility into question — adding insult to abuse.
On social media, there is a minor campaign to call into question the wrestlers’ motives and show them in a poor light. For this section of people, the party in power can do no wrong and every protest — from Shaheen Bagh to the farmers’ agitation — is somehow purported to be a conspiracy hatched by the enemies of our country to present the ruling dispensation in an unflattering light. For this segment, those in power are ‘flawless’.
If we, as a nation, deliver the impression that we value our ‘image’ over ‘justice’, it will be a sad day indeed, for Indian sports, athletes, officials and fans. All those exigent training protocols, right down to measuring the amount of water they drink before a bout, would prove to be worthless and wasted if we don’t learn to respect our athletes’ dedication to their sport and their commitment to keeping the country’s flag flying high at international events.
A sad day indeed…