NEW DELHI, Dec 22: After the Olympic medallist Sakshi Mallick announced her decision to hang her boots in protest against continued control of the tainted Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh over the Wrestling Federation of India through a proxy, another top wrestler Bajrang Punia on Friday said he was returning his Padma Shri award in support of the protesting female wrestlers.
The wrestling world in the country witnessed an upheaval after Singh, the BJP Member of Parliament, who was accused of sexual harassment by at least 12 women wrestlers, got his close aide and business partner, Sanjay Singh elected as the new president of the WFI on Thursday. In addition, 13 of the 15 posts of the office-bearers of the WFI were also captured by the camp followers of the BJP MP.
This was even after the protesting wrestlers were assured by the Centre that Singh or his family members and close aides would not to be allowed to contest the WFI elections after which the top wrestlers had withdrawn the protest dharna and returned to the ring.
Bajrang Punia, also an Olympic medallist, on Friday said he had written a letter to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi informing him that he would be returning the Padma Shri award. Punia was one of the wrestlers who protested against Brij Bhushan, the former chief of the wrestling body,
In an emotional letter to the Prime Minister, Mr Punia pointed to the BJP MP’s remark after the election results on Thursday, when he had said, “dabdaba tha, dabdaba rahega” (our dominance will continue). He said it was this mental pressure that forced Ms Mallick to quit the sport and that the wrestlers involved in the protest spent the whole night crying. “I couldn’t understand where to go, what to do and how to live. The government and the people gave me so much respect. Should I continue to suffocate under the burden of this respect? In the year 2019, I was awarded the Padma Shri. I was also honoured with the Khel Ratna and Arjuna Award. I was very happy when I received these honours. It seemed that life had been successful. But, today, I am much unhappier than I was happy at the time, and these honours are suffocating me,” Mr Punia wrote in Hindi.
“There is only one reason for this: It was wrestling that got me these honours and female wrestlers are now having to quit that very sport for their safety,” he added.
“Our protest went on for 40 days. There was much pressure on us during those days. Our protest site was vandalized and we were also not allowed to protest any more. We did not know what to do next so we went to immerse our medals in the Ganga. Then we were stopped by the farmer leaders and coaches. At that time a minister from your cabinet called us up and assured us justice. We also met the Union home minister who also promised us of justice. So, we stopped our protest,” the statement further stated.
“But in the election of the WFI on December 21, the federation came under Brij Bhushan once again. He himself said he would prevail over the federation like he did always. Coming under tremendous pressure, Sakshi Malik announced her retirement from wrestling,” Punia continued.
“We shed tears the entire night. We did not understand what to do, or where to go. The government has given us a lot. I was conferred with the Padma Shri in 2019. I also received the Arjuna, Khel Ratna award. When I got these awards, I was on cloud nine. But today the sadness weighs more. And the reason is a woman wrestler left the sport because of her security,” the wrestler said.
“Sports have empowered our women athletes and changed their lives but the situation is such that the women who could have been the brand ambassadors of beti bachao, beti padhao are now leaving the sport. And we, the wrestlers who were ‘awarded’ could not do anything. I can’t live my life as a Padma Shri awardee while our women wrestlers are insulted. Hence I return this award to you,” the statement concluded.
“This is Brij Bhushan’s right-hand man. Apne khud ke bete se bhi zyada khaas hai (He’s more special than his own son). Now that he is president, the coming batch of women wrestlers will also fall prey to them. What has happened behind closed doors will happen in the open,” another top wrestler Vinesh Phogat had said. “From the start (Brij Bhushan’s) their camp was saying they will come into power. We knew what their position was. It is sad that people like these are getting these positions.”
Vijender Singh, India’s first boxer to win an Olympics medal, has announced his support to ace wrestler Sakshi Mallick amid her fight against the former WFI chief. “Being a player, I can understand her pain. The only female medallist in wrestling demanded justice but she did not get it. Pained by this, she retired. The image of India in the whole world would increase or decrease?” Vijender Singh, who won a bronze medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, said.
“The whole sports industry is disappointed. They blame that there is discrimination between boys and girls in Haryana and there are fewer girls. After this, would the parents send their daughters to the stadium?” Vijender Singh asked. “The parents of the daughters would be concerned that if an Olympic medallist is not given justice, how will we get it? The PM, Vice President, and President all should come and answer why this happened… This raises a lot of questions on the justice system and the democratic structure,” he alleged.