NEW DELHI, Dec 24: In an unprecedented move, the Centre on Sunday suspended the newly-elected body of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) asking to stop all activities till further orders and is learnt to have asked the Indian Olympic Association to form an ad hoc panel to run the body.
The decision follows widespread protests by some top wrestlers and other sports persons in the country criticised the formation of the new body which was declared elected against the government’s earlier assurances that the tainted former WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh or his family relations and close aides would not be allowed to control the new body.
In the elections held on December 21, Sanjay Singh, a close aide and business partner of Brij Bhushan, a BJP Member of Parliament was elected as the new president with 13 of the 15 office-bearers were also chosen from the panel controlled by the tainted former president who was accused of sexual harassment of about a dozen female wrestlers. Soon after the elections, Brij Bhushan had claimed that his “control” of the WFI would remain unchanged.
The source explained the reasons for suspension. “Sanjay Kumar Singh, newly-elected president of WFI announced on 21.12.2023, the day he was elected as president, that U-15 and U-20 nationals for Wrestling will take place in Nandini Nagar, Gonda (UP) before the end of this year.
“This announcement is hasty, without giving sufficient notice to wrestlers who are to take part in the said nationals and without following the provisions of the constitution of WFI. “As per clause 3 (e) of preamble of constitution of WFI, object of the WFI, among others, is to arrange holding of Senior, Junior and Sub Junior National Championships as per UWW Rules at places selected by the Executive Committee,” said the Ministry’s source.
The suspension order issued by the union sports ministry on Sunday followed the Olympic medallist Sakshi Mallick announcing her premature retirement from the sports in protest against Sanjay Singh’s elections and Brij Bhushan’s claim of “continued dabdaba” and two top wrestlers Bajrang Punia and Virender Singh Yadav, popularly known as “Goonga Pehlwan,” announcing their decisions to return their “Padma Shri” awards in support of Sakshi Mallick. Several other top wrestlers and boxers had also expressed their dismay over the elections of the new body which meant only change of face without any action against the accused former president.
The centre in its order on Sunday noted the “hasty” announcement of the junior national contests. The Sports ministry’s statement also noted that the newly elected body “appears to be (in) complete control of former office bearers in complete disregard to the Sports Code.” The business of WFI, the ministry said, is being run from the premises controlled by former office bearers. “Which is also alleged premises wherein sexual harassment of the players have been alleged and (at) present the court in hearing the matter,” it added.
Responding to the Sports Ministry’s move, Sanjay Singh said he had not received any letter yet. “I was in the flight. I’ve not received any letter yet. First, let me see the letter, only then I will comment. I heard that some activity has been stopped,” he said. Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, a six-time BJP MP, had to step aside after the country’s top wrestlers, including Ms Mallick accused him of sexually harassing women wrestlers.
The top wrestlers, also including Olympic Games bronze medallist Bajrang Punia and Commonwealth Games gold medallist Vinesh Phogat, hit the streets in January to seek action against the BJP MP. They had called off the agitation following assurances from the government. A probe was also launched against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. The WFI elections on Thursday saw Sanjay Singh post a thumping victory against Commonwealth Games gold medallist Anita Sheoran, who was backed by the protesting wrestlers.
Despite assurances that close aides and relatives of Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh will not be allowed to contest the polls, the nomination of Sanjay Singh was cleared. Expressing disappoint at the election results, Ms Mallick had announced that she is quitting the sport. During an interaction with the media, the 2016 Olympics bronze medallist put her boots on the table and said they had wanted the wrestling body to get a woman chief. “But that did not happen. We fought, but if the new president is Brij Bhushan’s aide, his business partner, then I quit wrestling,” she had said.
Visuals of her breaking down during the media interaction sparked outrage, with Opposition leaders accusing the government of shielding the ruling party MP despite the serious allegations against him.
The new president Sanjay Singh had said after his victory that he was close to Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh and trashed the allegations against him. However, he stressed that he was no dummy candidate for the BJP MP and slammed the protesting wrestlers for “politics.”
In a social media post on Saturday, Ms Mallick had said she had quit the sport but was worried about junior women wrestlers. “They are calling me up and telling me that the junior nationals on December 28 are being held at Gonda (in Uttar Pradesh). Gonda is a stronghold of Brij Bhushan. Now imagine what kind of atmosphere the junior women wrestlers will be competing in,” she said in a post on X.
The ministry’s note says the new announcement to hold junior national does not give participants “sufficient notice” and was issued “without following the provisions of the constitution of WFI.”
“The decisions made by the newly elected executive body of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) demonstrate a blatant disregard for the established legal and procedural norms, violating both the WFI’s constitutional provisions and the National Sports Development Code,” it said. The ministry also noted that the international wrestling body was yet to issue a communication lifting the suspension on WFI. The national wrestling body was suspended after its internal polls were delayed due to the sexual harassment row and court cases.
After the suspension of the new body, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh said on Sunday that he would never contest the wrestling body’s polls again and distanced himself from new WFI president Sanjay Singh. Responding to a media person’s question on whether Sanjay Singh was close to him, Mr Singh said, “There can be a relationship, friendship. He has been associated with wrestling for 15 years. Is there anyone in the wrestling circle who does not have acquaintance with me?”
The BJP MP was also asked about his “dabdaba” remark after the WFI poll results, in which he had implied that his dominance on the federation will continue. Today, he just replied, “Jo aayi woh gayi” – meaning “what came has left.”
Meanwhile, the top athletes have welcomed the Sports Ministry’s move to suspend the newly elected management of the WFI but they also said the action came late. They said the Centre must have stepped in earlier and taken strong action against the WFI for violating the sports body’s rules, instead of waiting for athletes to announce they are quitting or returning the Padma Shri.
Olympian wrestler Geeta Phogat in a post on X said she was confident wrestlers would finally get justice. “Sports Ministry has suspended the Wrestling Federation of India. Even though it is late, there is a ray of hope that wrestlers will get justice,” Ms Phogat said. Vijender Singh, the first Indian boxer to win an Olympic medal, who has been supporting the wrestlers’ fight against Brij Bhushan, said the Centre should have put the hammer down on the WFI much earlier. “They made the woman to quit wrestling, the man to return the Padma Shri, and now they have suspended the wrestling federation. Action should have been taken earlier,” Vijender Singh said in a post on X.