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Protesting Wrestlers: Khap Panchayats to Devise Strategy on Friday

Protesting Wrestlers: Khap Panchayats to Devise Strategy on Friday

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Manas Dasgupta

NEW DELHI, June 1: A final decision on the farmers and khap mahapanchayts support to the protesting wrestlers will be taken at a meeting in Haryana on Friday, the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Naresh Tikait said on Thursday.

“The Khap Panchayat and these girls (wrestlers) will not get defeated. A decision will be taken soon,” farmer leader and Naresh Tikait’s brother Rakesh Tikait said on future course of action of wrestlers’ protest.

The farmers and the khaps of Haryana have been extending support to the wrestlers and what remains to be decided is the strategy to pursue. Tikait, who had persuaded the wrestlers not to consign their medals to the Ganga on Monday, made it clear that they would leave no stone unturned. “We will go to the President of India if need be… We are with you, you don’t have to worry,” he told his audience at a mega meeting in Muzaffarnagar today.

A khap ‘mahapanchayat’ to discuss the ongoing protest by wrestlers against WFI chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh started in Soram village in Muzaffarnagar district. The ‘mahapanchayat’ was called by Tikait on Wednesday, a day after he and other farmer leaders managed to dissuade some of India’s top wrestlers from throwing their medals in the Ganga river to protest police inaction against the WFI chief in two cases of sexual harassment.

“I told them don’t immerse the medals in the Ganga, put them up for auction. The entire world will come forward and ask you to stop the auction,” he said. On why the farmers and khaps are extending support to wrestlers, Tikait said, “It is good if the family if big.” “You should understand what the Central government is doing. They broke Lalu Yadav’s family in Bihar. See what they did with Mulayam Singh Yadav’s family. The same thing is happening in Rajasthan,” he told the farmers attending the meet.

On Monday, a day after a massive Delhi Police crackdown on their protest, the wrestlers had headed for Haridwar, determined to immerse their medals in Ganga. But they held back finally after the intervention of Tikait, who heads the Bhartiya Kisan Union and khap leaders from Haryana.

The wrestlers have been on the warpath since January, demanding action against WFI chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, whom they accused of sexually harassing seven athletes, including a minor. Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who is also BJP MP, has asserted that would accept any punishment if the allegations against him were proven.  “If a single allegation against me is proven, I will hang myself. If you (wrestlers) have any evidence, present it to the Court, and I am ready to accept any punishment,” he said.

The government, in its first comment on the matter yesterday, warned the wrestlers against any precipitate action and advised them to wait for the conclusion of the police investigation. “I’ll ask the athletes to wait for the conclusion of Delhi Police’s investigation.  The Delhi Police has informed the Supreme Court and filed an FIR (First Information Report). Until the investigation is complete, do not take any such step which will harm the sport and the players,” sports minister Anurag Thakur had said.

The wrestlers’ agitation, now into the fifth month with the Centre doing nothing to address their grievances, has unnerved the BJP leaders in Haryana, the home state of most of the agitating wrestlers. A sense of unease appears to be growing within the ranks of the BJP’s unit in Haryana with the protest spearheaded by three of the country’s top wrestlers – Sakshi Malik, Vinesh Phogat, and Bajrang Punia – all natives of Haryana, and gaining public support.

With the Lok Sabha and Haryana Assembly polls on the horizon next year, the campaign has stoked discomfort within the BJP, earning unexpected support from some leaders of the state, including from Hisar MP Brijendra Singh and Haryana Home Minister Anil Vij. “I feel the pain and helplessness of our wrestlers, forcing them to the brink of throwing away their lifetime of hard work – the medals from Olympics, CWGs, Asian Games in the holy Ganga. Absolutely heart-breaking,” the Hisar MP tweeted.

Vij had said earlier, “The case of wrestling players who are protesting at Jantar Mantar has been taken over on the higher side. I myself have been the minister of the sports department, and I am completely with the players. If I have to speak or say anything higher in the government, I will do so.”

Despite growing support for the wrestlers, the Haryana BJP leadership has yet to officially take a stance on the issue. Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar has refrained from intervening, stating that “the issue is not related to Haryana” but the players’ teams and the union government.

The wrestlers’ protest has been bolstered by backing from strong farmers’ unions in the state, with talks of a mass protest against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. Opposition parties, including the Congress and the INLD, have also thrown their weight behind the wrestlers. Former Union Minister Birender Singh has been vocal about the issue, meeting with the wrestlers and raising the matter with BJP President JP Nadda, stressing that the party’s credibility is at stake. He called for an amicable resolution to the issue at the earliest and emphasized the need for reforms in the way sports federations are run.

Haryana BJP president Om Prakash Dhankar also said he raised the issue with Union Sports Minister Anurag Thakur, emphasizing that the protesting wrestlers deserve justice. Thakur, however, has urged the wrestlers to “trust” the Delhi Police investigation and “be patient” until its conclusion and has warned the protesting wrestlers against precipitating crisis.

In a more combative statement, his colleague and women’s welfare minister Smriti Irani, supporting his party colleague and WFI chief, questioned why the wrestlers’ protest had not won the support of Babita Phogat, a former wrestler and BJP MP who has distanced herself from the second wave of protests that flared in April and is still working closely with the government. “I had a chat with Babita Phogat ji. Do you think a world-famous wrestler like Babita Phogat will sit with the people who exploited others and especially her family members? Do you think Babita Phogat will stand against her family members just like that?” Ms Irani said with insinuation of some wrong doing by the protesting wrestlers.

In Delhi, the Trinamool Congress MPs on Thursday walked out of a parliamentary standing committee meeting after their demand to discuss safeguards provided for women sports persons by various sports federations in the light of the allegations made by protesting wrestlers was refused to be taken up for being “outside the meeting’s agenda” by its chairman BJP MP Vivek Thakur. The TMC MPs Sushmita Dev and Asit Kumar Mal staged the walkout after the party raised the issue of safety of women sports persons at the meeting of the Standing Committee on Education, Women, Children, Youth and Sports, and asked if internal complaints committees were formed at different sports federations and if they were active.

The six-time Winter Olympian Shiva Keshavan said: “I am not authorised to speak on behalf of the IOA or the athletes’ commission. But, as an athlete, as someone involved in speaking about athletes’ rights, and as a representative of the athletes’ commission, I must say this is one of the darkest moments in our sporting history.”

Referring to the wrestlers’ protest led by Olympic medallists Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik and World Championship medallist Vinesh Phogat, who went to Haridwar on Tuesday to ‘immerse’ their medals in the Ganga river but later did a rethink, Keshavan said: “The highest achievers are having to resort to such means, and it playing out publicly, has shown there is no proper system to address issues that are not limited to wrestling – and not limited to India either.”

Security was tightened at Delhi’s border points in view of a call for nationwide demonstrations given by the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) in support of protesting wrestlers. Security personnel are maintaining strict vigil at the border points and extra pickets have been put up to prevent any untoward incident, Delhi Police officials said.

The SKM, an umbrella body of farmers’ unions, had on May 30 called for nationwide protests in support of wrestlers who have been demanding the arrest of Singh for allegedly sexually harassing female grapplers, including a minor. In a statement, the SKM had said its call for demonstrations was aimed at securing the democratic right to protest by the Indian wrestlers and all other sections of society, and to demand the arrest of Singh, who is also a BJP MP. It said it would coordinate with platforms of trade unions, women, youth, students and all other sections, including intellectuals, to stage demonstrations.




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