NEW DELHI, Dec 26: Even after the newly-elected body of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) was suspended by the government for alleged irregularities, the row over the dominance of the tainted former chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh continued with another top wrestler Vinesh Phogat announcing her decision to return her Khel Ratna” and Arjuna award.
In an open letter addressed to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the commonwealth and Asian Games gold medallist Phogat asked why should the wrestlers who had raised their voice of protest against the former WFI chief and BJP Member of parliament, were called traitors and wondered were the award-winning women wrestlers were glorified only for the government advertisements.
Less than a week after Sakshi Mallick announced her retirement from wrestling and Bajrang Punia returned his Padma Shri, Vinesh Phogat, the third top wrestler who was part of the protests against former Wrestling Federation of India chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, has announced that she would return her Khel Ratna and Arjuna Award.
Brij Bhushan, a BJP MP, had been accused of sexual harassment by many women wrestlers and Ms Mallick, Mr Punia and Ms Phogat had been at the forefront of the protests against him.
The wrestlers’ decisions have been taken in quick succession in a span of six days since a panel led by Sanjay Singh, a close aide of Brij Bhushan, won the elections to the WFI by a landslide on Thursday, indicating a continuity of leadership in the body. The panel was suspended by the sports ministry on Sunday.
In an emotional open letter to the Prime Minister, said she was returning the Khel Ratna – the country’s highest sporting honour – and Arjuna Award so that they don’t become a “burden on the path of living with dignity.”
Ms Phogat said the wrestlers were considered the country’s pride when they won medals, but were now being labelled traitors because they spoke out for justice. “Prime Minister, I want to ask you, are we traitors?” she wrote.
In the letter, written in Hindi, Ms Phogat said, “Sakshi Mallick has quit wrestling and Bajrang Punia has returned his Padma Shri. The whole country knows why the players who won Olympic medals for the country were forced to do all this; and you are the head of the country, so this matter must have reached you too. Prime Minister, I am Vinesh Phogat, a daughter of your house and I am writing this letter to you to tell you about the condition I have been in for the past year.”
“I remember the year 2016, when Sakshi Mallick won a medal in the Olympics, your government named her the brand ambassador of “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao.” When this was announced, all the women players of the country were happy and were sending congratulatory messages to each other. Today, ever since Sakshi had to leave wrestling, I am remembering that year again and again. Are we women players made only to appear on government advertisements,” she asked.
She said winning an Olympics medal was her dream, which was now fading as the lives of women wrestlers were nothing like the “fancy advertisements.” Referring to Brij Bhushan’s remark after the wrestling body elections that his dominance would continue, Ms Phogat requested the Prime Minister to spare five minutes to listen to the former WFI chief’s comments. She alleged that the “exploiter” Brij Bhushan had admitted on television that he had made women wrestlers uncomfortable and had utilised every opportunity to humiliate them.
The Commonwealth Games gold medallist said the wrestlers had been struggling on the streets for a year but were still waiting for justice. “When we won medals for the country, the whole country considered us its pride. Now that we raised our voice for justice, we are being called traitors. Prime Minister, I want to ask you, are we traitors,” she asked.
The wrestler, who broke out in tears at a press conference after the results of the WFI election on Thursday, said no mother would like to see her daughter in the condition she finds herself in. Ms Phogat said she was ecstatic when she received the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna and the Arjuna Award. “But now I want to get rid of the image of Vinesh receiving the award, because that was a dream and what is happening with us now is the reality,” she wrote.
Stating that the awards have no meaning in her life now, the wrestler said, “Every woman wants to live life with respect. Thus, Prime Minister sir, I want to return my Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna and Arjuna Award to you so that these awards do not become a burden on us in the path of living with dignity.”
Ms Phogat’s complaints come even as the chief of the suspended WFI body Sanjay Singh said they would first talk to the government and, if that does not work, take legal advice to save the wrestling body.
Mr Singh, a close aide of sexual harassment-accused former WFI chief, claimed that the decision to hold under-15 and under-20 nationals was taken to ensure that the future of the young wrestlers was not ruined. The Union sports ministry, while suspending the panel, had termed this decision “hasty” and said it was taken “without following the provisions of the constitution of WFI.”
The suspended WFI president also pointed out that both Brij Bhushan and wrestler Sakshi Mallick have said they would not be involved with the sport anymore and that wrestling should be allowed to carry on without politics becoming an issue.
“We will speak to the government first and, if that does not work, I will take legal advice to save my federation. The allegation is that we took the decision to hold the nationals in haste, but it was decided upon after meeting the quorum requirements. The annual general meeting was held and every state had two delegates present for voting,” Mr Singh said.
The WFI chief said the meeting was adjourned after the elections and continued later at a hotel. “The delegates of all states decided that if the national championships were not held in this calendar year, the future of the wrestlers would be ruined. The certificates that they get are used by them for admissions and jobs, and that is why the decision was taken,” he claimed.
The fact that Nandini Nagar in Uttar Pradesh’s Gonda, which is considered a stronghold of BJP MP Brij Bhushan, was chosen as the venue for the nationals had also led to a controversy. Mr Singh, however, said “Everyone told us that they do not have the infrastructure. To hold both national wrestling championships together, at least six wrestling mats are needed. Nandini Nagar has a Tata centre as well as Sports Authority of India centre. So, the decision was taken by everyone. It is not my decision alone.”
On a perceived Haryana-Uttar Pradesh divide in the sport, he said, “We are one family, one akhada. Nearly 99% of young wrestlers in Haryana are with us. Their future in the sport is getting ruined and we are trying to prevent that from happening. We are interested in the sport. Those who want to indulge in politics can do so, they will get the answer in the political arena, and those in wrestling will get their answer in the sporting arena.”