New Delhi: Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik and other top Indian wrestlers who have been sitting in protest for three days called off their protest late Friday night after sports minister Anurag Thakur gave assurances that the government will address their grievances. The government’s initiative to placate the protesting wrestlers started with the stepping aside of under-fire Wrestling Federation of India chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.
The government decided to form an oversight committee which will investigate the allegations of sexual harassment of women wrestlers by the WFI president. The committee, members of which will be named on Saturday, will also oversee the day-to-day affairs of the federation. Making the announcement, Thakur said the committee will submit its report in one month’s time. ‘It has been decided that an oversight committee will be formed, names for which will be announced tomorrow.
The committee will complete its investigation within four weeks. It will thoroughly probe all the allegations be it financial or sexual harassment that have been levelled against WFI and its chief’, Thakur said after the meeting that lasted close to five hours. ‘Till the investigation is over, he (Singh) will step aside and co-operate with the investigation and the oversight committee will run the day-to-day affairs of WFI’, Thakur added.
Talking to media, Bajrang Punia said they never wanted to take the protest route but they were ‘pushed to limit’. ‘The protest is over. We did not want to sit on dharna but ‘paani sar se ooper chala gaya tha’. The government has assured us safety and security, we have been threatened by the WFI president in the past also’, the Tokyo Olympics bronze medallist said, adding that 2023 was a crucial year for them as the Asian Games and Olympic Qualifiers are approaching.
The wrestlers had earlier in the day said that they would lodge multiple FIRs against the WFI chief, but did not do so eventually. It can be termed a considerable, if not major, victory for the agitating wrestlers, who had said that they would continue their ‘dharna’ until the WFI president is sacked and the federation is disbanded. However, under the IOA constitution a National Sports Federation (NSF) can’t be dissolved unless it has violated the IOA rules and regulations, or has been de-recognised by the world body of the sport. It must be mentioned that the wrestlers have not yet provided strong evidence that suggests sexual harassment of women wrestlers.
Earlier in the day the wrestlers reached out to the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) demanding a probe. In their letter, addressed to IOA president PT Usha, the wrestlers alleged financial misappropriation (of funds) on part of the WFI and claimed that the coaches and sports science staff at the national camp are ‘absolutely incompetent’. The wrestlers also reiterated their demand that the WFI be disbanded and its president sacked. ‘A new committee should be formed to run the affairs of WFI in consultation with the wrestlers’, they wrote in their fourth and last demand. Responding to it, the IOA formed a seven-member committee, headed by M C Mary Kom, to probe the charges.
The IOA panel includes wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt, archer Dola Banerjee and Indian Weightlifting Federation (IWLF) president and IOA treasurer Sahdev Yadav. The committee also has two advocates — Talish Ray and Shlok Chandra — besides former shuttler and IOA joint secretary Alaknanda Ashok, who is its vice chairperson. The decision was taken during the IOA’s emergency Executive Council meeting, which was attended by the likes of Olympic champion shooter Abhinav Bindra, Olympic bronze medallist Yogeshwar, along with IOA president PT Usha and joint secretary Kalyan Chaubey.
Most of the committee members are affiliated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. IOA Athletes Commission Member Shiva Keshvan was a special invitee in the meeting. IOA president Usha has assured that a thorough investigation will be carried out by the panel to ensure justice. ‘A detailed discussion was held on the letter received from the athletes and all the members including special invitees presented their views and suggestions’, the IOA said in a statement. ‘It was unanimously agreed that IOA must not get carried away by media trials. Further the EC unanimously decided that a Committee will be formed in accordance with the prevention of sexual harassment of women act of 2013 and must hear both sides and submit a report to the IOA President. ‘Instructions have been given to the committee to meet at the earliest. ‘The EC also appreciates the action and initiatives taken by the Ministry of Sports & Youth Affairs and awaits its report on the matter’, the country’s apex sports body added. It is interesting that Yogeshwar is part of the committee as the protesting wrestlers claimed that he was ‘sitting on lap of WFI’.
In his UP bastion of Gonda earlier in the day, the WFI chief termed the protest ‘dharna of Shaheen Bagh’ and said he won’t quit from the post. ‘The protest by wrestlers against me is the dharna of Shaheen Bagh’, Singh, who is also a sixth-time Lok Sabha MP from UP’s Kaisarganj constituency, told reporters in his native place. The government had given the WFI President 72 hours (till Saturday evening) to respond to the allegations. The WFI filed its reply to the ministry on Friday evening but Singh cancelled his scheduled press conference. It was conveyed that he will speak with the media on Sunday, after the WFI emergency Executive Council meeting.