On a drama-filled Tuesday, some of India’s best wrestlers accompanied by hundreds of supporters gathered on the banks of the Ganga, threatening to immerse their World and Olympic medals in the holy river but refrained after being convinced by Khap and farmer leaders who sought five days to address their grievances.
Meanwhile, in evidence of growing support to the grapplers the global governing body for wrestling, United World Wrestling (UWW) on Tuesday issued a statement on the grapplers’ protest, saying that “events of these last days are even more worrying,” and the legendary Anil Kumble said he was “dismayed” by the treatment meted out to the protesting wrestlers at Jantar Mantar where they were manhandled and detained by police for trying to march towards the new Parliament building and hold a ‘Mahila Mahapanchayat’.
Earlier, Olympic champion shooter Abhinav Bindra, Indian football captain Sunil Chhetri and former India all-rounder Irfan Pathan, too, had expressed solidarity with the grapplers.
Significantly, the UWW’s strong statement condemning the “treatment and detention of the wrestlers” came on a day the top sportspersons like Rio 2016 bronze medallist Sakshi Malik, Tokyo 2020 medallist Bajrang Punia and world championship medallist Vinesh Phogat almost immersed their medals in the Ganga river.
“For several months, United World Wrestling has followed with great concern the situation in India where wrestlers are protesting over allegations of abuse and harassment by the President of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI),” the statement said before adding: “UWW will request further information about the next elective general assembly from the IOA and the Ad-hoc Committee of the WFI. The 45-day deadline that was initially set to hold this elective assembly shall be respected. Failing to do so may lead UWW to suspend the federation, thereby forcing the athletes to compete under a neutral flag. It is reminded that UWW already took a measure in this situation by reallocating the Asian Championship planned in New Delhi earlier this year.”
Earlier, on Tuesday, Delhi Police said it will not allow the protesting wrestlers to shift their sit-in to India Gate as the national monument is not a site for demonstrations. According to police, alternative places for their dharna will be suggested if they asked. The Delhi Police will suggest alternative sites that are designated for protests such as Ramleela Ground and Burari, the source added.
In a related development, the Delhi High Court on Tuesday issued notices to its Registrar General, the city Government and the police in order to decide which court shall hear the plea of the minor wrestler, who is among the seven female grapplers who have accused Wrestling Federation of India President Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh of sexual harassment.
Later on Tuesday evening, Olympic medallists Sakshi Malik, Bajrang Punia and Asian Games gold medallist Vinesh Phogat arrived at Har ki Pauri to protest the inaction against outgoing Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who has allegedly sexually harassed several women grapplers. Sakshi, Vinesh and her cousin Sangeeta were seen sobbing as their husbands tried to console them, even as scores of their supporters formed a cordon around them. The wrestlers stood for about 20 minutes in silence after reaching Har ki Pauri.
They then sat on the banks of the river holding their medals and looking distressed. Bajrang joined them after 40 minutes. Sombir Rathi, husband of Vinesh, was holding the Asian Games medals won by her wife. Sakshi was holding tightly the framed Olympic bronze medal she had won in 2016 in Rio.
The whole episode was reminiscent of the 1960 incident when the legendary Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, threw his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio river to protest racial segregation in the US.
However, after spending an hour and 45 minutes, they returned after several khap and political leaders urged them not to take such an extreme step. As the deadline for the immersion of the medals drew closer, senior farmer leaders Sham Singh Malik and Naresh Tikait sought five days' time from the grapplers to resolve the issue.
"The khap leaders put their turbans before us and said 'do not lose hope'. Keep the dignity of the turban and return. So we decided to wait," said wrestler Jitender Kinha, who has been a part of the protesting group. The wrestlers left without speaking with the media.
Close on the heels of the wrestlers announcing they would immerse their medals, sports ministry sources said the trophies and medals also belonged to the country.
"The medal that the wrestlers have won do not belong to them alone, but to the country, because they played under the Indian flag and their medals have been won with the efforts of not just the wrestlers' hard work but also the hard work of multiple people like their coaches, support staff," a ministry source told PTI.