Blog: #MeToo In Wrestling - It's Not Just About Sports

It was an unprecedented sight. The country's top wrestlers - Olympic medalists, members of wrestling's first family and those on the cusp of greatness - almost 200 men and women protesting in freezing Delhi, in a fight that goes beyond anything they have faced on the mat.

In the biggest #MeToo moment in Indian sport, the government blinked. But it took three long days, during which Wrestling Federation of India chief Brij Bhushan Saran Singh, also a BJP MP with a criminal record, blustered and slapped a wrestler when confronted with allegations of sexual abuse. If we still needed evidence that athletes in our country, especially those in a non-cricket arena, are at the mercy of politicians who run Indian sport for a pure power kick, this is it.

Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik, Bajrang Punia, Ravi Dhaiya - some of the biggest names in Indian sports - abandoned training for a bout in which they will be tested like never before. Where incidents of sexual abuse merit zero tolerance, there were hours of negotiations in this case and resistance to any action against the MP.  

Empowering women can't be mere lip service.

At what point do we say, enough is enough? These are athletes who have invested their sweat and tears, and sometimes their meagre finances, to bring glory to the country. They should have been training at their akharas. Instead, they were almost groveling for their self-respect. When the very people who should be protecting them violate them, then what right do politicians have to bask in their medal glory? Be assured, these wrestlers will go on to deliver medals and when they do, politicians will share the spotlight, shamelessly.

It's the worst-kept secret of Indian sport. The political masters and blatant misogyny have ensured that sport in the country thrives on dirty games. It is an echo chamber of the powerful that survives on reflected glory. Look at former hockey captain Sandeep Singh, now Haryana Sports minister, who has been accused of sexual abuse by a junior coach. He remains a minister with the support of his government.

It's a shame that a former player who probably saw it all during his own career is accused of going down the same path.

Indian sport is run by politicians, predominantly male, who have never played even gully cricket, or lifted a racquet, but have run sports federations for decades as their fiefdoms. Those who know the sport intimately are kept out. Last year, after losing the football body election, Bhaichung Bhutia articulated what we already know, that political interference in Indian sport is as inescapable as pollution in Delhi.

A country that ranks among the world's most dangerous for women sees only sporadic complaints trickle out of its sports community, even though the disease is widespread. Most complaints that don't see the light of day are against coaches. The federations don't just control the narrative with an iron fist - they also don't allow anything uncomfortable to filter out, which makes the wrestlers' protest even more stark. For this to be a turning point in our #MeToo fight, other celebs, including cricketers and Bollywood actors, need to step up and lend their support to these women. It may be easier said than done.

The #MeToo movement walloped American sports with revelations that Larry Nassar, a former doctor with the US gymnastics team, had sexually abused gymnasts for years. That case and the allegations of the Indian wrestlers have one common factor. Multiple Olympics medalist Simone Biles was not spared by Nasser, and, as it appears from the wrestlers' allegations, even the biggest names suffered harassment by Brij Bhushan. Imagine where that leaves newcomers and the athletes struggling to make their mark.

In 1990, 14-year-old Ruchika Girhotra, a promising tennis player, was allegedly molested by Haryana tennis association chief SPS Rathore, who was also the state's Inspector General of Police. She died by suicide and he was promoted. It is unrealistic to think much has changed since then.

Vinesh Phogat, an Asian games and Commonwealth games gold medalist, had tears streaming down her face when she admitted to contemplating suicide after allegedly being mentally harassed by Bhushan for not winning at the Olympics.

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The more things change, the more they remain the same. That sums up India's #MeToo movement. Filmmaker Sajid Khan, accused of sexual abuse by 10 women, scripted his own comeback on national television, where Salman Khan gave him the Bigg Boss red carpet to share all that he had not suffered. Many others are back to networking as though they had only taken a brief hiatus in the Maldives. Actress Tanushree Dutta, who started the movement in India by calling out actor Nana Patekar, struggles to keep a job.

The pushback invariably and inevitably comes and much depends on these wrestlers for in their staying power rests a bigger battle. So many women who have been silenced are watching, it is not just about sports.

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