May 6, 2023
Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.
Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi aired the 100th episode of his ‘Mann Ki Baat’ radio address. As expected, it was a massive marketing event in which he acknowledged the inspiring stories of our women sportspersons, and there were references to the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao scheme that he launched from Haryana and the Selfie with Daughter campaign started by Haryana resident Sunil Jaglan. What Modi didn’t mention was the protest in Delhi by India’s women wrestlers who are demanding action against Wrestling Federation of India president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh for sexual harassment. Incidentally, the protesting wrestlers are also from Haryana. Singh is a Bharatiya Janata Party MP, a bahubali from Kaisarganj in Uttar Pradesh, and his party maintained a stony silence on the matter for days. At the time of making this episode, Singh was still in the chair at the federation, although that could change by the time this episode is out. And it took the Supreme Court’s intervention for the Delhi Police to lodge FIRs against him. Why exactly is Singh so important to the BJP and what does the whole thing say about the government’s hypocrisy when it comes to women’s welfare and empowerment?
First of all, who is Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh? As I said, he’s a bahubali or strongman and he wields enormous clout in Kaisarganj. That means he’s no saint. Senior advocate Kapil Sibal told the Supreme Court that there were 40 cases against Singh. A few months ago, a court acquitted him in a 29-year-old case of attempt to murder former Uttar Pradesh minister Vinod Kumar Singh. But it did not give him a clean chit; the court pulled up investigators for making no effort to collect evidence.
In a media interview, Singh said on camera: “Mere jeevan mein mere haath se ek hatya hui hai. Log kuchh bhi kahein, maine ek hatya ki hai (I have committed one murder in my life. Whatever people may say, I have committed one murder).”
In the 1990s, Singh spent several months in jail under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act, or TADA, for allegedly helping don Dawood Ibrahim’s men.
So, why did the BJP patronise and protect him?
First of all, his political usefulness. Brij Bhushan Singh is a six-term MP from three different constituencies – Gonda, Balrampur and Kaisarganj. He has followers among Rajputs in other constituencies as well. Importantly, he was part of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and an accused in the Babri Masjid demolition case. That makes him something of a star within the party and action against him may swing votes away in the urban local body elections to be held in UP this month.
The other reason, of course, could be that the BJP simply doesn’t care. It has always chosen to brazen out adverse news, simply ignoring it, confident that its divisive agenda is enough to ensure against electoral setbacks. The media, of course, plays a great supporting role.
For instance, when Union minister Ajay Mishra’s son, Ashish, ran over protesting farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri in 2022, the BJP looked the other way and the minister continued to enjoy the party’s support.
This time around, the BJP is calculating that the wrestlers’ protest will have no electoral fallout and, so, not only can the party ignore it, it can even turn off water and power supply to the protest site.
What’s worrying also is the utter silence of most of our sporting and cultural icons. It is to the eternal credit of Olympic medal winners Neeraj Chopra and Abhinav Bindra, and multiple Grand Slam doubles winner Sania Mirza, that they backed the wrestlers publicly. But, conspicuous by their silence were our cricketers and other sportspersons. What was shocking was PT Usha’s reaction. The former track star and current president of the Indian Olympic Association termed the protest as “indiscipline”. As a woman, and a former athlete, she should have displayed more empathy and, frankly, sense.
The protest highlights how deep the rot is at the Wrestling Federation of India.
It was in January this year that the wrestlers first protested. The government set up an oversight committee, asking it to submit a report by February-end. The findings, if at all they were submitted to the government, were not shared with the wrestlers. So, they resumed their protest on April 23.
It now emerges that Paramjeet Malik, a physiotherapist, had said that three junior women wrestlers had told him about the sexual harassment and had also confided in the then women’s coach, Kuldeep Malik. As expected, there was no action.
So, it’s been more than three months since the matter was first raised. This sequence of events is typical of the fate of sexual harassment complaints in India. The usual response is to simply ignore their existence.
Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik, supported by Bajrang Punia, are award-winning wrestlers who have earned massive honours for India. What is the government telling us by ignoring them? That they are making up their claims and don’t deserve even a hearing? That their allegations shouldn’t be probed? That sexual harassment should be swept under the carpet and taken as a given? India’s medal winners deserve better.
The critical issue here is the lack of political will to take action – and even to simply implement the law. So, justice is elusive and routinely denied. The culprits, especially if they have political clout, are devoid of fear. They are confident that they will never have to answer for their actions. If sexual harassment complaints by our high-profile athletes can fall on deaf ears, what hope does anyone else have? The implication for other women victims is that they have no hope for justice.
Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch you again soon.