Politicians joust to score points as women wrestlers protest

Delhi’s iconic Jantar Mantar is in the news once again. And this time it is again India’s women wrestlers who are in the media glare.

The grapplers are demanding the removal of and criminal action against the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief and Kaiserganj MP, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, over alleged sexual exploitation and harassment. This is their second protest at the site.

The first was in January, which was perhaps the biggest protest by Indian sportspersons against sports administrators in recent memory. The wrestlers earned the sympathy of the entire nation as they kept politicians at bay. The sight of Bajrang Punia shooing away CPI-M leader Brinda Karat from their protest stage had gone viral.

Their fresh protest, however, has raised eyebrows as politics seems to be overwhelming the cause.

A week into their fresh protest at the Jantar Mantar, leaders from various political parties are making a beeline to the site. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, Rashtriya Lok Dal’s Jayant Chaudhary, former Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, CPI-M’s Brinda Karat, and others met them at the Jantar Mantar and lashed out at the government for “protecting” WFI chief.

Bharat Kisan Union (BKU) representatives also joined the wrestlers’ stir, and several Khap leaders from Haryana too have come in their support.

The Jan Adhikar Party leader, Pappu Yadav from Bihar, an accused in multiple criminal cases, also flocked to the protest site. While lending his support to the wrestlers, he made fun of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

Another video from the protest site that went viral on Friday shows anti-Modi slogans raised by some people. There’s a video showing one person taking the mic and shouting out the derogatory slogan, “Modi teri kabr khudegi” (Modi your grave will be dug here). Others join him in amplifying the slogan.

Reacting to the political turn that the wrestlers’ protests have taken, former champion and BJP activist Babita Phogat criticised politicians for using the protest as a political platform. She even cautioned grapplers and said, “Athletes must remember that we belong to the entire nation.”

She even questioned the presence of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra at the wrestlers’ protest site on Saturday. Babita Phogat said the person who accompanied Priyanka was her personal secretary Sandeep Singh, who is accused of “molesting women and insulting a Dalit”.

BJP IT cell head Amit Malviya also hit out at Priyanka Gandhi and raked up Angkita Dutta’s alleged harassment case against Youth Congress president Srinivas B.V. “Dr Angkita Dutta, former IYC Assam president, pleaded with [Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi] to be heard, because she was being harassed by Srinivas BV, national president of IYC. Let alone be given an audience, she was sacked,” Malviya tweeted.

Coming out in support of the protesting wrestlers, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said, “We must all stand with the wrestlers who are protesting. They are speaking in one voice. Our sportspersons are the pride of our nation. They are champions. The guilty must be brought to book, irrespective of their political affiliation. Justice must prevail. Truth must win.”

Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra also attacked the BJP in a tweet, “BJP stripping female athletes of shame but can’t strip one man of his portfolio.” Taking a dig at Union Minister for Women and Child Development Smriti Irani, Moitra said, “Oh & just btw BJP — Where is your nari brigade? Your saases and your bahus? Why the silence now on WFI issue? Or aren’t female athletes ‘sanskari’ enough to be worth standing up for?”

As politics threatened to take over the wrestlers’ cause, Tokyo Olympics bronze medallist Bajrang Punia tried to offer clarifications and said they “are fighting for justice for India’s daughters but some people are trying to project it as a ‘bhadkau andolan’.”

Punia claimed that “some individuals were trying to steer the ongoing protests against Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh to a different direction,” and added that they would not let the movement get politicised.

Politics is secondary, Punia emphasised, adding: “The dignity and honour of women comes first, so please don’t indulge in politics. This is a players’ movement, so do not link it to any political party.”

The BJP is quiet at the moment because a lot is at stake. This is the crucial year for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. And any miscalculation could prove costly.

Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh is the BJP MP from Kaiserganj in Uttar Pradesh and has been the president of the WFI since 2011. The six-time MP has represented Gonda, Kaiserganj and Balrampur constituencies, and holds considerable influence in these areas. He denied the harassment charges when they were first levelled earlier this year in January, and has termed them politically motivated.

As days progress, the wrestlers’ issue is getting mired in a political mess. The charges made by the top grapplers are far too serious to be overtaken by politics.

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