Indian women wrestlers call out WFI over sexual harassment, lack of legal redressal mechanisms a concern As these Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik wrestlers protest outside Jantar Mantar against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the culture of harassment and impunity within WFI gets more focus

20, Jan 2023 | Tanya Arora

“Gender equality includes protection from sexual harassment and right to work with dignity, which is a universally recognised basic human right”

  • Supreme Court of India, Vishakha guidelines

The #metoo wave had hit India in the year 2018, with women from myriad sectors and industries coming forward with their stories of workplace harassment endured by them. While many such claims had led to criminal cases being filed, even against women who broke the walls of silence, many women had found strength in the solidarity. The front pages of many newspapers were filled with stories of women from all sectors, entertainment, films, journalism even. But the sport industry was majorly silent. Did that mean it was a safe haven for women? Recent disclosures, one after another have exploded this myth: clearly the sports industry of India is an industry, like a myriad others, pre-dominantly run by men, and the level of misogyny found in the sports industry is evidently high. Within the sports, coaches — mentors and purveyors of skill, wisdom and knowledge — hold a certain power over the students, making it easier for them to create an intimidating and fearful atmosphere. 

The silence of the women who are a part of the sports industry has finally broken. On January 18, Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik, two of India’s most esteemed women wrestlers, have come forth with accusations of sexual harassment against BJP MP and Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) head Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.

The wrestlers have now gone further and staged a protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi to bring this issue to light and seek justice for herself and the other allegedly exploited women wrestlers. Vinesh Phogat, the country’s only double World Championship medalist, spoke to the media and said that coaches and the WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan have been sexually harassing women wrestlers at national camps. Women wrestlers have been subjected to sexual harassment by some of the coaches at the national camps for years. Additionally, as provided by the Indian Express, Vinesh further claimed that the WFI president is complicit in this pattern of sexual harassment.

Sakshi Malik, India’s lone Olympic medalist, shared the dais with Vinesh and endorsed the accusations, saying that they had come to protect those other women wrestlers who had been and were being subjected to this. As reported by Indian Express, Sakshi said that it is for them that these protesting women are battling. She further declared that they will speak up when it’s time and offer the names of other people who have been harassing them to the person conducting the investigation.

It is being alleged that Vinesh further said that while she never herself faced such exploitation, she claimed many wrestlers were intimidated from coming forward because of their humble origins. Vinesh provided more information on the ways that national and international wrestlers have been allegedly exploited by the WFI chief and coaches while stating that she worries for her own safety now because she is raising her voice against very powerful individuals. As provided by her, and reported by the Indian Express, this exploitation is happening every day.  She mentioned that they had written to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Sports. She subsequently also told the media that Singh’s residence in Lucknow is the only reason the camps are taking place there since it makes it easier for him to take advantage of the girls. She continued by saying that the coaches delve into their personal affairs and relationships and demand full details.

Then Vinesh addressed the wrongdoings and Singh’s alleged haughtiness, saying that Singh tortures Vinesh mentally for everything. She went on to say that the wrestlers have to grovel before Singh and his assistant secretary in order to obtain anything, particularly permissions. In order to enter the national camp, the younger generation is offering Singh gifts like money, milk, and ghee. To enter the national camp, coaches must also follow the same requirements.

She then gave the name of a person who traveled to Tokyo with the women’s team and claimed that the person was a coach who had no knowledge in women’s wrestling as he had accompanied them after paying money. She claimed that the lack of skilled physiotherapists had a negative impact on their chances of winning a medal at Tokyo Olympics.

Reaction of the WFI

Vinod Tomar of the WFI federation crossed the street to speak with the wrestlers in protest because the federation’s headquarters proximity to Jantar Mantar and is located in Singh’s MP residence. As his attempt at negotiating failed, stated the Indian Express. Before leaving, he told the reporters that Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the WFI president, urged him to go speak with the wrestlers who were protesting and let them know they could come to the WFI headquarters and discuss any issues.

The reporters had gathered at Singh’s home by that point. Singh has denied all charges even as he deals with the worst crisis of his ten years tenure at the head of Indian wrestling, so far an unblemished record. Following these allegations of harassment, the accused Singh also addressed the media and asserted that only Vinesh is alleging that the WFI had harassed a wrestler in a sexual manner. Nobody else has publicly stated that they have experienced sexual harassment. He added that he should be hanged on the day that even one more wrestler came forward to report that she had been sexually harassed.

“The age for delivering the best performance in wrestling is between 22 and 28 years. These wrestlers who are protesting can’t win an Olympic medal. This is turning into anger and that is why they are protesting,” Singh was quoted as saying by the news agency ANI.

Supporters at the protest

Olympic medalist Bajrang Punia, Olympian Anshu, and world junior silver medalist Sonam Malik were among those who joined Vinesh and Sakshi in their protest against the “dictatorial practices” of the federation. Sangeeta Phogat, a nationally rated wrestler and wife of Bajrang, was also there.

According to Bajrang, who was quoted by The Indian Express, everyone rejoices when Indian wrestlers win medals but thereafter no one is concerned about how they are handled, particularly by the federation. If the PMO and the office of the Home Minister pledge that our concerns will be handled, then the protests will end. Else, Bajrang claimed that they will continue protesting as wrestlers can no longer be treated as “ghulams” of the Wrestling Federation of India. He further said that they will now talk about the rot in the federation and the “tanashahi” (autocratic functioning and environment) prevalent over many years.

Action taken against the claims made

In response to the events, Swati Maliwal, chairman of the Delhi Commission for Women, issued a notice against Singh, requesting the investigation and details of the case from the Deputy Commissioner of Police and the Secretary of Sports. A panel formed by the DCW has also sought details of Internal Complaints Committee formed by the Wrestling Federation of India. The panel also asked whether these complaints have been forwarded to the ICC and the Local Complaint Committee (LCC) as per Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.

The Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) has been asked for an explanation by the Indian Sports Ministry “within the next 72 hours.” Within hours of the protest, the Sports Ministry made it plain in a statement that it “would move to take action against the federation in line of the articles of the National Sports Development Code, 2011” if the WFI does not answer within the next three days.

Previous instances where allegations of Sexual Harassment were made 

There have been 45 reports of sexual harassment in the last ten years, according to data presented by The Indian Express in the year 2020. It was further provided that 29 complaints of these above-mentioned complaints had been made against coaches. As was additionally provided by the newspaper in its investigative report, in numerous instances, the accused have received light sentences, with punishments varying from transfers to a slight wage cut or pension reduction. Investigations involving over a dozen accusations, however, have gone on for years without being resolved. These incidents, however, only form part of an extensive and deeply-rooted system of harassing women sportspersons. 

A few instances wherein official complaints had been filed by sportspersons against their harassers, within the sports industry:

  • In June, 2022, an Indian cyclist lodged a grievance with the Sports Authority of India (SAI). The cyclist has accused their coach, R K Sharma, of sexual harassment in Slovenia in May 2022.   The complaint goes into detail about the coach’s offensive remarks and sexual advances. The cyclist claimed that the coach “forced” himself into her room, suggested giving her a “post-training massage,” offered to have her “sleep with him,” and proposed marriage to her because she had no future in sports. A panel to look into the allegations had been established by both the SAI and the Cycling Federation of India (CFI).
  • In July 2021, seven sportspersons accused renowned coach P Nagarajan of sexual harassment. He already had a complaint filed against him and was reportedly abusing athletes for years. He had also threatened the athletes to cease their training. 
  • In January 2020, an FIR was registered against a coach for allegedly harassing and molesting a woman cricketer. As had been provided, the victim had approached Gautam Gambhir. 
  • A young female athlete claimed that a few senior athletes had sexually harassed her in May 2015. After the incident, the 15-year-old died by suicide, and three other people were hospitalized after ingesting toxic fruits in what appeared to be a suicide pact. The players were undergoing training at the Vembanad Lake, Alappuzha, Kerala, Sports Center of Sports Authority (SAI) water sports facility. An FIR had been filed.
  • During the Asian Games in 2014, a female gymnast accused Coach Manoj Rana and gymnast Chandan Pathak of sexual harassment. Allegedly, the duo made vulgar comments about her attire. It was promised by the Gymnastic Federation of India (GFI) that strict punishment would be handed out to both Pathak and Rana if they were found guilty. However, Jiji Thompson, director general of SAI, cried conspiracy which had resulted from an internal dispute in the GFI. He indicated that the 29-year-old woman was herself at fault for going to police we she was not from India and was practicing at the stadium under the ‘Come and Play’ scheme.
  • In 2009, a young boxer made the decision to take her own life because she could no longer stand her coach’s relentless harassment. The 21-year-old S Amaravathi died by suicide inside the Lal Bahadur Stadium by ingesting poison when she could no longer tolerate the frequent altercations with her coach Omkar Yadav. She was a promising talent and the junior national boxing champion. After she passed away, an investigation was mandated. The hostel staff, however, refuted these accusations and said that she was simply experiencing poor self-esteem.

Sexual Harassment Redressal Mechanisms in place for Sportspersons

According to the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013, any workplace with more than 10 employees needs an internal complaints committee. The Section 2 (o) (iv) of the said act , which provides the definition of workplace and the institutions that fall under it, states that:

 “Any sport institute, stadium, sports complex or competitions or games venue, whether residential or not used for training, sports or other activities relating thereto.”

Contrary to popular belief, sports facilities are thus considered workplaces for purposes of the law. Despite this, information about the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) at various federations is hard to come by; the majority isn’t posted on the organizations’ official websites or on notice boards in training facilities around the nation.

The Act’s operative phrase is “workplace.” It also defines the terms “employer” (Section 2(g)) and “employee” (Section 2(f)). A person in charge of the “administration, supervision, and control” of the workplace is known as an employer. A workplace Internal Committee (IC) must be established by the company.

In relation to sports infrastructure, competition and event sites, dormitories, and games villages, to name a few sports workplaces, India’s numerous sports federations and other governing bodies are employers. Therefore, in accordance with the law, these businesses are required to set up an IC to look into and ask questions about sexual harassment claims filed by sportsmen and sportspeople.

Athletes who were questioned by Scroll.in in 2018 on the existence of a sexual harassment grievance redressal mechanism stated anonymously that nobody has given this significant consideration, with the exception of a few federations. A few allegations continue to surface on a regular basis, but the most of the time the accused coaches are directly employed by the Sports Authority of India, thus federations have no control over them. However, all National Sport Federations (NSFs) are technically supposed to have a complaints procedure in place.

The National Sports Federations and other sport organizations are responsible for ensuring women’s safety, under the National Sports Development Code of India from 2011. They are enjoined to establish policies that forbid sexual harassment, inform every one of these policies, and provide suitable platforms for women to bring up the subject. A complaints process must be established, and it must include provisions for a third party with knowledge of the problem of sexual harassment. The majority of federations are in violation of the law since they have not implemented these processes.

In most cases, young women with diverse family background, not all having access to vocal echelons of society make it to the top, after choosing this as a career over much is invested. The absence of a pro-active and sensitive environment can make them voiceless victims.

Although some of these NSFs have athletes’ commissions to handle complaints and grievances, they are not – as required – specifically for sexual harassment and are not led by women. The standard method is to approach the president or secretary and speak with them directly. This indicates that there isn’t a formal complaint, which is required by the ICC. This also explains why there are frequently no official complaints.

For women who have tackled this nightmare throughout their professional careers, sexual harassment in the sports industry has been a slow-burning fuse for ten years now. This raises serious concerns about women’s safety in sports. As can be deduced from the cases provided above, the Sports Authority of India is not doing a fair job at protecting the women sportsperson in India. Through the cases provided about, it can be seen that the SAI is more inclined to protecting its employees, or burying down the case. 

The protest staged by these wrestlers have brought across a major void that exists within the sports industry. The workplace sexual harassment law requires that internal complaints committees should contain at least three employees. As this is the general rule, it becomes even more difficult for the woman to approach the authorities with their complaints and receive an impartial treatment. This also depicts the internal hegemonies that exist within the sports industry and the dominance that a woman needs to fight against while approaching the authorities with complaint against their harassers. 

Conclusion

Sports are mostly still exclusively a masculine domain despite the proficiency shown by more and more women. Not only when it comes to consumers or athletes, but also in coaching and administration, where the sex-ratio is greatly skewed. It is pertinent to note that in the case of WFI, there is an ICC in place. The question then arises is, why are these women wrestlers and their supporters not approaching them, and are rather opting to protest on roads? Is the redressal mechanism in place not enough to tackle with this issue in an unbiased and fair method?

It is further crucial to pay attention to the deep and serious allegations that are being made by Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik against the predatory behavior shown by the very people that are supposed to teach and train them. How many before had to, and how many after these two will have to suffer through this culture of dominance and impunity? 

The authorities as well as the lawmakers need to go beyond just addressing this case and asking for explanations, and should consider if stricter laws are needed. It would be negligent to claim that sexual harassment does not happen to male athletes, especially minors, even though the bulk of cases involving sexual harassment include woman survivors. But, before we arrive at the issue of introducing gender neutral laws, it is essential that we first appropriately implement the protections are already existing to tackle with the systematic oppression of women, and then aim to bring in laws that protect every one, no matter their gender. 

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