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30 May, 2023 17:08

Indian wrestlers postpone plan to throw medals into Ganges

The athletes are protesting against a ruling party MP accused of sexual harassment
Indian wrestlers postpone plan to throw medals into Ganges

A group of Indian wrestlers has issued a five-day ultimatum to the government to take action against MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who is facing sexual harassment allegations. The athletes had threatened to throw their medals into the River Ganges on Tuesday evening, but postponed the plan to give officials more time to act.

The wrestlers want the Narendra Modi-led government to punish Singh, who is a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and serves as president of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI). The group has been camping in the capital New Delhi since April 23 as part of their protest.

The athletes decided to give the government more time after an intervention by Naresh Tikait, a powerful farmers’ leader who was among those who compelled the government to withdraw controversial farm reform laws in 2021. The wrestlers, including Olympic medalists Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia, outlined their threats to discard their medals in a statement in Hindi.

“We are going to immerse these medals into the River Ganges… The more sacred we consider the Ganges, the more sacredly we had achieved these medals by toiling hard. These medals are sacred for the whole country and the right place should be in the Ganges itself,” the statement said. “These medals are our lives, our souls. There would be no reason to live after immersing them into the Ganges today.”

The Ganges is considered a holy river by the country’s Hindu majority, and is revered as a symbol of sacrifice in accordance with the faith of ancient scriptures.

The protesters had also threatened to stage an indefinite hunger strike at India Gate, a war memorial and popular tourist attraction in the capital.

The planned sacrifice echoes the protest act by iconic American boxer Muhammad Ali, who famously threw his 1960 Rome Olympics gold medal into the Ohio River after being denied entry into a restaurant in Louisville due to racial segregation.

Though Singh, 66, has been stripped of his administrative powers, the protesters are demanding his arrest over allegations of sexual harassment towards female wrestlers. India’s Supreme Court has ordered police to open a case against the politician, who has been questioned regarding the claims but has not been arrested, which is unusual considering that one of the two First Information Reports filed against him was based on the allegations of a minor and falls under the Protection of Children From Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act of 2012.

The wrestlers’ ultimatum follows a crackdown by the Delhi Police on the athletes, which coincides with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inauguration of the new parliament building – a high-profile event snubbed by opposition parties.

The wrestlers have also expressed anger at India’s female president, Draupadi Murmu, who belongs to the downtrodden tribal community. “The president, who is a woman herself, sat barely two kilometers away and watched. She didn’t say anything,” the statement said.

The protesters were detained by police on Sunday as they attempted to march to the new parliament building. Viral images of wrestlers Vinesh Phogat and her cousin, Sangeeta Phogat, caused outrage after the pair were seen being pinned to the ground by officers.

“Have female athletes committed some crime by asking for justice for the sexual harassment committed against them?” the wrestlers asked in their statement.

Police had earlier refused to give permission for the group to hold an indefinite hunger strike at India Gate because “it is not a protest site,” although Sports Minister Anurag Thakur claimed on Monday that the wrestlers had not been prevented from protesting at designated spots.

The minister added that the necessary action would be taken in Singh’s case once the investigation had been concluded, and urged the wrestlers to record their statements with the police.

Should the athletes carry out their threat to discard their awards, it would mean two Olympic medals being tossed away, as well as a handful of Commonwealth Games and World Championship medals.

Malik has won one Olympic bronze and three medals at the Commonwealth Games, while Vinesh Phogat has won two World Championship medals, two Asiad medals and three Commonwealth Games medals. Bajrang Punia has won an Olympic bronze, four World Championships medals, two Asian Games medals, and three at the Commonwealth Games.