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25 Dec, 2023 17:18

New Delhi suspends scandal-hit wrestling federation after top athlete quits 

The Indian government has intervened in the organization, whose former head is accused of sexual harassment
New Delhi suspends scandal-hit wrestling federation after top athlete quits 

The Indian Sports Ministry on Sunday suspended the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), whose former chief is at the center of a sexual harassment scandal that triggered a months-long protest by top athletes earlier this year. 

The announcement came several days after Sanjay Singh was elected as the new head of the WFI. Singh is a close associate of former WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who is accused of sexual harassment. The new head of the organization won a 40-7 vote against rival Anita Sheoran, a gold medalist at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. 

“Taking note of the compelling current situation arising out of the influence and control of the federation’s former office-bearers, serious concerns have arisen about the governance and integrity of the WFI,” the Sports Ministry stated. It accused the sports body of a “blatant disregard for the established legal and procedural norms,” and requested that the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) constitute an ad-hoc panel to manage the organization’s affairs. 

The government’s reaction followed a fresh backlash over the WFI’s new president, who reportedly received backing from his predecessor. Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh has been charged with several sexual harassment and criminal intimidation cases by female wrestlers. The accused, who is out on bail, is also a senior politician in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a serving MP. 

Reacting to the WFI election outcome last week, Olympic bronze-medalist Sakshi Malik, who has accused Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh of harassment, said she would retire from the sport. Malik was at the forefront of street protests earlier this year along with other top Indian wrestlers, who accused the police of inaction and demanded the arrest of the then-WFI chief. Images of gold medal-winning athletes being dragged by police as they were detained in the national capital sparked outrage in India and beyond. 

We slept for 40 days on the roads, and a lot of people from several parts of the country came to support us,” Malik told the media in New Delhi on December 21, after the WFI’s new president was elected. “We had demanded a woman be made the president, but that has not been fulfilled,” she added. 

Commonwealth and Asian Games gold medalist Vinesh Phogat alleged that the election of Sanjay Singh as WFI president would mean that “women wrestlers will continue to face harassment.” 

Protesting against the election results, Indian wrestler Bajrang Punia, a Tokyo Games bronze medalist, returned his Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian award given by the government. On Friday, Punia, who said he was returning his medal to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was stopped by police near the PM’s residence as he did not have an appointment. The wrestler placed his Padma Shri medallion on the pavement and walked away. 

Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh’s tenure as head of India’s biggest wrestling body, which started in 2021, was mired in controversy. Months after he took charge, a video emerged online in which he could be seen slapping a young wrestler. Defending his action, the former WFI chief claimed the athlete was guilty of “age fraud.

He was later accused by six adult female wrestlers of molesting them at training camps and tournaments. Singh denied all the allegations and claimed they were “politically motivated.” He was granted interim bail by a Delhi court in July. The politician told the ANI news agency on Monday that he had retired from wrestling administration and had “nothing to do with the sport anymore.”

Meanwhile, the newly elected WFI president, Sanjay Singh, has resolved to challenge the ministry’s decision. “We will speak to the central government, PM Modi, and the sports minister. The future of our children is in peril. Some members of our executive committee will hold talks with the center,” Singh said.