23 May 2023

Indian wrestlers hold candlelight march demanding sports official’s arrest

23 May 2023

India’s top female wrestlers led a candlelight march of nearly 1,000 protesters in the capital New Delhi on Tuesday, demanding the resignation and arrest of the president of the wrestling federation for allegedly sexually harassing young athletes, one of whom was a minor.

Carrying India’s national flag, they marched to India Gate, a monument close to the country’s parliament building.

A strong police presence accompanied them.

The protesters have been demonstrating in the centre of New Delhi for nearly a month, amid a brutal heatwave, while foregoing their training schedules.

Two Olympic medallists, Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik, are among them and have threatened to hand back their medals if no action is taken against Wrestling Federation of India president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.

The protests have grown, with many members of opposition parties and farmer unions taking up the wrestlers’ cause.

Most of the Indian wrestlers come from the northern agricultural states of Haryana and Punjab.

They accused Singh, 66, a powerful politician representing the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, of sexually harassing seven young female wrestlers.

He has denied the accusations and called the protests “politically motivated” by the opposition Congress party.

Vinesh Phogat, who has won wrestling medals at the world championships, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games, claimed in January that several coaches have exploited female wrestlers at the behest of the WFI president.

Indian police are investigating the allegations of sexual harassment against Mr Singh, and he has been questioned.

India’s Supreme Court has also acknowledged that the case involves “serious allegations of sexual harassment”, but it has been met with silence from the ruling party leaders, including prime minister Narendra Modi.

After their initial protest in January, sports minister Anurag Singh Thakur asked the president of the federation to step aside and help the investigation.

He also said a committee would be set up to investigate the allegations and a report will be released in four weeks.

Mr Singh continues to head the federation and no report has been released in the months since. The women returned to their protest in April and have said they will not move until he is arrested.

“Our fight for justice seems like it has been forever because the wheels of justice have moved very slowly,” Ms Phogat wrote in The Indian Express newspaper on Tuesday.

The case has again highlighted the MeToo movement in India, which picked up pace in 2018 when a spate of actresses and writers flooded social media with allegations of sexual harassment and assault.

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