Fear creeps into Haryana's akhadas as wrestlers' protest drags on
Empty halls, concerned parents, no admissions: The grassroots of wrestling are suffering as the battle between their heroes and the WFI gets uglier.
Jhajjar, Haryana: The whole country was rocked on the morning of 28th May when visuals of Olympic medalist Sakshi Malik, World Championship medalist Vinesh Phogat and other prominent wrestlers being detained by Delhi Police were beamed on live television.
Some were confused, some were angry, some were shocked and some grieved at the visuals of the champions wrestling with the country's law enforcement. But perhaps most importantly, what was the effect of these visuals on the ones who look up to these wrestlers?
Well, the answer is not difficult to find. All it takes is a metro and bus ride to Haryana to understand the impact of the ongoing protests against the WFI chief on the grassroots of wrestling.
The akhadas of Haryana have been known to be the bastion of wrestling for ages. They hold the credit for preparing the supply line of India's star wrestlers, like the three in the firing line - Sakshi, Vinesh, and Bajrang Punia.
One such akhada is the 'Arya Lala Dewan Chand Kushti Akhada' in the Jhajjar district. Surrounded by agricultural fields, this akhada is run by renowned coach Virender Dalal, who coached Bajrang Punia and Deepak Punia before they made their marks at the international level.
"Iska asar? Asar toh ye hoga ji ki log kushti karana chorr denge. (Impact of this? Parents will stop their kids from taking up wrestling)," Virender told The Bridge in an exclusive interaction.
Impact on grassroots: No new admissions, kids called home
The epicentre of the wrestlers' protest is around 60km away from here, but the effects of it are very visible. Normally, these akhadas are full during practice sessions, but there has been a significant drop in numbers in the last few months.
"There was a time when there was not an inch to move in my hall. From having more than 130 kids at one point, we have around 80 now," Virender said.
"New admissions have stopped. Some parents are taking their kids away in fear too," he added.
While the 'Arya Dewan Lala Akhada', a boys-only akhada, is sparser than usual, the situation of girls' akhadas is even more alarming.
"I have been training girls in the 'Dada Shyam Samunder Dass Girls Akhada' for the past six years. I have never seen such a negative environment. The parents are not sending their girls, they fear for their safety," said Virender Bhuria.
"Every month there used to be at least three-four new girls coming, but after the protests, few parents have asked to send their kids back," said Virender with a gloomy face.
Fear leaves wrestling halls empty
“Fear cuts deeper than swords," is the line Arya Stark keeps muttering in George R.R. Martin's epic Game of Thrones. Sixteen-year-old Prashant felt the same when his idol Bajrang Punia was treated unceremoniously on national television.
"Bajrang Punia is my idol, he is from my village. If such champions are treated this way, what will happen to us? I can't be sure about my future. If this continues, kids won't take up wrestling," Prashant said.
While Prashant fears for his hero, the women wrestlers have a more immediate fear - their safety.
Fourteen-year-old Annu fears that her parents might ask her to come back home. "I started wrestling after seeing Vinesh Phogat. I am scared after what has happened in Delhi. It has left an impact on my parents as well," she said.
As Annu pointed out, parents are in deep concern after recent revelations.
"Aisi baatein hai jab, toh kaun sa parivaar apni beti bhejega (If the allegations are so grave, which family will want their kids out there?). The way Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik were treated, I don't want to see my girl like that," said the father of a wrestler, requesting anonymity.
He added, "I am persisting, but I know parents who have called back their girls. They are not allowing them to continue wrestling in fear."
The situation is grim, but could there be any steps taken that can bring back the days of optimism?
All India University Games bronze medalist Anjali said, "It is not only Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. There are many more offenders, including some coaches, who need to go to ensure the safety of the girls. If the right move is taken in this case, it will have a good impact. The girls who fear staying alone in camps will come back."
"Remove the offenders from the top brass. Bring more women to assure a sense of security among the players," Virender Dalal gave his solution.
The need to save wrestling's grassroots
In the history of the Olympics, India has 35 medals in total. Wrestling contributes seven. All these seven medals were won by wrestlers who started their journeys from such akhadas.
It is deeply concerning that fear of safety is sullying the grassroots of the sport that has accounted for 20% of India's Olympic medals. The wrestlers in the eye of the storm - Bajrang, Sakshi, Vinesh - have all said that they are ready to sacrifice their careers for the benefit of future generations.
But as can be seen in the akhadas of Jhajjar, the entire sport is in danger.
One of the coaches who The Bridge spoke to said, "The career of an athlete is a short one. When they have to fight battles like this, the point of playing at the top level becomes irrelevant. Close to a decade is spent in preparation for a wrestler and then people claim that such medals can be bought for 15 rupees."
He was speaking on behalf of Sakshi, Vinesh, and Bajrang about a statement made by the WFI chief, but he might as well have been speaking on behalf of wrestling's future on the need to not let Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh anywhere close to the sport.