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Women's safety in Indian sports: An urgent call to bring back morality

India's star wrestlers are risking their Olympic dreams for the sake of justice and future athletes' safety. But all they have got from the corridors of power is deafening silence.

Womens safety in Indian sports: An urgent call to bring back morality

Wrestlers observe Black Day at Jantar Mantar (Bajrang Punia/Twitter)


Vithi Joat

Updated: 26 May 2023 4:40 PM GMT

As Bertolt Brecht puts it, "There will also be singing about the dark times".

On the dusty pavements of Jantar Mantar under the scorching sun with little to no comfort, India's best wrestlers are risking an Olympic dream. Not because they don't want to wrestle, but because they want to turn their arena into a space where justice prevails. But five months since their protest had hit the headlines, all we hear is silence from the corridors of power.

Before I proceed, let's understand that the wrestlers' protest is way beyond Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia, and Sakshi Malik. They are echoing a revolution that has been brewing across sports and across regions.

The revolution that has brought about a mise-en-scene Indian sports is not used to. The protest underscores the sexual harassment cases that came to light against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, but it also questions the systematic exploitation of athletes by sports federations and abuse of power.

But what remains a mystery is the space it is getting in a layman's browser.

I stress this largely because India is a vibrant country that has often shown ardent enthusiasm for sports, especially where India has medaled in an Olympic event. And Wrestling, for one, has often gifted the nation legends to cherish. But today, the layman's browser has dismissed those who once stood atop a podium and conquered their hearts.

Does this mean there is an urgent need to wake up the sleeping conscience and awaken morality from death? Yes obviously, but we have been dismissing accountability in Indian sports as a routine.

Wrestlers protest against WFI Chief

The sexual harassment allegations leveled against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh have fallen on deaf ears. Singh has commandeered the whole framework of the process because of the hegemony he holds in the circuit. He is still out there flexing his muscles. It is an act of power, sending the message that he isn't going anywhere or that this is how it has always been.

No one in the history of Indian sports ever cemented the convention for justice as far as sexual harassment cases are concerned.

Singh, who has been accused of sexual harassment by seven women, has been constructing a political narrative around the wrestlers' protest, the only arena where he knows how to fight.

And it is because of this that the wrestlers have had to pay a heavy price for their dissent - being thrashed by Delhi Police, being termed 'undisciplined' by the IOA President, being questioned on 'why now, not then?', while they have been greeted by silence from custodians of women empowerment in India.

Top Indian wrestlers moved their protest to India Gate to gain some more voice. (PritishRaj/TheBridge)

READ: Why the wrestlers' protest is a wake-up call for Indian sports

This reminds me, we do have a Ministry of Women and Child Development and a National Women Commission. On ordinary days their work is to acknowledge the grievances and lead the redressal process for women. But it seems they have turned their backs on yet another sexual harassment case.

But not all non-state actors are silent. Support has poured in from left, right, and centre. From khap panchayats to the Bhim Army, the narrative of the protest has always oscillated due to the parallel presence of these institutions. And whatever iota of space the wrestlers' original agenda is consuming is largely because of the presence of significant wrestlers on the yarn. That brings us to the next question.

What about those cases that are swept under the carpet?

What about the voices that aren't loud enough?

Other instances of sexual harassment in Indian sports

Even as the wrestlers' protest continued to be shifted to the back pages of newspapers, some other instances in Indian sports proved that the struggle was everywhere.

The Indian football turf captured headlines for all the wrong reasons again. Alex Ambrose, the former coach of the Indian U-17 women's team, who was sacked in July 2022 and booked under POCSO after allegations of sexual misconduct, was in the race to become the coach of I-League side Sudeva Delhi FC.

This shows how little our athletes matter in this capitalist status quo.

Ambrose is accused of sexually harassing a minor and was sacked by AIFF. But still, he is embraced in the circuit because it is clear that one corner of the field that yields power will always be silent.

Meanwhile, in the northeastern state of Assam, the Sports Authority of India suspended swimming coach Mrinal Basumatary of Solal Goan Center. He was accused of sexual harassment by a few athletes last week and an FIR was filed against him. But this news barely made it to the headlines.

The audacity of the state and non-state actors to treat sexual harassment cases as a routine reveals the modicum significance they give to the safety of women athletes.

As reported by Indian Express, 16 out of 30 national sports federations — of disciplines in which India has participated in the 2018 Asian Games and Tokyo Olympics in 2021 — don't meet the mandatory compliance of having an Internal Complaints Committee for sexual harassment offenses Major federations among these are the Archery Association of India, Table Tennis Federation of India, Volleyball Federation of India and many more.

The ignorance of federations towards an issue as serious as sexual offence clearly indicates where we stand as a sporting ecosystem.

RTI paints a grim picture

An RTI filed by The Bridge with the Sports Authority of India questioning the number of sexual harassment cases filed in government-led sports institutes over the last five years reveals the lack of accountability.

It also cements the argument that the system endures and perversely endears the compromise with the safety of women athletes. The response stated that between May 2017 and May 2022, the centers received 28 sexual harassment complaints. 34 cases were received against the coaches and 11 against the administrative staff between May 2012 and May 2022.

These are just the complaints that made it to the table or were recorded. But what about the cases that never saw the light of day? If anything, the cases are looked at under the gaze of suspicion. From ‘lack of evidence’ to ‘false allegations’, the reasons are plenty but justice is nowhere to be found. The people in power are waxed with mounted support while the world silently watches injustice.

Asking the important question: Who is accountable?

"Are you afraid?" asked Vinesh Phogat from the pavements of New Delhi as most of the sports fraternity stood silent.

Star athletes and cricketers might take a knee in solidarity when it satisfies their aesthetics, but is it fear that stops them from speaking when it is an issue closer home?

Neeraj Chopra, Abhinav Bindra, Kapil Dev, Sehwag, Irfan Pathan, Bhajji, and Shikha Pandey were the first to break the silence but their voices are still not enough.

Indian sports is dying every day. As long as the arc of India Gate and the pavements of Jantar Mantar are regular witnesses to an ignorant state and those who can speak look the other way, justice will be delayed. And along with this dies a dream of India being a sporting nation. Because it is upon the oppression of women that injustice thrives.

The makeshift sitting area for the supporters turns into a press conference room when the media is addressed. (PritishRaj/TheBridge)

A lot has been said and a lot has been promised for empowering women athletes. But there has been no action. Such dialogue is ping-ponged to build a citadel that homes everything but justice. On a turf where justice is merely a metaphor to tick the boxes. Boxes that don't list sexual harassment and a list where the women athletes are missing.

One day the crisis will pass but who has to pay the price? Athletes who are still out there fighting for justice. They will again wake up tomorrow to a new dawn singing about the darker times.

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