POCSO without arrest? Wrestlers' fight for justice just a reflection of the times
Even as India's champion wrestlers grapple with police on the streets, the accused WFI chief roams free and says he will change the law itself.
"Under the leadership of seers, we will force the government to change the (POCSO) law." - Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, President of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI)
It's been more than a month since India's top wrestlers, including the likes of Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik, and Bajrang Punia returned to the streets of Delhi to protest against the incumbent WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, accusing the BJP MP of sexual harassment of female wrestlers, including a minor.
One could have assumed that the two FIRs filed against Singh would be sufficient to initiate criminal proceedings. But as we have seen this week, 'justice' is a slippery beast.
On May 28, two pictures of start contrast flashed on television screens. On one side, you had the smiling Brij Bhushan in attendance at the unveiling of the new Parliament building, while on the other the wrestlers grappled with Delhi Police after they were stopped from marching to the new Parliament.
These very athletes are supposed to be grappling on mats at international tournaments, not with state police on the streets of the nation's capital, twisting and turning for justice.
One of the aforementioned FIRs filed against Singh was under the POCSO (The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences, 2012) Act. Given the grave nature of the crime mentioned under the purview of this Act, immediate arrest of the accused is usually expected.
"The POCSO Act is non-bailable and barring exceptional circumstances, there is always an imminent arrest whenever the POCSO act is slapped against somebody because this is a very stringent act to protect children from sexual offenses," said NDTV Resident Editor Ankit Tyagi on the day the Delhi Police agreed to file the FIRs after Supreme Court's order.
So why hasn't the WFI chief been arrested? It could be due to Section 41A of the CrPC (Code of Criminal Procedure). In essence, this section gives the investigating officer the discretion to send a notice to the accused before placing an arrest. This provision exists so that unnecessary arrests can be avoided.
However, with both the FIRs filed against Singh (POCSO and Section 354 of IPC) being for non-bailable crimes, what explains the delay? Could political impunity be the reason?
How POCSO cases usually pan out
One doesn't need to look too far into the past to find examples of POCSO cases where the accused was arrested immediately after the complaint. This can be seen both in the general sphere as well as in the world of sports.
On March 30, A. Sheik Abdullah of Keeranur, Tamil Nadu was arrested after he was charged with sexually assaulting a minor girl at his house, the complaint made by the girl's mother.
In April, a 40-year-old man in Mahendra Pandey was charged with the act after he married a minor girl in Siwan, Bihar. Despite contradicting statements from the minor and her mother, who was the complainant, Pandey's arrest status remained unchanged.
Coming to the sphere of sports, an arrest warrant was issued in February against former U-17 women's national team assistant coach Alex Ambrose, against whom the POCSO was slapped after charges of sexual misconduct with a player.
In Dehradun last month, 65-year-old cricket coach Narendra Shah was arrested under the POCSO Act after an audio clip surfaced where the accused was heard seeking sexual favours from a minor girl.
Flipping some more pages of history can take one to the 2018 case in Chandigarh, when the then 54-year-old warden of the Girls Sports Hostel, Kawaldeesh Kaur, was charged with POCSO after allegedly molesting a 10-year-old. After four years, in 2022, the accused was sentenced to 12 years of imprisonment.
All these examples shed light on how arresting the accused is the norm in POCSO cases. However, one must also remember that the WFI chief is the same person who once admitted to having committed a murder.
Moreover, as per The Print, the six-time Member of Parliament had as many as 38 criminal cases against him at one point.
What does delay in arrest mean for Indian wrestling?
Today is May 31. The two FIRs were filed on April 28. The protesting wrestlers, on the verge of immersing their medals in the Ganga, still wait to see Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh get arrested.
On Tuesday, United World Wrestling, the global body for the sport, condemned the treatment meted out to the protesting athletes through a press release. Moreover, the body also lent support to the Indian wrestlers and proposed to hold a meeting with them to voice their concerns.
A suspension may well be on the cards for the Wrestling Federation of India, as mentioned by the UWW in the same release. "The 45-day deadline that was initially set to hold this elective assembly shall be respected. Failing to do so may lead UWW to suspend the federation, thereby forcing the athletes to compete under a neutral flag," it said.
Even the Asian Championships, initially slated to be held in Delhi, were shifted to Astana by the international body, citing the situation prevailing in and around Indian wrestling.
A five-day ultimatum has been given to the government by the wrestlers, after which they will once again begin their march towards the Ganga, with a mind to immerse their medals, which could be an impure blot on the history pages of Indian sport.
Meanwhile, the POCSO accused WFI chief walks around with a smile and says he will change the law itself - 'under the leadership of seers' - if it threatens him.