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‘The world is watching’: Indian police haul away protesting wrestler | Sexual Assault News

Two Olympic medalists have been detained during a march to the new parliament, accusing a BJP lawmaker of sexual harassment.

Several of India’s top wrestlers, including Olympic medalists Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik, were detained as they attempted to march to New Delhi’s New Parliament building as they stepped up protests calling for the arrest of their federation president over sexual harassment allegations.

The wrestler, who was detained on Sunday, has been protesting in the capital for a month over the lack of action against Brijbhushan Sharan Singh, an MP from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

The protesting athletes demanded his “immediate arrest” and sought the intervention of the Supreme Court, which directed police to file charges against the 66-year-old. The MP has been accused of molesting several female athletes while leading the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), and has denied all allegations.

Protests during parliamentary inauguration

The wrestlers tried to make their way to India’s new parliament building when Modi inaugurated it, but were stopped by hundreds of police officers. Among those detained and hauled away by bus were Olympic bronze medalists Malik and Punia.

The two wrestlers are national heroes in a country that has long craved near-elusive Olympic success. Modi congratulated Malik on his medal win in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and Punia on his medal at Tokyo 2020. Now, wrestlers are accusing Modi’s government of ignoring complaints that have embarrassed the prime minister, a self-described champion of women’s rights.

“They broke through the barricades and did not follow the instructions of the police,” Delhi senior police officer Dependra Pathak told local media of the wrestlers. “They broke the law and that’s why they were detained.”

Malik, who won a medal in the women’s 58kg freestyle, shared photos and videos of wrestlers being dragged away by police.

“This is how our champions are treated. The world is watching,” she tweeted

Security was stepped up in the capital ahead of the inauguration of the new parliament, with personnel also standing guard on the outskirts of Delhi as a group of farmers tried to enter the city to support protesting wrestlers.

This month, dozens of farmers broke through barricades set up by the city’s police to join the protest.

Farmers gather at site of ongoing Indian wrestler protest in New Delhi
Farmers gather at the scene of a protest by Indian wrestlers in New Delhi, May 8, 2023 [File: Arun Thakur/AFP]

“This is Culture”

Olympian Vinesh Phogat, one of the athletes leading the protests, told Al Jazeera that several cases of sexual harassment had been reported in the past, but that Singh had succeeded in getting the allegations dismissed or ensuring that the complainant never competed again.

Recently, Phogat said, she received a call from a young female wrestler from a state in eastern India. “They had written a complaint to WFI about sexual harassment by a coach,” she said. “Coach gets suspended for 10 days, but returns after 7 days as head coach. That’s culture [of the WFI]. When the leader himself becomes like that, what will he do to others? “

The protesting wrestlers declined to name the women who complained or allow them to come forward.

Phogat Malik Indian wrestlers protest
Indian wrestlers (from right) Bajrang Punia, Sangita Phogat and Vinesh Phogat address the new Parliament building in New Delhi ahead of a protest march [Shonal Gangul/AP]

‘The biggest culprits are sports officials’

Wrestling is arguably India’s most successful Olympic sport. In the 76 years since India’s independence, it has won 21 individual sports medals, seven of which were won by wrestlers.

Most of the wrestlers come from villages, many from poor families and most of them from Haryana, an agricultural and highly patriarchal region with high rates of female abortion and female murder known as “honor killings”.

Female athletes have long complained about being sexually harassed in their sport, though they have been reluctant to speak out publicly.

“Many athletes have told me that they are being exploited in various ways, but they don’t want to be seen in public in their prime,” sports lawyer and activist Saurabh Mishra told Al Jazeera.

“It’s not uncommon to seek help — financially, sexually,” Mishra added. “In my opinion, the biggest culprits are sports federation officials who are managing their own territories.”

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