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Saturday, July 13, 2024  
06 Muharram 1446  

Charges follow India wrestlers’ protests against sporting chief

Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh denies all allegations
Since January, top Indian wrestlers have taken to the streets to demand Singh’s arrest over sexual harassment allegations. AFP
Since January, top Indian wrestlers have taken to the streets to demand Singh’s arrest over sexual harassment allegations. AFP

Five months after India’s top women wrestlers accused their politically powerful federation chief of sexual harassment and sparked a nationwide protest movement, police filed charges.

On Thursday, Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, a senior lawmaker from India’s right-wing ruling party, was charged with sexual harassment and stalking.

He has denied all allegations, and claims to be the victim of a conspiracy to smear his reputation and force him out of parliament.

Wrestling is hugely popular in rural northern India, and images of star athletes being detained as they tried to march to parliament in May went viral on social media.

What are the accusations?

Since January, top Indian wrestlers, including Olympians and Commonwealth Games champions, have taken to the streets to demand Singh’s arrest over allegations of sexual harassment and intimidation.

At one of the protests in New Delhi, two-time world champion medallist Vinesh Phogat said that women wrestlers had been “sexually harassed at national camps by coaches and also the WFI president”.

In their police complaint, seven wrestlers accused 66-year-old Singh of groping them on several occasions and demanding sexual favours.

On Thursday, Delhi Police said Singh had been charged with sexual harassment and stalking, but accusations lodged by a minor had been withdrawn.

The charges carry a potential prison sentence of up to five years.

Vinod Tomar, a Singh acolyte who served as WFI assistant secretary, faced the same charges, as well as criminal intimidation and abetment.

Who is Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh?

Singh has headed the wrestling federation for over a decade and is also serving his sixth term as a lawmaker from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

He has called the protests a “political vendetta”, and threatened to hang himself if any allegation is proven.

A wrestler in his youth, he shot to political prominence when zealots destroyed a centuries-old mosque at the flashpoint holy site of Ayodhya in 1992, sparking communal riots that left more than 2,000 dead.

He was accused of involvement in demolishing the mosque but was acquitted of all charges.

How have protests developed?

After protests launched in January, they paused when the sports ministry stripped Singh of his WFI administrative powers.

The demonstrations resumed in April with the wrestlers saying nothing had been done to arrest Singh.

The movement swelled from a few dozen to sometimes crowds of thousands.

Police opened an investigation into the accusations against Singh after being asked by the Supreme Court to account for the slow progress.

In May, police broke up a month-old protest camp in central Delhi after demonstrators tried to march to the new parliament as it was being inaugurated.

“The police and the system are treating us like criminals,” the wrestlers said in a joint statement at the time.

Police charged some with rioting, but the wrestlers regrouped and threatened to hurl their medals into the river Ganges.

Last week, the wrestlers once again paused protests as the government promised to conclude investigations.

The government has said Singh will have no role to play in the WFI, with elections expected in early July.

What impact have protests had?

India’s opposition parties have rallied behind the wrestlers, accusing the government of shielding the lawmaker.

Several of the wrestlers come from the nearby farming state of Haryana.

Farmers, a powerful voting bloc, have also lent their support. In early May, dozens of farmers broke through police barricades to join the protests.

Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), an umbrella group of protesting farmers, have also backed calls for Singh’s arrest.

Other Olympic athletes, including javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra and rifle shooter Abhinav Bindra, have also voiced support.

India’s #MeToo movement gathered momentum in 2018 after a Bollywood star accused another actor of sexual harassment.

Soon after, other women came forward, including against a former government minister, but activists say there has been little change.

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