Olympic medal-winning Indian wrestlers have accused the chief of the sport’s governing body and several coaches of sexually harassing multiple female athletes, with the opposition questioning the government’s silence.
The wrestlers, led by Olympic bronze winners Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia, began protesting in the capital New Delhi on Wednesday after accusing the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) President Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh of sexual harassment. The sit-in protest has continued on Thursday.
Singh, who has been heading the WFI since 2011, is a six-time member of parliament from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Commonwealth Games women’s gold winner Vinesh Phogat said that coaches and the WFI president have sexually harassed multiple girls.
“Women wrestlers have been sexually harassed at national camps by coaches and also the WFI president,” the 28-year-old athlete said.
“I know at least 10-20 girls in the national camp who have come and told me their stories,” she told reporters.
Phogat said many wrestlers were intimidated from coming forward.
“They are scared because of their family background. They can’t fight them because they are powerful.”
“Wrestling is our only livelihood and they are not letting us do it. Our only option is to die. So might as well do good before dying,” she added. She did not state that she was a victim herself.
Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra came out in support of the athletes demanding investigation into the allegations.
“Our players are the pride of the country. They bring laurels to the country by their performance at the world level. The players have made serious allegations of exploitation against the Wrestling Federation and its president and their voices should be heard,” she tweeted.
Singh, the WFI head, has denied all allegations against him, saying that the athletes have no evidence to support them.
On Thursday, Malik told reporters after a meeting with sports ministry officials that the wrestlers were given “assurances” of action.
The sports ministry said in a statement on Wednesday that it took a “very serious view of the matter” and had sought a response to the allegations from the federation within 72 hours.
Manohar Lal Khattar, the chief minister of Haryana state – where the athletes are from – said the issue has come to his government’s notice.
“The issue has come to our notice and the Union government’s Sports Minister has taken note of it. The WFI has been asked to give their reply within 72 hours. All issues [raised by wrestlers] have been taken into serious consideration. I’m sure the Union government and its Sports Ministry shall definitely take cognisance of these,” he said in a statement.
“Athletes work hard to win medals for the country, but the federation has done nothing but let us down,” Malik, who won a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, tweeted.
The allegations come months after the coach of the country’s national cycling team was sacked following sexual harassment charges.
Malik, Phogat and Punia, who is one of India’s top male wrestlers, said they would not take part in any tournaments until adequate action was taken and the wrestling federation was disbanded.
“Athletes say they want the government to intervene and want a response by the end of the week,” said Al Jazeera’s Pavni Mittal from New Delhi.
“Wrestlers say they will not be playing any international matches till their demands are met. These include sacking of the president. They also want more support, including financial support and the training centre to be shifted to New Delhi.”