India suspends newly-elected wrestling body after top athletes protest

The suspension comes days after a new president replaced the old head who was charged with sexually harassing wrestlers.

India protest wrestlers
Indian wrestlers Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik address a news conference in New Delhi as they protest demanding the arrest of former WFI chief for sexual harassment [File: Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

India’s Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports has suspended the newly-elected governing body of the scandal-hit wrestling federation, accusing it of ignoring rules by hastily announcing championships.

The Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) has “been instructed to suspend all its activities until further orders”, the ministry said in a statement on Sunday.

Following the suspension, the ministry asked the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) to create a temporary panel to govern the WFI, Indian media reports said.

“Taking note of the compelling current situation arising out of the influence and control of the WFI’s former office bearers, serious concerns have arisen about the governance and integrity of the WFI,” said the letter, according to the reports.

The suspension of WFI’s governing body comes days after Sanjay Singh was elected to replace his close ally Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, a parliamentarian charged with sexually harassing women wrestlers.

Many of India’s top wrestlers had led a noisy sit-in protest in New Delhi earlier this year, demanding Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh’s removal after the allegations came to light in January.

The accused 66-year-old member of parliament from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) denied all charges and claimed he was the victim of a conspiracy to force him out of parliament.

A criminal case against him is ongoing and could see him sentenced to five years in prison if found guilty.

Wrestling is hugely popular in rural northern India, and star athletes saw a wellspring of public support.

Earlier this week, top female wrestler Sakshi Malik, also one of the accusers in the case against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, addressed an emotional news conference, announcing her decision to quit the sport over Sanjay Singh’s election.

On Friday, Bajrang Punia, the first Indian wrestler to win four world championship medals, announced he will return his Padma Shri – India’s fourth highest civilian award – in protest over the election.

The new president defeated Anita Sheoran, who won a gold medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and supported the campaign by athletes against his predecessor. She is also a witness in the case.

The WFI election was supposed to have ended the federation’s suspension by United World Wrestling, the international governing body, but that is now unlikely with the government’s order.

Sanjay Singh won the ballot on Thursday, and shortly after, he met with the former head before announcing that the national junior wrestling championships would be held before the end of the year.

“The actions smack of complete arbitrariness on the part of the new president,” the statement by the Sports Ministry said, adding that the new board “appears to be in complete control of former office bearers”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies