Top India wrestler to return honour in protest against sport body’s new chief

Bajrang Punia says he will return state award to protest election of new president backed by predecessor accused of sexual assault.

Indian wrestler Bajrang Punia poses for a picture after speaking to members of the media in New Delhi, India, June 7, 2023. [Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis/File]
Punia is the first Indian wrestler to win four world championship medals [File: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]

A top Indian male wrestler says he is returning one of the country’s highest civilian awards in protest against the election of a president to the sport’s ruling body backed by his predecessor, who is accused of sexually harassing female wrestlers.

Bajrang Punia, the first Indian wrestler to win four world championship medals, was awarded the Padma Shri – the fourth highest civilian award – by the Indian president in 2019 for his achievements as an athlete.

On Friday, Punia shared his letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on X, formerly Twitter, saying he would “not be able to live with the respect bestowed upon him by the government of India at a time when women wrestlers have been insulted”.

His decision to return the award came a day after Sanjay Singh was elected as chair of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI). Singh was backed by former WFI chief Brij Bhushan Singh.

Brij Bhushan Singh, also a six-time parliamentarian from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has rejected the allegations made against him.

His case is pending trial, BJP officials said. There was no immediate official response from the government to Punia’s letter to Modi.

On Thursday, protesting female wrestlers said they were shocked that a man supported by Brij Bhushan Singh was allowed to lead the WFI.

One top female wrestler, Sakshi Malik, said their protests were being overlooked and announced her retirement from the sport at a news conference in New Delhi.

In January, Punia had joined female wrestlers’ protests against Brij Bhushan Singh, who was charged in June for sexually harassing six female wrestlers.

Brij Bhushan Singh was stripped of administrative powers by the sport ministry and the government pledged to investigate the allegations and protect female athletes.

The United World Wrestling (UWW), the sport’s global governing body, suspended the WFI after the scandal.

The WFI missed the August deadline to appoint a new president, forcing Indian wrestlers to compete as neutral athletes in global events.

Opposition parties have criticised Modi’s government for its response to the allegations, which have attracted global attention due to a series of scandals over the treatment of women in sport.

Source: News Agencies