Wrestling Federation of India: Is Indian sport seeing its #MeToo moment?
In January, India witnessed unprecedented protests when top athletes spoke up against the country’s wrestling federation and accused its president and coaches of sexual misconduct. Rudraneil Sengupta reports on why this was a landmark moment for Indian sport, and the challenges that lie ahead.
The protests began on 18 January when some of India’s most celebrated wrestlers – including Olympics and Commonwealth Games medal winners – gathered near the office of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) in the capital Delhi to denounce the organisation’s functioning.
The demonstrations intensified after two-time World Championship medallist Vinesh Phogat alleged that at least 10 women wrestlers had told her they had been sexually exploited by WFI president Brij Bhushan Singh.
While Mr Singh dismissed the allegations as politically motivated and sparked by just a few athletes with “ulterior motives”, the protests only grew bigger.
Days later, the federal government suspended Mr Singh from his position and formed a panel to oversee the federation’s activities. The Indian Olympic Association has also set up a committee to investigate the sexual harassment allegations against Mr Singh, who is a lawmaker and politician from the governing Bharatiya Janata Party.
While the protests have been called off, the issue is unlikely to blow over soon – the wrestlers have said they were not consulted before the panel was formed.
When contacted, Phogat said she did not want to “speak more about” the sexual misconduct allegations.
“But we will take the right action and file a police complaint at the right time,” she said, without giving more details.
Experts say the unity displayed by the athletes points to a growing movement in Indian sports to improve its administrative systems. This includes new laws and increased participation by former athletes in governance, as well as private and non-governmental organisations that offer an extra layer of support to sportspersons.
“It is absolutely significant that all the top athletes in a sport have come together in one voice to speak against abuse of power,” says sports journalist Sharda Ugra. “It has simply not happened before in Indian sports.”
Mr Singh, who has four pending criminal cases against him – he has denied all the charges, which include attempt to murder – has been at the helm of Indian wrestling for over a decade. In 2021, he sparked a controversy by slapping a wrestler on stage – he said later that the young man had committed age fraud to participate in a tournament. No official complaint was filed against him.
The recent protests have also raised questions about widespread allegations of sexual abuse in the sports industry.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve had athletes come and confess to me about abuse at the hands of coaches, but they don’t take the next step to file an official complaint,” says Manisha Malhotra, a former tennis international player who now works as the head of sports excellence and scouting at private company JSW Sports, which provides financial support and coaching to several top Indian athletes.
She attributes the reluctance to fear of their careers being affected.
What Indian sport needs, Ms Malhotra says, is “its own #MeToo moment”, something like the way gymnasts in the US came together to bring down Larry Nassar.
Nassar, a former gymnastics doctor, was sentenced in 2018 for up to 175 years in prison for multiple sex crimes after more than 150 gymnasts testified against him.
But athletes in India face several challenges.
A recent Right to Information application – which allows Indians to access information from the government – revealed that 45 complaints of sexual misconduct were filed between 2010 and 2020 against coaches and officials from the Sports Authority of India (SAI), a government department that runs training centres and camps for elite athletes across age groups.
Of these, five coaches had their pay cut, one was suspended and later reinstated, and two others had their contracts terminated. The rest of the complaints were dismissed.
There are some signs that things are changing. Last year, seven athletes came together to accuse a renowned track coach of sexual abuse. He was arrested and the case is ongoing.
This year, SAI fired its chief cycling coach after investigating a complaint from a female cyclist who said that he had made sexual advances at her and forced her to spend a night in a room with him during a camp abroad.
Ms Malhotra says the Indian sporting ecosystem needs to do more to support athletes who speak out.
“But the people who head various federations are also powerful people in their own right and that makes it hard for athletes to voice the truth,” she adds.
Most of India’s sporting federations also don’t have oversight committees to deal with sexual harassment allegations, as mandated by law – less than 10 of 56 recognised sports organisations have them at the moment.
Jiji Thomson, a former bureaucrat who headed SAI between 2013 and 2015, says that he heard about a lot of informal complaints of sexual harassment during his tenure.
“But it was hard to get people to file official complaints. Whenever we went to investigate, athletes would back off,” he says.
SAI did not respond to questions emailed and messaged to it.
For promising young athletes, many of whom come from hardscrabble-rural backgrounds, the opportunity to join a SAI training centre is often the first step towards realising their dreams.
“The sports hostel system is a hard-won opportunity for young girls who are looking to be independent,” says Payoshni Mitra, CEO of Switzerland-based not-for-profit organisation Global Observatory for Gender Equality & Sport.
“If they were home, their families would marry them off. So there is a lot at stake for these girls,” she adds.
But athletes say life at these centres is far from perfect.
A former international track athlete, who spent more than a decade in an SAI hostel, says the first thing she was taught at a national camp was that she had to “obey everything” the coaches and officials told her. She was 10 at the time, says the athlete, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“I learned to fear them from an early age,” she says. “I saw what happens when there is sexual abuse, or physical abuse, or mental abuse.
“You want to make it stop and you want to speak out. But everyone tells you, either you have a sporting career or you get into this fight and lose everything. Who wants to risk that?”