Fresh protest erupts in Indian wrestling; this time against Bajrang Punia, Sakshi Malik, and Vinesh Phogat

The protesting junior wrestlers were carrying banners that read: "UWW save our wrestling from these 3 wrestlers".

BySouth First Desk

Published Jan 03, 2024 | 1:51 PMUpdatedJan 03, 2024 | 1:51 PM

Wrestlers Sakshi Malik, Bajrang Punia, and Vinesh Phogat. (Wikimedia)

The ongoing crisis in Indian wrestling encountered a fresh twist, on Wednesday, 3 January, when hundreds of junior wrestlers assembled at Jantar Mantar in Delhi to protest against the loss of one crucial year of their careers, a situation for which they blamed top grapplers Bajrang Punia, Sakshi Malik, and Vinesh Phogat.

Loaded in buses, the junior wrestlers arrived from different parts of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and Delhi, catching the police unaware.

Close to 300 of them came from Arya Samaj Akhada in Chhaprauli, Baghpat in UP, while many others came from the Virender Wrestling Academy in Delhi’s Narela. Many are still packed in buses and they plan to deboard and join their colleagues when more wrestlers arrive at the landmark protest site.

The security personnel struggled to control them as they shouted slogans against Punia, Malik, and Phogat.

The protesters were carrying banners that read: “UWW save our wrestling from these 3 wrestlers”. UWW stands for United World Wrestling.

Also Read: Protesting wrestlers won’t face vendetta politics says Brij Bhushan

Wrestlers’ protest against WFI chief in 2023

Ironically, almost a year back at the same protest site, the top three wrestlers had managed to draw huge support for their cause when they called for the arrest of former WFI chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh after accusing him of sexually harassing women wrestlers.

Thousands of people from different sections of society, including farmers groups, social workers, politicians, women’s groups, and members of the wrestling fraternity, came out to support Malik, Phogat, and Punia.

The three are now facing protests from within their community with those assembled at Jantar Mantar, accusing them of ruining their careers.

Since January 2023, national camps and competitions have been on hold as the WFI has been suspended twice and an ad-hoc panel is running the sport.

Those protesting on Wednesday demanded that the suspended WFI be restored after disbanding the ad-hoc panel.

On 24 December, the Sports Ministry suspended the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) till further orders after the newly-elected body made a “hasty announcement” of organising the U-15 and U-20 nationals “without following due procedure and not giving sufficient notice to wrestlers” for preparations.

The ministry also said the new body was working under the “complete control of former (WFI) office-bearers”, which was not in conformity with the National Sports Code.

Also Read: Sports Ministry suspends newly-elected WFI till further notice

Wrestlers vs Brij Bhushan

On 21 December 2023, with tears in her eyes, Rio Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik put her wrestling shoes on the table and announced her retirement from the sport as a mark of protest against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh loyalist Sanjay Singh winning the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) election for the top job.

Sanjay, a close associate of the outgoing WFI chief became the new President with his panel winning 13 of the 15 posts in the elections — a result that expectedly brought disappointment for the top three wresters — Malik, Vinesh Phogat, and Bajrang Punia — who had aggressively pushed for a change of guard at the federation.

Following Malik, on 22 December, Punia returned the Padma Shri award to Prime Minister Modi as a sign of protest. On 23 December, Deaflympics gold medallist Virender Singh Yadav returned his Padma Shri to the government, in solidarity with the country’s top wrestlers.

On 27 December, Phogat returned her Khel Ratna and Arjuna Award to the Prime Minister, saying that such honours have become meaningless in the current situation where the grapplers are struggling badly for justice.

(With PTI inputs)