‘Girls don’t come to train anymore’ — in Haryana hinterland, anger brews over treatment of wrestlers

Chandigarh: For 45-year-old Dayanand Dhaka, kabaddi is more than just a sport. He started playing in his younger days, and years later, turned a plot attached to a crematorium in Haryana’s Kirtan into a makeshift stadium with the help of fellow villagers.

His pet project was a hit. Over the past three years, more than a 100 boys and 25-30 girls have flocked to this ‘stadium’ each morning to play kabaddi, engage in a bout of wrestling, or train for sprints, marathons and other activities that don’t need costly equipment.

Last year, a girl and two boys from the village, located in Hisar district, were recruited by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Army, respectively. They were regulars at the makeshift stadium.

It is not the same anymore. Ever since the allegations of sexual harassment against benched Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh made the news, many have stopped sending their daughters for training, said Dhaka.

“I personally went to some of the parents, requesting them not to deprive their daughters of this physical activity, but they simply refused with folded hands,” he added, speaking to ThePrint outside the Hisar mini-secretariat.

The situation is similar in other villages. According to Anil Beniwal, a resident of Gorchhi in Hisar, this change in the hinterlands of Haryana is a result of the Union government’s “inaction” over the allegations against Brij Bhushan, who is also a BJP MP from UP’s Kaiserganj. “In my village, girls have been playing national kabaddi. But ever since the women wrestlers’ issue heated up in the national capital, girls have disappeared from the field,” he said.

“Negative things go viral very fast” in villages, said Dhaka, adding that this might be the reason why people are unwilling to encourage their daughters to participate in sports for which they might train alongside boys.

Recalling news channel visuals of wrestlers being detained as they tried to march towards the new Parliament building, Beniwal said: “We were appalled at the sight of the police dragging our Olympic heroes. The decision to immerse one’s hard-earned medals into the Ganges shows how helpless they must feel.”

He further said that the “attitude of the government” after the women wrestlers filed their police complaints had come as a “shock” to people. “This has never happened before. Given the kind of allegations mentioned in the FIR, the police wouldn’t have taken a minute to arrest the person had he not been Brij Bhushan.”

Travelling across Gurugram, Jhajjar, Rohtak and Hisar over the course of three days, ThePrint found that there is growing consternation about the manner in which the BJP-led central government responded to the wrestlers’ demand for Brij Bhushan’s immediate arrest.

For the Haryana BJP, allegations against the six-time MP come at a time when general elections are due next year, followed by assembly polls. While the BJP won all 10 Lok Sabha seats in Haryana in 2019, it had to seek the support of Dushyant Chautala’s Jannayak Janata Party (JJP) to return to power when it fell short of the majority mark in assembly four months later.

Parveen Jorra, state executive member of the BJP in Haryana, claimed the wrestlers’ issue won’t have any political impact in the state because people have now come to understand that “the entire issue is politically motivated”.

“Initially, there was a feeling among people that the women wrestlers who have been agitating since January this year have a genuine grievance, but gradually people have understood that they were being used by some others for their political ends,” Jorra told ThePrint.

The BJP leader added that if anyone has been actually wronged, the person just needs to lodge an FIR and the law of the land would care of the rest. “The law doesn’t discriminate between Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh and a common man,” Jorra said.

‘Wrestlers must be heard’

Akhadas, which act as training centres for wrestlers, are scattered across rural Haryana, particularly in Rohtak, Sonipat, Jhajjar, Bhiwani, Charkhi Dadri, and Jind districts. The trend of people sending their wards to akhadas picked up after wrestlers from Haryana started winning medals at the Olympics, Asian Games, and Commonwealth Games (CWG).

With the medals came glory, endorsement deals and cash prizes, besides Group-A, Group-B, and Group-C government jobs.

For each Olympic gold, the Haryana government gives a cash prize of Rs 6 crore. A silver fetches a prize of Rs 4 crore and a bronze Rs 2.5 crore, while qualifying in the Olympics entitles a player from Haryana to a cash prize of Rs 15 lakh.

Similarly, the state government gives cash prizes of Rs 3 crore, Rs 1.5 crore and Rs 75 lakh respectively, for gold, silver, and bronze at the Asian Games. For the Commonwealth Games, it is Rs 1.5 crore for gold, Rs 75 lakh for silver, and Rs 50 lakh for bronze.

These benefits are all the more reason people in rural Haryana have been sending their children to train in akhadas.

Sohit, 21, an aspiring wrestler, admitted that prize money and a government job are what drive him to train at ‘Motu coach ka akhada’ in Jhajjar district’s Ladpur village.

‘girls don’t come to train anymore’ — in haryana hinterland, anger brews over treatment of wrestlers

Wrestlers at ‘Motu Coach Ka Akhara’ in Ladpur village | Sushil Manav | ThePrint

Wrestlers at ‘Motu coach ka akhada’ in Ladpur village | Sushil Manav | ThePrint

Sanjeev Singh, who runs this akhada, told ThePrint, “Our wrestlers from Haryana have won medals in four Olympics between 2008 and 2020. They brought glory to the nation and made it possible for the tricolour to be unfurled there. It’s very hard to win a medal in the Olympics.”

He pointed out that prior to Sushil Kumar’s bronze in the men’s 66 kg category in 2008, the last time India bagged an Olympic medal in wrestling was in 1952, when K. D. Jadhav won a bronze at the Helsinki Olympics.

“Wrestlers agitating against Brij Bhushan must be heard by the government and should get justice,” Singh said. According to him, the Delhi Police’s handling of the case is why wrestlers Vinesh Phogat, Sakshee Malikkh, Bajrang Punia and others were agitating at Jantar Mantar for weeks at length.

“If an FIR is registered under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act against a normal person, he would be immediately put behind bars. But the WFI chief has been roaming free even after the FIR and has rather been mocking the victims,” Singh alleged.

He also said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi “could have listened to the wrestlers and addressed their issues”.

‘Silence of govt is cause for anger’

Sympathy for the protesting wrestlers continues to grow across Haryana, especially since visuals of them being detained and forced into police vehicles on the day of the inauguration of the new Parliament building made national headlines.

Sampa Arya, a school teacher in Rohtak, said it was unfortunate that instead of providing justice to the wrestlers, efforts were being made to make it a “Jat versus non-Jat issue” because most of the wrestlers demanding Brij Bhushan’s arrest are from the Jat community.

“The way this issue is being treated, common people are forced to wonder if the definition of exploitation, sexual crimes and injustice has changed in our country and even heinous crimes like POCSO are to be looked at through the prism of caste,” Arya said.

A professor from Rohtak’s Maharshi Dayanand University told ThePrint on condition of anonymity that the “treatment meted out to the protesting wrestlers by the government, and its indifferent attitude in this regard, have not gone down well with the rural populace in Haryana”.

“Moreover, this issue of alleged sexual harassment by the powerful WFI chief, and the silence of the powers-that-be, is a cause for anguish and anger against the government, especially among women. A government that promised to be the saviour of women is now looking too soft and lenient against powerful persons. Surely, it would be a factor against the ruling regime during the forthcoming elections,” added the professor.

Similarly, a college teacher from Hisar, who hails from the Agarwal community, said the perception that the BJP shields its own leaders when they are accused of sexual offences is gaining currency in Haryana.

“There is a BJP-JJP government in Haryana. A minister facing an FIR for sexually harassing a woman coach continues to remain in his post. The same protection is being given to Brij Bhushan, although he faces serious charges under POCSO,” said the teacher, who did not wish to be named.

Jagmati Sangwan, national vice-president of the All India Democratic Women Association (AIDWA) — the women’s wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) — claimed that the oversight committee that was formed to look into the wrestlers allegations “acted unfairly”.

“Now, family members of the girls are being pressured to withdraw complaints,” Sangwan further alleged.

Khaps rally behind wrestlers

At the Meham Kath Mandi (timber market) in Rohtak, Mehar Singh Nambardar, president of the Meham Chaubisi (cluster of 24 villages) Khap, sat accompanied by Mahabir Singh, president of the Meham Tapa Khap and Hukam Singh, president of the Saman Tapa Khap, on a hot Saturday afternoon.

“Mhare ek kahawat jai. Jyun jyun bheeje kambli, tyun tyun bhari hoye (We have a saying here — the more you moisten a blanket, the more weight it will gain),” said Nambardar. He added that the government may delay action against Brij Bhushan, but won’t be able to save him.

‘girls don’t come to train anymore’ — in haryana hinterland, anger brews over treatment of wrestlers

Mehar Singh Nambardar with Mahabir Singh & Hukam Singh | Sushil Manav | ThePrint

Mehar Singh Nambardar with Mahabir Singh & Hukam Singh | Sushil Manav | ThePrint

Balwant Singh Phogat said panchayats were held to support wrestlers and saw the participation of people, cutting across caste lines.

“At our meetings, members of the Bar Association, Arhtiya Union, Traders’ Union, Saini Samaj, Brahmin Samaj and Sabji Mandi Association turn up,” said Phogat, who is president of the Phogat Khap.

What this means for BJP

Meanwhile, amid growing unease between the BJP and ally JJP, with the former dropping hints about going alone in the general election, the wrestlers’ protest has further queered the pitch for the Manohar Lal Khattar-led BJP government. And the Opposition is sensing an opening.

Former chief minister and Congress leader Bhupinder Singh Hooda told ThePrint, “These women have brought fame to the country by winning medals in sports. It is shameful that today they have to think of immersing their medals in the Ganges. Though I am against throwing these away because these medals are the result of their hard work and not anyone’s mercy. But the government must provide them justice immediately.”

Six-term MLA and senior Congress leader Sampat Singh said, “If girls who bring medals for the country in the Olympics and Asian Games have to sit on dharna for months facing vagaries of the nature to seek justice and still their voice isn’t heard, what message will this send across the globe regarding the Indian justice delivery system is anyone’s guess.”

Hisar MP Brijendra Singh, perhaps the lone BJP parliamentarian to have supported the wrestlers’ cause, said these wrestlers are heroes of Haryana.

‘girls don’t come to train anymore’ — in haryana hinterland, anger brews over treatment of wrestlers

BJP MP Brijendra Singh in conversation with ThePrint | Sushil Manav | ThePrint

BJP MP Brijendra Singh in conversation with ThePrint | Sushil Manav | ThePrint

“They brought us medals in the Olympics and Asian Games. Vinesh Phogat is the only women wrestler to win a gold at the Asian Games. And still, they have to sit on dharna for justice?” he remarked when ThePrint spoke to him at Bal Bhawan in Hisar where he was addressing an event Saturday.

The BJP MP said he failed to understand why the government was not publishing the report of the oversight committee formed to probe the allegations. “Whether it is in favour of the wrestlers or in favour of the WFI chief, the government should have immediately made the report public,” he added, maintaining that he is not looking at the issue from the prism of politics.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

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