By Avinash Kr Atish
New Delhi, Jan 29 (IANS): In an unprecedented move, India's top wrestlers including Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik and others, staged a protest against Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh at Jantar Mantar in the national capital on January 18, levelling serious charges of sexual harassment against him and the coaches of the federation.
The wrestlers in a letter to the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) also alleged financial misappropriation and misgovernance in the WFI and claimed that the coaches and sports science staff were 'incompetent'.
The WFI hit back and said that the protest was baseless and driven by a "hidden agenda to dislodge the current management", which led to even sharper reactions from the wrestlers.
Eventually, the PT Usha led Indian Olympic Association and Sports Minister Anurag Thakur intervened, heard the grievances of the wrestlers and promised them full justice. Not satisfied with the assurance, the grapplers had multiple meetings with the minister, some of which were late night. This eventually led to the stepping aside of the under-fire Brij Bhushan till an oversight committee probes the allegations and submits its report.
The oversight committee led by the legendary boxer Mary Kom is currently handling the day-to-day activities of the WFI and also looking into the allegations made by the wrestlers.
Last week's protest should definitely be a wake-up call for the other sports bodies in the country to address serious issues and prioritise the well-being and safety of Indian women athletes.
The Indian sports administrators often claim that they have a 'robust' system, which gives a level playing field to athletes irrespective of their gender. However, the recent development and serious allegations have burst that bubble.
No doubt, things have improved drastically for Indian athletes in the last few years. Whether it's a male or female sportsperson, they have far better access to facilities, coaches and grounds. Even people in general have changed their mindset towards the country's female athletes.
But the bigger question is whether these women athletes are feeling safe at practice, during trials or even competitions. Are they having a sense of security to perform at their best?
The wrestlers, who have levelled serious allegations against the WFI chief, are top sportspersons, who have brought many laurels for India. If they are not feeling safe, one can only imagine the plight of women athletes at the lower division levels where they often don't raise their issues and even if they do, most people don't care.
So, it's time for the Indian government, sports ministry and other federations to address the issue and create an environment where women athletes can speak up about their difficulties and discomfort. If they receive a complaint, they must take action against the culprits.
Apart from sports, there are many sectors and industries in the country which have seen issues of sexual misconduct and the action taken there has set precedents.
If the allegations turn out to be true, then the Sports Ministry must take strong action, which will ensure justice to the athletes and allow others to raise their issues, eventually leading to a healthy Indian sporting ecosystem.