The Network of Women in Media, India, stands in solidarity with India’s women wrestlers, whose most-celebrated champions are protesting against sexual harassment, abuse and bullying of their athletic community as well as maladministration by Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, head of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) and Bharatiya Janata Party MP, together with his cohort.
NWMI has spoken out against sexual harassment at the workplace – be it in the news media, the film industry or elsewhere – and is acutely aware of the immense courage it takes for those directly affected to speak out.
Since the women wrestlers first began their protest in January this year, what has been particularly disturbing to note is the establishment’s blanket response and censure of these athletes, the silence of those in government who are usually the quickest to share and even flaunt the successes of Indian sportspersons, coupled with the absence of any independent grievance redressal mechanism for India’s athletes.
The mechanisms currently in place are not independent and do not serve to deliver justice. It is deplorable that it is the victim-survivors of abuse and their colleagues, who have been protesting on the roadside in Jantar Mantar in New Delhi — first in January and more recently in April, who find themselves in the dock rather than the head of the WFI who, as a sitting member of parliament from the ruling party, is an influential political figure.
It is also highly objectionable that the protesting athletes find themselves first distanced and then censured by the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), the country’s highest sporting organisation given the task to promote and protect Olympic ideals inside a sporting ecosystem.
If reports that the newly-appointed IOA Athletes Commission was prevented from making a formal statement of support and sympathy to the wrestlers are correct, the very purpose of the organisation is rendered meaningless. Every Athletes Commission is meant to speak on behalf of the athletes. If the wrestlers’ serious allegations constitute a test case to prove the integrity of the IOA AC, it is safe to say that it has failed and needs to be reconstituted.
Our young athletes, both male and female, begin their careers at the age of 12 or 13 and are dependent for their progress on senior authority figures, be it coaches, federation or ministry officials. The POCSO charge against the head of the WFI should shake up everyone invested in Indian sport and drive/push them to examine how many of our national sports federations offer safe spaces for their athletes, with the necessary, legally mandated and correctly-constituted internal complaints committees.
Indeed, there is no better time to conduct a national and state-wide audit of all sporting bodies in terms of governance practices, particularly with reference to discrimination, harassment and bullying.
At their prime, India’s athletes bring the country happiness, pride and joy. In return the least the country’s sporting establishment and official institutions can do is to support them when their rights and bodily agency have been violated, as has been the case with many wrestlers.
It is a matter of concern that it was only after sustained pressure from the wrestlers, the public and the media that the Delhi police registered an FIR. This belated move should not take the wrestlers’ protest and their case against the WFI head off the news cycle.
We urge all news media to give this significant protest the grave attention and coverage it deserves. In particular, we urge media organisations that have hitherto blindly supported the establishment to view the wrestlers’ case with empathy and understanding instead of falling prey to the politicisation of the legitimate demands of the wrestlers.
With responsible media coverage, this issue can be the springboard for the media to bring to light the wider truth about how most of our sporting bodies are managed, or rather mismanaged, by their political patrons.
The NWMI condemned the manner in which Delhi Police roughed up and tried to prevent journalist Sakshi Joshi from covering the police action against protesting wrestlers in Jantar Mantar, Delhi, on the night of Wednesday, May 3. It showed its unconditional support to Sakshi via social media platforms–
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