Police say sex abuse protest by Indian wrestlers ‘cancelled’ after they marched on new parliament

Protest came to a head on Sunday when a large number of police officers overpowered about 100 wrestlers and their supporters

Sravasti Dasgupta
Monday 29 May 2023 12:21 BST

Indian wrestlers protesting sex abuse stopped from reaching country’s new parliament

Police in New Delhi have “cancelled” the ongoing protest by top Indian wrestlers who have alleged sexual abuse by the sporting body’s chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.

In a statement on Monday, Delhi Police’s deputy commissioner said that the protest had been “called off” as the protesters flouted laws despite repeated requests from officials on Sunday.

For over a month the country’s most decorated wrestlers, including Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia, and Sakhshi Malik, have been taking part in a sit-in at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar – the designated site for protests in the capital – since 23 April.

They have accused Mr Singh, who heads the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) and is a lawmaker from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), of sexual harassment and have demanded police action against him. Mr Singh denies the allegations.

The protest came to a head on Sunday when a heavy police presence overpowered about 100 protesting wrestlers and their supporters, as they planned to march to the new parliament building which was being inaugurated that day by prime minister Narendra Modi.

Videos and images on social media showed the wrestlers being pushed and dragged to the ground by police officers, before being packed into buses and detained.

The police action came as the athletes had planned a Mahila Panchayat (women’s council) including a march to the new parliament to draw attention to alleged police inaction on their complaints against Mr Singh.

The police statement on Monday said: “The dharna (sit-in) and demonstration of the wrestlers was going on smoothly at the notified place of Jantar Mantar.

“Yesterday, the protesters flouted the law in a frenzy despite all requests and requests. Hence the ongoing dharna has been called off.”

It added that if the wrestlers apply for permission for another sit-in protest, they will be allowed “at any of the suitable, notified places other than Jantar Mantar.”

On Sunday the police cleared the protest site at Jantar Mantar, including tents which were being used by the wrestlers to camp out in protest.

Special Commissioner of Police (Law and Order) Dependra Pathak said to the Press Trust of India that the protesters ignored repeated requests and warnings and “wrestled” with police personnel who tried to stop them.

“Today was an important day for the country as the new parliament building was to be inaugurated and despite warnings and repeatedly urging protesters at Jantar Mantar to not march beyond the protest site, they continued to do so,” he said, adding the behaviour of the wrestlers was “highly irresponsible”.

“They were out to disturb the preparations made by the security agencies,” he said.

“The detained protesting wrestlers will not be allowed to continue with their dharna at Jantar Mantar. The entire protest venue at Jantar Mantar has been cleared.”

Indian wrestler Vinesh Phogat (centre) is detained by the police while attempting to march to India’s new parliament

While the wrestlers were released from detention later on Sunday evening, police lodged an FIR (a first information report, the first step in any police probe in India) against the wrestlers which named Phogat, Malik and Punia among others.

The FIR against the wrestlers included charges for rioting, unlawful assembly, grave provocation and damage to public property.

In a statement on Twitter following the FIR, Phogat said that while the Delhi police had taken over a week to lodge a complaint against Mr Singh, it took them less than seven hours to lodge cases against those who were protesting “peacefully”.

The wrestlers began their protest last month, after an earlier planned demonstration in January was called off following talks with India’s federal sports minister Anurag Thakur.

The government then formed an oversight committee that promised to look into the allegations.

The committee submitted its report last month but it remains unpublished, and the wrestlers have demanded the contents be made public.

They said they had been forced to resume their protest in the face of government inaction.

Delhi Police only lodged a formal complaint against Mr Singh after the intervention of the Supreme Court.

The wrestlers had moved the top court after they said they had approached Delhi’s police to file a formal complaint on the sexual harassment allegations made by seven athletes, including a minor, but the police had failed to do so.

The police action on the wrestlers has been criticised by opposition parties and observers as Mr Modi once again reiterated Indian democratic values and hailed the country as the “mother of democracy” while inaugurating the new parliament building.

Congress’ Shama Mohammed wrote on Twitter: “It took a week for the govt to file a case against Brij Bhushan Singh, but just a few hours to file a case against our wrestlers protesting for justice peacefully.

“The full might of the state is being abused by the Modi govt to protect a sexual predator & harass India’s daughters!”

Meanwhile, Mr Singh, who has been elected to India’s parliament from the northern Uttar Pradesh state six times, five of which were from the BJP, was present at the new parliament inauguration on Sunday.

He has earlier said that he would be “ready to undergo narco test, polygraph test or lie-detector test”, but only on condition that Phogat and Punia “also undergo these tests with me”.

The wrestlers have also said that they were ready to undergo the test on live TV.

No minister from the ruling BJP has met the wrestlers during the new agitation, but Mr Thakur earlier this month urged the athletes to once again call off their protest.

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