Wrestler Bajrang Punia on Friday announced his decision to return his Padma Shri award, a day after fellow wrestler Sakshi Malik announced her retirement in protest against the election of Sanjay Singh as the President of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI). Singh, a loyalist of Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, secured a resounding victory with his panel winning 13 of the 15 posts in the much-delayed polls, triggering outrage among protesting wrestlers.
In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Bajrang Punia expressed his concerns about the current state of wrestling governance in India. He highlighted the sexual harassment allegations against Brij Bhushan Singh in January, which led to a prolonged protest by female wrestlers and Punia himself. Despite assurances, as the wrestlers were not satisfied with the process adopted, they resumed their protest in April.
Punia stated, “The struggle lasted for 40 days. In these 40 days, one female wrestler retreated (from her accusation and the case). We were under immense pressure. Our protest site was dismantled, and we were restricted from demonstrating. When this happened, we were perplexed about our next steps. We thought of immersing our medals in river Ganga but our farmers and coaches urged us not to do so.”
“During this time, we received a call from a responsible minister, assuring us of justice. Our Home Minister also met us, assuring support for female wrestlers and the expulsion of Brij Bhushan Singh and his family from the wrestling federation,” he added.
The recent election results, where Sanjay Singh, an associate of Brij Bhushan Singh, was elected as WFI President, have left Punia disheartened. Sanjay Singh secured 40 votes compared to his rival Anita Sheoran’s seven.
“In December, Brij Bhushan once again captured the wrestling federation. He claimed, ‘I have the power, and I will retain it.’ After allegations of sexual harassment against Brij Bhushan and his panel, it was expected that he would be removed. But even after three months, when an FIR against Brij Bhushan was not filed, we had to go to court to get justice,” Punia added.
Concluding his letter to the Prime Minister he wrote, “In every village, you will see girls playing, and they are can go international with their sport. But those whose influence has been established or will remain, their shadows intimidate female athletes, and now they have completely taken control. You must have received photos of these people with garlands around their necks. The daughters who were supposed to become the brand ambassadors of “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (Save the Daughter, Educate the Daughter)” have recently been brought to a point where they had to step back from their sport. We “honored” wrestlers could do nothing. After the humiliation of the female wrestlers, I cannot live my life as being “honored” forever. Such a life will suffocate me. That’s why I am returning this “honour” to you.”
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Sakshi Malik Announces Retirement After Birj Bhushan Loyalist Sanjay Singh Becomes New WFI President
The election outcome has led to Sakshi Malik announcing her retirement, who, along with Punia and Vinesh Phogat, had spearheaded the agitation against Brij Bhushan Singh.
Sakshi Malik, addressing the media, emotionally declared her retirement from wrestling as a mark of protest. “We fought from our heart, but if a man like Brij Bhushan, his business partner, and a close aide is elected as the president of WFI, I give up wrestling. From today onwards, you will not see me on the mat,” said Sakshi Malik, as quoted by news agency PTI.
Punia and Malik had previously urged Sports Minister Anurag Thakur to prevent anyone associated with Brij Bhushan from contesting the WFI polls. Despite their efforts, Brij Bhushan’s associate Sanjay Singh emerged victorious.
Brij Bhushan Singh, the outgoing chief, assured that there would be no vendetta politics and said protesting wrestlers would be treated with fairness if they continued to wrestle. “There will be no partiality. All will get support from WFI,” Brij Bhushan told PTI when asked if the federation would support those who protested against him.
The wrestlers’ protest also resulted in the Wrestling Federation of India facing a ban from the United World Wrestling (UWW). The recent elections are expected to pave the way for the lifting of this ban.
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