For the past three days, India’s top women wrestlers have staged a dharna at Jantar Mantar—to protest widespread sexual abuse by coaches and even the head of the wrestling federation. The really sad bit: None of this is unusual in Indian sports.
Editor’s note: This Big Story includes quotes from a brilliant publication Nation of Sport that is no longer in business. We have linked instead to an archived version of the story.
What’s happening in wrestling?
The protesters: On Wednesday, 30 wrestlers staged a sit-in at Jantar Mantar to protest sexual harassment in Indian wrestling. They included some of the biggest stars in the sport:
- Vinesh Phogat has two Commonwealth Games golds and one Asian Games gold medal. She belongs to the famous Phogat family. The achievements of her cousins Geeta and Babita were immortalised in the movie ‘Dangal’.
- Sakshi Malik is an Olympic medallist—having scored a bronze at the 2016 Games in Rio.
- Bajrang Punia is the first Indian wrestler to be ranked world No. 1 and the first Indian to win three World Championship medals. He also won the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
- Sarita Mor is a World championships bronze medallist and two-time Asian Championship winner.
The allegations: Vinesh Phogat is the main person talking to the media. She claims that women wrestlers have been sexually harassed at national camps by coaches and the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. Singh is also the BJP MP from Kaiserganj, Uttar Pradesh. Phogat also alleges that the national camp—where the wrestlers train—is held in Lucknow because Singh has a house there. While she has not been personally abused, Phogat says she is speaking up on their behalf because she has more power:
I know about 10-20 girls who have been exploited in the national camp over the past 10 years. Those girls are scared because of their family background. They can’t fight against them because they are not powerful. I can do it because I don’t mind if they stop me from wrestling. I have a house, I have food. I am here because I don’t want the future generations to go through this sadness and pain.
She has not revealed the identities of the survivors, but says, “When the time comes, we will speak up. We will give the names of those who have been exploited to whoever is doing the probe.”
Singh’s response: He has stridently denied all allegations—which, he says, are being invented by Phogat:
Is anyone saying that the WFI has sexually harassed a wrestler? Only Vinesh has said it. Has anyone come forward and said that they personally have been sexually harassed? Even if one wrestler comes forward and says that she has been sexually harassed, that day I can be hanged.
He oddly claims there is “an industrialist” behind this conspiracy to defame him.
Point to note: The other wrestlers have not made any #MeToo allegations, but have come out in support of the cause. But many like Punia are also unhappy with Singh and the WFI management, in general:
When we win medals for India everyone celebrates but after that nobody cares about how we are treated, especially by the federation… Wrestlers can be treated as ghulams of the Wrestling Federation of India. Today we will talk about the rot in the federation and the tanashahi which has been happening for many years.
The wrestlers say they will continue the protest until they get assurances from the PM or Home Minister.
The government’s response: The sports ministry has demanded a response from the WFI within 72 hours and Sports Minister Anurag Thakur also held a meeting with the protesting wrestlers on Thursday, which went on until the wee hours of the morning. The meeting is likely to continue today. It has also cancelled the women’s wrestling camp that was supposed to start in Lucknow on January 18. Meanwhile, the Delhi Commission for Women has issued a notice to the sports ministry—and asked the city police to file a case.
Is this the first such allegation?
There were some allegations made by three women in 2010—but were refuted by 28 of their colleagues in an open letter. In 2013 and 2014, two coaches were separately charged with sexually assaulting underage trainees. But this is the first time that the superstars have made such claims. Interestingly, at the peak of the #MeToo movement, Phogat said:
There could be such cases in sports also, I don't know but I have not faced any kind of such harassment in my career. I also feel that my sport of wrestling should not have these kind of issues.
Point to note: The wrestling world in the US was rocked by allegations of sexual assault in 2020. Some of the biggest names in World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) and across the wrestling scene were named as abusers.
But haven’t there been lots of such cases in other sports?
Yes. There have numerous such cases:
- In 2010, 31 members of the Indian women’s national hockey team said they had been sexually harassed by their coach, Olympic gold medallist MK Kaushik.
- In 2015, four teenage girls training in water sports at the Sports Authority of India centre in Kerala attempted suicide—and one of them died.
- In 2020, a Right to Information request filed by the Indian Express revealed 45 complaints of sexual harassment that were filed with the Sports Authority of India (SAI) over the past 10 years. Of the 45 complaints, 29 were levelled at coaches.
- In 2021, eight women athletes accused the famous track & field coach P Nagarajan of sexually exploiting them as minors. One of them was just 13 when the abuse began. He was later arrested.
- In 2022, SAI dismissed chief cycling coach RK Sharma after a female cyclist accused him of predatory behaviour during a tour of Slovenia.
A culture of neglect: As the Indian Express investigation revealed, there is a consistent pattern of negligence. Cases often dragged on for years with no resolution. And the punishment meted out to even proven offenders was absurdly lenient. Many were just transferred to another SAI centre. At least five coaches who were found guilty were punished with a pay cut. In one case, the person’s salary was reduced by Rs 910 per month, while others lost their bonuses for a year.
An imbalance of power: Across most sports in India, there is a highly unequal hierarchy where young girls (and boys)—typically from underprivileged backgrounds—are preyed upon by powerful coaches and other administrative staff. As a former SAI director general points out, “The girls give in to the fact that their future in sports — which for many is a way out of poverty — is in the hands of the coaches. So they often give up.” A gender equality activist is more blunt: “There is a culture of subservience in sport and therefore 'grooming' becomes common, making it very hard for athletes to come forward and complain.”
Internalising patriarchy: A 2018 deep dive by the now defunct Nation of Sport revealed how misogyny shapes even women athletes’ attitudes:
One: A lot of female athletes view sports as a preserve of men—and controlled by them. For example, one 20-year old says:
Why I’m in this sport is because of my father allowing me out of the house wearing shorts. Why I’m at nationals is because of my coach, another man. You won’t like what I say, and you won’t get anything from me, but the reality is, sports is a masculine thing. Women are changing it, but only with the help of other men. So what use are our voices anyway?
Two: Since male dominance is accepted as the norm, many girls tolerate the abuse as the price of being a sportswoman. Another athlete says:
Yeh hota hi rehta hai. Aur kya kar sakte hain? Chhod yeh sab. Bas. Kaam karte rehna. Practice karte rehna. Kuch coach misbehave karte hain toh chhod. Kuch toh karna padega aagey badne ke liye na? Itna bura nahi hoga.(This keeps happening. What can we do? Just keep working. Keep practicing. If a coach misbehaves, then leave it. We anyway have to do some things to get ahead. It’s not so bad.)
Three: And inevitably—given such an environment—female athletes often don’t support one another, aggressively dismissing harassment complaints as “fake.” The very same girl who says abuse is the price of getting ahead also declares: “Some girls seeking this publicity and all jab nationals nahi jaa sakte. Sab fake case. Chalo.” The head of a sexual harassment committee in Patiala declares:
There are always women who had relationships with men and since that didn’t work, they harassed the men and filed a complaint… Kisi se nahi banta, toh men ko defame karte hai. (If an athlete’s career does not work out, they defame men)
The bottomline: The dharna at Jantar Mantar marks a great leap forward for Indian women athletes. Maybe now there will be at least some change.
Indian Express has the most quotes from the angry wrestlers. Also worth a read: Express’ 2020 investigation into SAI. Ungender offers a big perspective on sexual harassment in Indian sports. Deutsche Welle has an excellent reported piece on the subject. The archived version of the Nation of Sport story is a must-read.