(Bloomberg) -- Several champion Indian wrestlers threatened to throw their medals in the holy Ganges river this week before postponing the plan, the latest escalation in an ongoing MeToo protest that also has implications for the country’s politics.
The wrestlers are demanding the arrest of Wrestling Federation of India President Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who they accuse of sexually harassing female athletes. Singh, who’s also a member of parliament from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, denies the allegations.
While Singh has had his administrative powers removed at the wrestling federation, the wrestlers want more to be done. They accuse Modi of disregarding their complaints and instead inviting Singh to the opening of India’s new parliament in the capital New Delhi on Sunday.
The wrestlers went to the river, but were persuaded not to throw in the medals for now. They have also threatened to go on hunger strike.
The athletes were arrested and briefly detained to prevent them from marching to the new parliament for the opening. Olympic medalist Sakshi Malik, one of the protest leaders, vowed at the time to keep going with the campaign.
Who are the wrestlers leading the protests?
Freestyle wrestler Malik, 30, became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal in the sport when she took bronze at the 2016 Summer Games in Brazil. Malik was awarded the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian honors, by former President Pranab Mukherjee in 2017. She also won gold at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, UK, last year and at the Asian Wrestling Championships in Doha in 2015. Malik works for JSW Sports Excellence, a unit of Indian conglomerate JSW Group.
Vinesh Phogat, 28, won gold at the 2022 Commonwealth Games and the 2018 Asian Games, becoming the first Indian female wrestler to take the top medal at both tournaments.
Bajrang Punia, 29, is a freestyle wrestler. He won a bronze at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 and has been a medalist four times at the World Wrestling Championships.
Why are they protesting?
The athletes have been protesting in New Delhi for more than a month, demanding Singh’s immediate arrest.
They accuse him of sexual abuse of athletes during warmups, at his office in New Delhi and at tournaments.
“People will have to think if they are standing with their daughters or with the system that’s harassing these daughters,” Malik wrote on Twitter.
Police detained the three wrestlers and others for hours on Sunday to stop them marching on the new parliament. Malik said they were dragged onto a bus and taken to prison. Police said the athletes rioted, destroyed public property and disrupted the peace, allegations that the wrestlers deny.
What has been the response?
The protests are an embarrassment for Modi, who’s seeking a third term in India’s general election next year. The wrestlers question how his government is handling the situation. BJP officials including Singh, meanwhile, argue the protests are politically motivated.
Delhi Police has found no supportive evidence yet to arrest Singh and will file its final report on the matter within 15 days, the Economic Times reported Wednesday, citing people familiar with the matter.
“The government has listened to them with an open mind,” Sports Minister Anurag Thakur said Wednesday, asking the wrestlers to wait until investigations are finished. “Let the law take its own course.”
After detaining the wrestlers on Sunday, police also filed formal complaints against against Malik and her fellow athletes, accusing them of disrupting law and order.
United World Wrestling, the international governing body for the sport, condemned the detention of the wrestlers.
The government’s actions have been criticized by the opposition, members of the public and some sports stars.
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