Kajal, 17, has been training for wrestling competitions for five years now. In that time she has won several medals in championships organised by the Haryana Wrestling Association. She also participated in last year’s Khelo India Youth Games. Now, though, she is no longer sure about staying in wrestling.
Reason: the protest at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar by the country’s top wrestlers against Wrestling Federation of India chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh and what it has revealed about the state of professional wrestling in India. The wrestlers, who include star names such as Sakshi Malik, Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat, are seeking the removal and arrest of Singh, a Bharatiya Janata Party MP from Uttar Pradesh, whom they accuse of serial sexual harassment of female athletes. At their insistence and the intervention of the Supreme Court, Singh was booked by the Delhi Police on April 28, but has escaped further action thus far.
“Those who have made India proud time and again are facing such grave injustices. If they can be brought to tears, who will listen to us if anything untoward were to happen?” Kajal said during a break from training at an akhada in Rohtak’s Khidwali village where she has been practising since she was 12. She was referring to Phogat and Malik, who broke down on camera during a recent press conference at the protest site. “We may even have to quit wrestling if the situation remains the same.”
Kajal’s friend and fellow wrestler Simran, 18, echoed her. “We will switch to kabaddi or boxing. We are not sure at this moment,” she said. “What we are sure of is that we cannot continue being wrestlers if he remains in his position.”
She meant Singh, who has been accused of sexual harassment by at least seven female wrestlers, one of whom is a minor. Although the Wrestling Federation chief has been booked for outraging the modesty of a woman and under the stringent Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, his alleged conduct has distressed many budding female wrestlers and their parents in Haryana. Scroll met and spoke with at least 15 such wrestlers and their parents in Titoli, Khidwali and Sunderpur villages in Rohtak, Chhara in Jhajjar, and Gohana in Sonipat. The three districts have been called the “wrestling belt of India” by former wrestler Satpal Singh, and have produced such athletes as Sonam Malik, Pinki Malik, Sakshi Malik, and Reetika Hooda.
“Trainees in my akhada are inspired by such personalities and, like them, they want to be known nationwide for their talents,” said Joginder, 40, who runs the only akhada for female wrestlers in Khidwali. “But now, there is additional vigilance by parents. They accompany their children even to practice sessions every morning and evening. This started only after chatter about the allegations against Brij Bhushan started circulating among pehelwans.”
Joginder’s akhada also trains girls from neighbouring Titoli and Sanghi villages. But he has lately noticed a decline in youngsters or their parents approaching him to be admitted.
Nearly 28 km away in Gohana, trainer Ajmer Malik, 53, echoed these concerns. After the allegations against Singh emerged, he said, parents have been reluctant to leave their girls out of sight even inside the akhada. Ajmer started his Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Academy over a decade ago and has coached Sonam Malik, who won a silver medal at the 2022 World Junior Wrestling Championships held in Bulgaria.
“Parents look with suspicion even at me and I understand why. The stories of Brij Bhushan’s conduct towards female wrestlers have evoked a sense of fear among them,” he said. “I only wish the best for my students and hope that more girls from my academy reach the world stage.”
For the parents, although having a medallist in the family would be a pride achievement, their sense of assurance has been shaken by the allegations of sexual misconduct against the head of the national sports body that would exercise considerable control over their careers.
Virender Dalal, 55, who runs the only akhada for girls in Chhara village and has trainees from as far as Rajasthan, said he never lets them go alone to any wrestling camps. “The local camps are daylong and I ensure that I accompany them, along with a few other pehelwans from our village. But parents can’t stay with their children when it comes to national camps run by the WFI,” said Dalal, who also trains his two daughters. “Everybody has now become afraid of that. We don’t know what will happen but I am not letting them be there alone, ever.”
This hesitation is swiftly shrinking the opportunities available to young female wrestlers, according to Dalal’s daughter Swati, who recently won a gold medal in an inter-university championship. “Being in those camps is important for national events,” she said.
Moreover, escorting pupils to camps and tournaments is expensive. In Titoli, Antim, 17, who has a box full of gold and silver medals, said her uncle, a farmer, goes with her everywhere now, from the morning practice to tournaments like Khelo India. Some of the trips have ended up costing him Rs 35,000.
But he doesn’t see any other option. “She is very talented and it is our duty to encourage her. All our hopes are pinned on her,” the uncle said. “But if we do not go with her, who will be responsible for her safety?”
Girls who come from families that cannot afford to travel with them are slowly dropping out of practice, according to Joginder. At least two girls from Titoli have stopped coming to his akhada because their parents were not in a position to accompany them every day.
Nisha, 17, a pupil of Joginder, said some of her peers, including one friend of hers, are being told to leave wrestling for good. “There were girls here who came from families where every member was working to sustain themselves. This sport is expensive as it is and revelations about Brij Bhushan’s actions have only made it all worse,” she said.
It would help ease the prevailing anxiety, she said, if Singh were removed from the Wrestling Federation. “If we succeed in the sport and go further, we may have to face the same harassment,” she explained. “This is why we feel it would be better if he quits WFI.”
On May 1, Nisha, along with her friends from the akhada, participated in a rally organised in her village by the Hooda Khap to seek Singh’s removal. They burnt his effigies and shouted slogans. They also threatened to march to Delhi, like the farmers had two years ago, if the protesting wrestlers’ demands weren’t met.
On May 4, all of Joginder’s pupils, along with their parents, reached Jantar Mantar to lend their support to the protest, barely a few hours after a late night scuffle between the wrestlers and the police. “They are our seniors. They are doing this for us, so that we don’t have to face what they did,” said Kajal, who sat in solidarity with her seniors at the protest site after missing a day’s practice. “Of course, we will support them with all our might.”
Most of the young wrestlers and their trainers that we spoke with for this story were reluctant to be identified by their full names for fear of reprisals.