In recent days, news organisations have carried contradictory reports about the protest by wrestlers demanding the arrest of Wrestling Federation of India’s chief Brij Bhushan Singh for alleged sexual harassment.

Singh has been booked under several sections of the Indian Penal Code and the non-bailable Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act, based on allegations by seven women wrestlers including a minor. However, Singh, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s Lok Sabha MP, has not been arrested so far.

This week, some news organisations reported citing unidentified persons that some wrestlers had halted the protes, and that the underaged wrestler had withdrawn her initial statement about Singh. However, other news outlets citied the wrestlers themselves and their relatives to report that this was incorrect, reflecting a media narrative war breaking out even as the Modi government tries to end the protest that, surveys show, is hurting it politically.

Thus tussle culminated with the wrestlers agreed to suspend their protest until June 15 after a meeting with sports minister Anurag Thakur on Wednesday evening.

Wrestlers quitting the protest?

But on Monday, several news organisations and journalists had reported that wrestlers Sakshee Malik and Bajrang Punia were returning to their jobs in the Indians Railways after withdrawing from the protest, which first started in January. The sources for these reports about the wrestlers withdrawing from the protest were unclear.

Screenshot of India Today's live stream on YouTube on Monday.
Screenshot of India Today's live stream on YouTube on Monday.

However, wrestlers rebutted these reports at the time. “Neither have any of us have stepped back from the fight for justice, nor will we ever do so in future,” Malik said. “Our fight will go on till we get justice. Please don’t spread any wrong news.”

Minor withdraws statement?

Similarly, on Tuesday, The Indian Express reported citing unidentified persons familiar with the development that the lone minor among the seven wrestlers had withdrawn her allegations about Singh. The report added that the minor had instead recorded a new statement before a magistrate in the case.

On Wednesday, television news channels India Today and Times Now also reported citing unidentified sources that the minor had “apparently” withdrawn her initial statement.

However, even in this instance, other news organisations such as The Hindu, The Print and The New Indian Express had reported quoting the minor’s father that the underage girl had not withdrawn her statement. “The news is completely fake,” the minor’s father told ThePrint on Monday. “I have not withdrawn the complaint. I have taken the decision to fight it out and I will.”

On Thursday, however, NDTV reported citing the father as saying that his daughter had changed the part about her age in her statement, as she was supposedly not underage at the time of the alleged incident.

However, on the same day, the Hindustan Times quoted the father as saying that Singh had not sexually harassed his daughter, but the wrestling federation chief’s approach was “partial in nature against her”. “We have no grudge against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh,” the newspaper quoted the father as saying. “We had recorded fresh statements on June 5 and we changed a few of our earlier statements. I am a father of a girl, and I don’t want to get involved in this fight. I had not withdrawn the complaint but recorded fresh statements.”

The father said that he had levelled sexual harassment allegations against Singh “out of anger” because his daughter had lost in crucial match. “In anger, we had levelled some false allegations, and my daughter had faced some issues but all those mentioned in the FIR were not true,” he added.

In addition, lawyer Vrinda Grover argued that that even if the minor makes another statement before the magistrate, it cannot be seen as a withdrawal of the earlier statement. “[The minor’s] statements will be examined by the court to arrive at their validity,” she said. “So, this is not a ‘withdrawal’ of a complaint or evidence of the accused’s innocence.”

Delhi Police officials detaining the wrestlers during their protest on May 28. Credit: PTI
Delhi Police officials detaining the wrestlers during their protest on May 28. Credit: PTI

Under pressure

This media war and the subsequent decision to suspend the protest comes at a time when the BJP is under pressure over the issue, even from its own supporters. On Monday, a survey conducted by polling agency CVoter showed that over 63% respondents said the controversy will hurt the BJP.

About 66.5% of the respondents agreed that the wrestlers were speaking the truth. Among respondents voting for the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance too, over 54% said they believed the wrestlers over Singh. Nearly 59% of the respondents were dissatisfied with the response of the Delhi Police, which reports to the Union Home Ministry.

Over the past week, the Modi government had stepped up efforts to end the protest. On May 28, it used force to clear the protest site. On Wednesday, after the meeting with Thakur, wrestler Sakshi Malik said that the protest would be suspended “till police completes its investigation by June 15”.