The protests against Wrestling Federation of India President Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, which began in January over allegations of the sexual harassment of women wrestlers, has held up a mirror to Indian politics, law and society.
A quick, and by no means comprehensive, checklist of phenomena it has revealed includes the following: One, the law does not apply equally to all citizens. Despite the public protests by the wrestlers, who have won several medals for the country, and a charges against Singh, the Wrestling Federation of India president and Bharatiya Janata Party MP continues to roam free – and until recently, was making belligerent statements.
There are many who have been put behind bars on far less serious or frivolous charges but in Singh’s case the Supreme Court had to intervene even for a first information report to be registered.
Two, Singh’s immunity from the law takes the logic of elections and electoral winnability to an extreme. The BJP parliamentarian, who wields considerable influence in eastern Uttar Pradesh, is seen as indispensable to his party despite the bad press he has been getting for the BJP. It also says something about parliamentary representatives in India who are not only usually very wealthy but also often have criminal charges against their name.
However, as commentator Mukul Kesavan observed, Singh’s political influence does not fully explain the inaction against him. It also has something to do with the deep-rooted patriarchy and misogyny within the Sangh Parivar.
Third, the heated commentary and the protests have once again highlighted the role of social media and sections of the traditional media that act as the government’s cheerleaders. They have tried their best to steer the narrative to one that portrays the wrestlers as the real villains, hinting at selection issues, and as churlish for not acknowledging the state resources spent on them.
That this narrative has not worked too well is due to the ham-handed attempts by the Delhi Police to stop the wrestlers’ protests and the powerful images of the police’s excessive use of force on May 28.
Finally: there has been silence, with a few exceptions, by Indian sportspersons, particularly India’s star cricketers, on the wrestlers’ protests. At the outset, one should dispense with a persistent myth that sports has nothing to do with politics. Like any activity, sport has often been used to make political points.
The connection between sport and nationalism has been noted by many. Author George Orwell’s famous comment, made in the context of the Cold War, characterising sport as “war minus the shooting” might be somewhat of an exaggeration. But historian Eric Hobsbawm’s statement about sport being “uniquely effective as a medium for inculcating national feelings” rings true, whether it is in India-Pakistan sporting contests or Indian teams challenging the British in the pre-independence era.
The connection between sporting achievement and nationalism is what has made the protests by the wrestlers a somewhat difficult one for the government to ignore. However, instead of acting on the wrestlers’ grievances, the government chose to play wait and watch for political reasons. While it hoped that the protests would peter out or weaken over time, which it well might, it also did not hesitate to unleash brute force when required.
The government was aided in good measure by the absence of support for the wrestlers by most sportspersons, both current and former. There were exceptions such as Olympic gold medal winners Neeraj Chopra and Abhinav Bindra, football star Sunil Chhetri and boxer Nikhat Zareen, who expressed their concern at the plight of the wrestlers and the way the protests were being handled.
However, cricketers – except for a handful of former players like Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh and Irfan Pathan – were conspicuous by their silence. The wrestlers later received support from Kapil Dev and the 1983 World Cup winning team, though unsurprisingly one member – Roger Binny, the current Board for Cricket Control in India president – broke ranks. The sporting fraternity’s reaction was perhaps typified by former athlete PT Usha, now the president of the Indian Olympic Association and a Rajya Sabha member, who criticised the wrestlers for their “negative” approach and for “tarnishing” the country’s image.
The silence of a majority of the sporting world is somewhat difficult to fathom. However, some pointers can be drawn from a paper I had co-authored, exploring the reactions of sportspersons on social media to politicians, political controversies and state sponsored initiatives. By looking at a sample of tweets, we found that the Indian sportspersons’ most frequent engagement with Twitter was to wish politicians on their birthday. They were also heavily engaged in amplifying content put out by the government such as the hashtags “indiafightscorona” and “fitindiamovement”. This was in contrast to sportspersons elsewhere, notably in the United States.
On controversial issues like the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act or the farmers’ agitation, barring a few such as Bajrang Punia or Sakshi Malik, most sportspersons kept silent. That applied to sensitive issues like caste or caste violence although surprisingly the Indian cricket team once took the knee for the Black Lives Matter movement. However, there were moments when sportspersons, almost in a coordinated manner, supported the state’s views as in the hashtag, “IndiaAgainstPropaganda”, during the farmers’ protests and many of them used the same text verbatim in their tweets.
Part of the reason for such supine behaviour has to do with the heavy involvement of the Indian state in sports and the presence of politicians or their proxies in running sports bodies, including the influential Board for Cricket Control in India. The cost of any controversial or anti-government statements are seen by sportspersons to be too high. Hence, the deafening silence of most sportspersons, who should have been the first to lend their support, to the protesting wrestlers.
The writer is with the National University of Singapore. He is the author of Nation at Play: A History of Sport in India.