Power Struggles and National Pride: Crisis in Indian Wrestling

Soham Gadgil


The United World Wrestling (UWW), the world governing body of wrestling suspended the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) on the 24th of August 2023 due to their inability to conduct timely elections.  The UWW regulations state that the wrestling bodies of all countries such as the WFI should have regular elections and a system in place for choosing the board members and the president of the governing body. UWW believes that WFI failed to comply with these regulations and hence had to suspend the latter for six months. Further failure to follow the rules might result in an even bigger suspension in the future. This means that all Indian athletes have been banned from playing under the Indian flag in the upcoming Asian Games and other wrestling tournaments. In the case of them winning the gold medal, the Indian National anthem won’t be played on the podium as a result of this suspension.

The Times Of India

India has been a part of the international wrestling arena for the past many years. From Khashaba Jadhav winning the first Olympic medal for us in 1952 to multiple wrestlers making their name in the international circuit such as Geeta Phogat, Sakshi Malik, Bajrang Punia, etc. 

However, just like every other popular sport in India, wrestling too  has somehow managed to end up in a dispute with international sporting bodies. Historically the allegations have been related to politics and power struggles, the frequent ICC vs BCCI battles in cricket, FIFA’s suspension of AIFF due to third party influence, etc. Although the reason for suspension this time has a more menacing background to it than just politics.

On the 23rd of April 2023, Indian wrestlers quit their practice and gathered on the streets of Delhi to protest against Brij Bhushan Singh on the allegation of sexually harassing female wrestlers. The protesters included names like Sakshi Malik, Vinesh Phogat, and Bajrang Punia who took the decision of standing up for the female wrestlers who didn’t have a platform to voice their struggles. 

The Economic Times

For a bit of a background , Brij Bhushan Singh is a BJP MP and has been the president of the Wrestling Federation of India for the past twelve years in a row. He is quite a well connected politician who holds an unreasonable amount of power. The political parties who wish to win in the constituency of Kaiserganj have no option but to have him as their candidate. He has been the MP for this constituency from BJP since 2009. Throughout his political career he has always been involved in controversies and has numerous criminal cases being registered against him. ThePrint website talks about this in the following article.

“History sheeter with no convictions — muscle power & the alleged crimes of Brij Bhushan”

 At one point when he was a member of the Lok Sabha he had thirty-eight ongoing cases against him. The tragedy is that the political leaders in our country who have serious criminal backgrounds are the ones who are elected in our country with the maximum number of votes. The unfortunate part is that now the same leaders are gaining control at top positions in the arena of sports and are sitting on the boards of the Indian sports associations while exercising immense political muscle. I find it hard to believe that a person who has confessed to the murder of a person on a televised interview for a local channel named ‘The Lallantop’  is made the president of the WFI for three consecutive terms. Such is the situation of sports councils throughout our country. 

The New York Times

The protests that started out as peaceful later took a violent and disturbing turn. After initial arguments and discussions with the law enforcement and the government’s inability to take any action the wrestlers decided to directly try and approach the Prime Minister. This was going to happen on the day of the inauguration of the new Parliament on 28th May 2023. 

On this day we witnessed the Delhi police detaining and manhandling wrestlers who have represented and made India proud on an international stage. The government that announces prize money and shakes hands with the athletes after they win, the same government that lauded the achievements of these wrestlers after they won, on 28th May asked the police to treat them as guilty until proven innocent. 

All these wrestlers wished for is a legitimate enquiry on Brij Bhushan Singh because the proof they had was already tampered with to protect Bhushan Singh from any kind of legal action taken against him.

During all this back and forth between the athletes and the justice system, the wrestlers eventually ended the protest to practise for the upcoming Asian Games. In spite of the sheer winds of betrayal and chaos surrounding them, all they focused on was representing their country once again on the international stage. However, the so-called democratic associations overlooking the sport somehow managed to stop them from doing so as well. The WFI elections for the year 2023 got postponed due to wrestler protests and allegations. A small win was Brij Bhushan Singh stepping down from his re-election possibility as the president for the next term. Despite all this he still wishes to be in charge in some capacity at the WFI. The elections were rescheduled for June of 2023 but state associations managed to challenge the voting system in the Supreme Court hoping to gain more decision making power. As one state won its case the next association stood in line for the same cause, same case and, same filing in the Supreme Court. This continuously stopped any kind of elections from happening which as a result led to the UWW suspending the WFI and Indian wrestlers from competing under their own flag.

Do we really want to be a nation where our athletes bear the brunt of the power and political struggles? Do our athletes not deserve to  listen to their national anthem on the podium and see  the tricolour beside their name? 

The last time athletes were stopped from playing for their own flag was when Russia invaded Ukraine.  Is this really the precedent the Indian sport wants to set on the international stage? And all this while we watch all other leaders sit quietly because of course, winning the Kaiserganj constituency in elections is way more important than Indian athletes representing India and giving it their all to make the country proud. The question remains : Do we really want our country like the ones committing war crimes because of leaders who are busy in power struggles and people like Brij Bhushan Singh getting unlimited free “get out of jail” cards?

Soham Gadgil


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