Grapplers’ protest exposes as hollow the party’s claims on gender politics, public morality, of uniting India and Hindus, and reveals its method of breaking agitations and contempt for citizens
Wrestlers Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik speak with the media during their protest at Jantar Mantar, in New Delhi, on April 29. Pic/PTI
There are five perspectives to the battle between the grapplers and Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the president of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) and six-time Lok Sabha MP. The first perspective contrasts the party’s refusal to take action against Singh, who has been accused of sexual harassment by seven women wrestlers, including a minor, with its perennial campaign against love jihad in order to protect Hindu women from the ‘lust’ and ‘bigotry’ of Muslims.
Hindutva has traditionally deified women as mothers and sisters, and favours circumscribing their role to mere conveyer belts of culture. It would seem those breaking this mould, as the predominantly rural-based women wrestlers certainly have, will not have the BJP strain its sinews to get them justice, even when they are sexually exploited.
Some hypocrisy, that!
The wrestlers have also exposed as hollow the BJP’s claim to the moral high ground. In a 2022 interview to Lallantop, an online portal, Singh graphically described how he shot dead a person. He did not seem to mind the interviewer calling him a Bahubali or Strongman.
Explaining why he joined the Samajwadi Party, Singh said the BJP had shifted him, in 2004, from Gonda, which had twice elected him an MP, to Balrampur. On the voting day, the BJP’s Gonda candidate died in a road accident. At the sight of Singh, who came to Delhi following his victory in Balrampur, the outgoing Prime Minister A B Vajpayee exclaimed,
“Marwa diya (You got him killed)”. Hurt, Singh jumped ship in 2009.
Singh told Lallantop about Narendra Modi’s call to him before the 2014 elections. Modi asked: “What are you doing?” Singh replied, “Aadesh (Order)?” Modi directed Singh to meet Amit Shah. The BJP fielded him from Kaiserganj. He won. Modi’s BJP is not allergic to recruiting dons.
The politics of polarisation is the third perspective to the wrestlers-Singh confrontation. The wrestlers leading the protest are Jats from Haryana; Singh is a Rajput from Uttar Pradesh. Celebrated grappler Bajrang Punia exposed as fraudulent Hindutva’s mission of uniting India and Hindus thus: “When we win medals, we aren’t from Haryana or a particular community. When we protest for our rights, we are from Haryana. Why this double standard?”
This double standard is the BJP’s favoured weapon of mobilising people against dissidents. The weapon will not lose its sharp edge until citizens, particularly sports icons, side with social groups other than their own whom the BJP selectively targets, isolates and intimidates.
The fourth perspective to the wrestlers’ challenge is to study it for grasping the BJP’s strategy of tackling protests. The wrestlers organised a sit-in in Delhi against Singh in the bitter cold of January. They called it off with the Union Sports Ministry appointing a six-member committee to investigate the charges of sexual harassment against the WFI president. Since the committee’s findings were not released, the wrestlers returned to the protest site.
The wrestlers want Singh to be arrested under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, given that a minor is among those whom he allegedly preyed upon. The BJP applauded Himanta Biswa Sarma, the party’s chief minister in Assam, when he invoked the POCSO Act to arrest scores of men who married, years ago, girls below 14 years old. But mum’s the word on the demand for arresting Singh.
Dilatory tactics were also employed by the BJP to try to stall the 2020-21 farmer protests against the three laws enacted without consulting them. They were first disparaged as Khalistanis. Next, the government tried to sweet-talk them into joining the committee the Supreme Court had constituted for rethinking the three laws. They refused, believing the committee was packed with members in sync with the government’s opinion.
Violence was then fomented on the 2021 Republic Day to shatter the resolve of farmers, who persisted with their protest until the government caved in. Likewise, Muslim protesters against the new citizenship law were demonised, and violence engineered to disrupt their agitation.
The wrestlers’ protest is still at the first stage, evident from the Indian Olympic Association President P T Usha slamming them for ‘tarnishing’ the country’s image. The wrestlers should know that the BJP’s decisiveness is about not accepting mistakes—and atoning for them. A long haul awaits them.
Perhaps they do know this, for, as medallist Vinesh Phogat explained, they had earlier, in January, disallowed politicians to come to the protest site, fearing that the wrestlers would be seen as “trying to play politics”. But “fooled” then, they have invited Opposition leaders to support them now. Indeed, they cannot escape being political, which is the only way they can resolve their troubles arising from systemic flaws.
The fifth perspective can be had by asking: Is Singh so indispensable to the BJP as to have it endure shaming media headlines daily? Sure, he belongs to the Rajput community, the BJP’s steadfast supporter.
But then, there is no Rajput leader in Uttar Pradesh bigger than Chief Minister Adityanath; no bigger vote-catcher than Modi. Perhaps the BJP fears that conceding the wrestlers’ demand would make it appear a weakling whom citizens can browbeat into submission, shattering the party’s very self-image.
The writer is a senior journalist.
Send your feedback to email@example.com
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.