Vinesh Phogat: ‘Like many other girls, I had to suffer silently all these years because of this man…why Brij Bhushan’s being protected is anyone’s guess’

Our fight for justice is a month old yet it feels like we have been at Jantar Mantar for a year. Not because we have been sleeping on a footpath in the heat, getting bitten by mosquitoes, having stray dogs for company once dusk falls or don’t have access to a clean toilet at night. Our fight for justice seems like it has been on forever because the wheels of justice have moved very slowly.

This is despite seven women wrestlers, including a minor, having complained about sexual harassment by Wrestling Federation of India president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. Frankly, when we decided to speak up in January about the sexual harassment women wrestlers faced and the mismanagement in the federation, we believed our voices would matter. And for a short time, we believed it did. An Oversight Committee was set up by the Sports Ministry to probe the allegations but we know now that it was an eyewash.

In January, when Bajrang (Punia), Sakshi (Malik), and I decided to begin protesting at Jantar Mantar, we believed it would not take more than two to three days to get justice. We never thought we would have to protest again for the maan and sammaan of women wrestlers who have shown exemplary courage to speak about sexual harassment.

How many times do victims have to speak up before they get justice?

When I say “speak” just imagine this. They have had to talk about traumatic events not once but many times — to the Oversight Committee, to an Indian Olympic Association Committee, to record statements to the police and then before the magistrate. Yet, as of today, one month since we started the protest, there is no justice in sight. For the complainants talking again and again about being sexually harassed has been like torture.

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Like many other girls, I had to suffer silently all these years because of this man and I had no option. (Despite several attempts, Singh was unavailable for comment. He has denied any wrongdoing.)

Why Brij Bhushan, A Member of Parliament, is being protected is anyone’s guess.But, like we have said, we won’t be leaving Jantar Mantar until he is arrested. The past few months have been stressful and I have shed tears. But I know this could be a long and testing battle to get justice for women and I am ready to make any sacrifice.
The Asian Games is around the corner and the qualifying cycle for the Olympics is beginning and though we have to represent India and win medals, at the moment this is a bigger battle. Because if we wind up our protest without getting justice, then women who face sexual harassment will stay silent and suffer.

I have always been outspoken and not everyone likes that. Be it people at the Sports Ministry or the Sports Authority of India or the WFI. After I won gold medals at the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games, people started to say that I had developed an ego when I started speaking my mind. Is it wrong for a woman to raise her voice when injustice is being done?

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I cried after the first protest in January, especially when I realised there were attempts to break our unity. But those who wanted us to fail could not break our resolve. We have come back stronger.

Earlier, we were like pawns in a political game. Now we are making our own decisions.

Sports Minister Anurag Thakur has disrespected us. His attitude is like “I am the sports minister, you have to listen to what I say.” When victims of sexual harassment told their stories to him, he looked them in the eye and asked for proof. And so did members of the Oversight Committee.

We ended our first protest after three days in January after a meeting with the Sports Minister and assurances from officials of the Sports Authority of India, but now we know it was a mistake to have blind trust. Somvir, my husband, and I told each other that we would continue the fight even if others dropped out for whatever reason.

In January, we did not know how the system works and we were naive. We did not file an FIR in January. Why? We were afraid of the police. We come from villages. Have you seen how we live there? Police file an FIR, the media reports about it, names are out and everyone attacks the victim. FIR is a huge thing for people in our villages, and that, too, for sexual harassment. We used to think that Brij Bhushan would get us killed the moment we filed an FIR.

The idea of a sit-in protest never occurred to me though the thought of exposing Brij Bhushan’s wrongdoings crossed my mind many times. I wanted to talk to the media, especially after the Tokyo Olympics but I held myself back because people would say she is bitter because she didn’t win a medal.

In December 2022, I said enough is enough. I spoke to my husband Somvir and then to Bajrang. We felt it was time to speak up. Though there are seven complainants, there are many other victims of sexual harassment who are still afraid to come forward.

Now there is no fear.

The only fear we have is that we may have to quit wrestling. We believe we have five years more in the sport but who knows what the future holds for us after these protests. We also know our lives could be at risk because we have taken on not only Brij Bhushan but other powerful forces, too, but I don’t fear death.

I wish other active sports people had joined us at Jantar Mantar just to show solidarity. Some of them tweeted once and we really appreciate their support. But just tweeting once is not enough. They don’t come to support us because they are afraid of the system. What will they lose? They compromise. Ninety-nine per cent of people compromise.

We would have regretted it for the rest of our lives if we had stayed silent. What is the point of the medals around your neck if you can’t fight for justice? We are fighting against the system so the next generation of women can wrestle and play and compete in a safe environment.

Since we started our second protest on April 23, sometimes I have had to remind myself who I am because everything is moving so fast and I am in a tizzy.

We sleep on the footpath, then train in the morning, and meet hundreds of people who are well-meaning and give advice and blessings. We have never been in such a situation and sometimes we are unsure what to do next.

It seems like it is the world versus us. But by God’s grace, we are still here and are not going anywhere. There have been veiled and open threats and attempts to give the protest a bad name and break our unity. But we battle on.

Even our parents are scared. My brother comes here but he is worried about me. My mother back home keeps praying. She doesn’t understand the whole thing but keeps asking “beta, kuch hoga (will something happen)?” I have to reassure her that our protest won’t be in vain and we will win.