Now, wrestler Vinesh Phogat decides to return Khel Ratna and Arjuna Award to PM Modi
Wrestler Vinesh Phogat's decision comes days after Olympic medallist Bajrang Punia and Deafylmpics champion Virender Singh Yadav returned their Padma Shri awards despite the government suspending newly elected WFI.
Star wrestler Vinesh Phogat announced on Tuesday her decision to return both her Khel Ratna and Arjuna awards to the Prime Minister. In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the two-time World Championship medal winner expressed that these honours have lost their significance in the current scenario, particularly when wrestlers are facing significant challenges in their quest for justice.
In the letter posted on X, Phogat said their lives are not like those "fancy government advertisements" that talk about women empowerment and upliftment.
"The Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna and Arjuna awards don't have any meaning in my life now. Every woman in this country wants to lead a dignified life. So PM sir I want to return my Dhyan Chand and Arjun award to you so that these awards don't become a burden on us in our endeavour to lead a dignified life," she wrote in her letter.
In 2020, Vinesh Phogat was honoured with the Khel Ratna, India's highest sports accolade, and in 2016, she received the Arjuna Award. Phogat's recent decision to return her awards follows the actions of Olympic medalist Bajrang Punia and Deaflympics champion Virender Singh Yadav, who returned their Padma Shri awards. This move occurred despite the government's suspension of the newly elected Wrestling Federation of India (WFI).
The Wrestling Federation of India recently elected Sanjay Singh as its chief, a decision met with opposition from wrestlers due to Singh's association with Brij Bhushan Singh Sharan. Wrestlers, including Phogat, Punia, and Sakshi Malik, accused Brij Bhushan of sexual harassment, leading to a prolonged protest at Jantar Mantar earlier this year. The athletes expressed their reluctance to have anyone closely associated with the BJP MP entering the WFI.
The issue is currently under consideration in a Delhi court.
The Sports Ministry has stated that it has undertaken substantial efforts, and it will make further attempts to persuade the athletes to reconsider their decisions.
"We have already suspended the new WFI body taking cognizance of the matter. We have suspended the newly-elected body for not following the provisions of its own constitution," a ministry official told PTI.
"Returning awards is their way of protest. But we have already asked the IOA to form an ad-hoc body which run WFI till fresh elections. We will try to convince and request the wrestlers to take back their awards," he added.
Phogat expressed her joy when initially selected to disseminate government messages but is now disheartened by the present circumstances.
"I remember in 2016 when Sakshi won the Olympic medal your government had made her the brand ambassador of 'Beti bachao beti padhao' campaign. When we got to know about this, this country's women were happy and were sending each other congratulatory messages. Today when Sakshi was forced to leave wrestling, I keep remembering that year. Are we women athletes there only for government ads? We have no objection to publishing those advertisements because, from the slogan written in them, it seems that your government wants to work seriously for the upliftment of daughters," she said.
The recently elected WFI panel, however, has been suspended by the Sports Ministry for deviating from the provisions of its constitution in decision-making. The ministry has also requested the IOA to establish an ad-hoc panel to oversee the affairs of the sports body.
The government justified the suspension by pointing to the panel's "hasty announcement" of organizing the U-15 and U-20 nationals, citing non-compliance with due procedure and insufficient notice provided to wrestlers for preparations.
"In what condition Bajrang (Punia) decided to return his Padma Shri is not known to me. But when I saw his photo, I was suffering from inside. After that, I also started hating my awards. When I got these awards my mother distributed sweets to the neighbours."
"I want to get rid of that picture of Vinesh accepting the award because that was a dream and whatever happening now with us is reality."
"When I met you (PM) I told you also about the matter. We have been on the streets for the last year for justice but nobody is taking us seriously."
Vinesh appealed to the Prime Minister to pay heed to Brij Bhushan's "crude" remarks directed at the women wrestlers.
"The exploiter has declared his dominance and raised slogans in a very crude manner. Just spare 5 minutes of your life and listen to the statements given by that man in the media, you will know what all he has done. He has described women wrestlers as Manthra. He admitted to making women wrestlers uncomfortable on TV openly and didn't leave even a single opportunity to humiliate the women players. What is more serious is that it has forced many female wrestlers to step back. This is very scary."
"Sometimes I wonder whenever my aunties and relatives see our plight now on TV, what they have been telling my mother. No mother in this country will want her daughter to suffer like this, " she said.