Outcry after Sakshi Malik hangs up her wrestling shoes to protest against Brij Bhushan loyalist as WFI chief
Sakshi Malik announced her retirement from wrestling on Thursday, adding that she won't compete under the presidency of Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh loyalist, Sanjay Singh.
With tears streaming down her face, Sakshi Malik, the bronze medallist from the Rio Olympics, placed her wrestling shoes on the table on Thursday to officially declare her retirement from the sport. This symbolic gesture served as a protest against the victory of Sanjay Singh, a loyalist of Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, in the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) election for the top position. The election results saw Sanjay and his panel securing 13 out of 15 posts, a disappointing outcome for prominent wrestlers like Malik, Vinesh Phogat, and Bajrang Punia, who had fervently advocated for a change in leadership within the federation.
Earlier in the year, these top wrestlers had initiated a campaign against Brij Bhushan, accusing him of sexually exploiting female wrestlers. The legal proceedings related to these allegations are currently underway.
"We fought from our heart but if a man like Brij Bhushan, his business partner and a close aide is elected as the president of WFI, I give up wrestling. From today onwards you will not see me on the mat," a teary-eyed Sakshi said and kept her shoes on the table in a dramatic announcement.
"We wanted a female president but that did not happen," the 31-year-old, who is also a Commonwealth Games gold medallist, added.
The pinnacle of Sakshi's 13-year-long career came in 2016 when she clinched a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics. Throughout her remarkable journey, she amassed three Commonwealth Games (CWG) medals, including a gold in the 2022 edition, and secured four Asian Championship medals.
Sakshi made history as India's first woman wrestler to claim an Olympic medal. However, leading up to the latest CWG, the Haryana-based athlete faced challenges on the mat and yielded her spot in the national team to the emerging talent, Sonam Malik, who defeated her in multiple national selection trials.
Despite struggling, Sakshi exhibited signs of regaining her form during the 2022 Birmingham Games. It's worth noting, though, that the competition level at the CWG is relatively lower as wrestling powerhouses like Japan and Iran do not participate in the event.
Sakshi stated that the wrestlers participating in the protest had advocated for the inclusion of a female member in the governing body to safeguard the rights of women grapplers. Unfortunately, on Thursday, their demand was not realized.
"We were demanding a female president. If there is a female president there will be no exploitation but today not a single woman is there in the new governing body," lamented Sakshi before placing her wrestling boots on the table.
The announcement and visuals of a teary-eyed Sakshi Malik leaving her wrestling shoes behind has sparked a massive social media outburst. "Shameful Day for India. Olympic Champion Sakshi Malik leaves her shoes & quits wrestling after BJP MP Brij Bhushan Singh who sexually abused Women Wrestlers takes control of Wrestling Federation of India. And shame on the Media, hounding her while she leaves the venue in tears," wrote one user on X.
Another added, "So, this is what happens to an Olympic medalist. Extremely saddened."
There were also a few voices who stated that the Brij Bhushan matter is sub-judice in the court of law and Sakshi Malik cannot decide if he's guilty or not.
Here's a look at some of the other reactions on the social media platform:
Olympic medallist Punia and Phogat also addressed the media. "It's unfortunate that government did not stand by its word that no Brij Bhushan loyalist will contest the WFI elections," rued Bajrang and added that he is not sure if he will continue to pursue competitive wrestling.
The wrestlers successfully garnered substantial support from diverse segments of society during their protest. However, the momentum waned on May 28, the day they intended to march towards the new Parliament building. Delhi police dispersed all the protesters from Jantar Mantar, citing incidents of rioting.
On June 7, the wrestlers officially ended their protest after receiving assurance from Sports Minister Anurag Thakur. He pledged that none of the family members or close associates of Brij Bhushan would be permitted to participate in the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) elections.
"With Sanjay Singh becoming president, I don't think women wresters will get justice because back door politics is still on to break their resolve. About 15-20 girls met with the sports minister and told him about the exploitation and today they are down to just six and they too are being coerced to pull out," alleged Bajrang.
Bajrang expressed disappointment, stating that the ministry reneged on its commitment that no supporter of Brij Bhushan would be permitted to run in the elections.
"Following our protest in January, an oversight committee was formed by the ministry. Several female wrestlers had deposed before the panel, following which the sports minister said in front of the media that any person associated with Brij Bhushan will not enter the WFI.
"We waited for the outcome of the oversight committee for three months before starting the protest again. We were fighting for the truth and honour of our sisters and daughters," said 29-year-old Bajrang.
The bronze medalist from the Tokyo Games remarked that it was a protracted struggle, and it might take 2-3 generations to attain justice.
"The fight we have fought, I feel the next one or two generations will have to continue the fight to get justice. We fought with full strength but the promise the government had made, it could not stand firm on that. Very sad to say that," he added.
Phogat, a medallist in the World Championships and Asian Games, claimed that under the leadership of Sanjay Singh, women wrestlers could be subjected to further exploitation.
"Bajrang and I had also met the home minister and we clearly told him the names of the female wrestlers and what has happened to which wrestler. We urged him to please look into it. He assured us that he will look into it. But after waiting for 3-4 months, we started the protest at Jantar Mantar," said Vinesh.
"It feels sad that people like Sanjay Singh are getting the top position. Making him president means the coming generation of women could well suffer exploitation. What happened behind the curtain will now happen in the open now. I don't know how we will get justice in our country. The future of wrestling in this country looks dark."