The image of India’s ruling party is taking a real beating thanks to its treatment of women’s rights
SEVEN women wrestlers filed separate police complaints against BJP MP and Wrestling Federation of India president Brij Bhushan Singh accusing him of sexual misconduct, harassment and criminal intimidation.
Some of the complaints dated back to 2012, while some were as recent as 2022. Their pleas, since January this year, fell on deaf ears. There has not been a single BJP parliamentarian who has commented on this as yet. No, not even Smriti Irani, the union minister for Women and Child Development, also a BJP MP.
More than 30 wrestlers, including Olympic medallists Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik, Bajrang Punia and Anshu Malik staged a sit-in protest at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar accusing Singh of harassment, and demanding disbanding of the federation. Some news reports suggested this was the biggest protest by Indian athletes against sports administrators thus far.
The protests were called off after Anurag Thakur, minister of sports and youth affairs, promised to create a committee to investigate their allegations.
But three weeks ago, after being shooed away from the police station, the wrestlers were back to their protests again asking the cops to file an FIR. Finally, after approaching the Supreme Court of India, the police agreed to record their complaints.
The unsung good fight of our women wrestlers
It took our nation’s pride, our award-winning wrestlers and world-renowned public figures, four months and a dash to the apex court to get their most basic civil rights addressed.
If their struggle for justice is such an arduous protest, where does the ordinary Indian woman seek help from?
Singh is accused of sexually molesting several wrestlers, including a minor at the time of the incident. Two-time world champion Vinesh Phogat said she personally knew of “at least 10 to 20 girls in the national camp who have come and told me their stories,” she told reporters in January of young women who had been harassed by coaches as well as the WFI president.
Sourav Ganguly, India’s former cricket captain, feigned much knowledge on the plight of the women wrestlers when asked about their protests recently. “Let them fight their battle,” he non-committedly responded.
Indian Olympic Association president PT Usha criticised the wrestlers of “indiscipline” and “tarnishing the image of the country”. Only Kapil Dev, Neeraj Chopra and Sania Mirza had come out in support of the wrestlers.
The wrestlers’ protest is gaining much space in national and international media, as it should. And is causing much embarrassment to the government, which has been doing much to position itself as a modern, non-corrupt, goal-oriented party, watering down glaring anti-minority episodes.
The wrestler’s protests, along with several episodes of rape and harassment in BJP-led states, is making Prime Minister Narendra Modi lose its edge as a women-friendly party. In the state elections of 2022, more women voted for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP. In 2019, for the first time ever the BJP became the party with the highest number of female votes, according to the Election Commission of India.
The prime minister has been clever in luring women voters, it could even be said that his party won the second term on the strength of his female vote bank. In his first address to the nation, in 2014, Modi is remembered to have appealed against female foeticide, condemned rapes, advised parents to bring up better sons and asked for the education of the girl child. In all his public gatherings between 2014-2019, women’s issues were featured almost every time. In 2019, he also fielded more female candidates than any party before him and appointed more female ministers than any of the previous governments.
While India has been staunchly patriarchal, more than 65 per cent of 1.7 million homes sanctioned for the poor between 2014-19 were registered in the name of women or jointly owned by women. The Modi government also built millions of toilets for the ease and comfort of women.
But BJP leaders have been in the news for their sexist, anti-women comments. Shaheen Baug, a women-fronted protest against the government’s contentious Citizenship Amendment Act, was egg on its face.
Brij Bhushan Singh is not the only politician to be accused of sexual misconduct. In January again, a junior athletics coach hosted a progress conference accusing Haryana sports minister Sandeep Singh of sexual harassment, stalking, illegal confinement and criminal intimidation. Singh quit as sports minister but continues to retain his second portfolio. BJP MLA Kuldeep Sengar made Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, famous after he kidnapped and raped a young girl, even as her aunts were mysteriously killed in a road accident.
The early acquittal of Bilkis Bano’s rapists (garlanded by local BJP leaders in Gujarat) and the illegal cremation by the police in BJP-led Uttar Pradesh of the rape and death of a Dalit female in Hathras, have all abetted in discrediting the BJP as an ally of women’s rights.
With a big election coming up next year, Narendra Modi will have to look women in the face and right its wrongs. Its heedless approach to rape and sexual misconduct may be the pivot in 2024.
Suggested Reading: Why Does The Justice System Continue To Fail Women?