Vinesh Phogat is a star. She’s one of the highest earners in the male-dominated world of wrestling and comes from a family whose achievements inspired a hit Bollywood movie. Yet a few weeks ago, Phogat was detained by riot police in the centre of the capital New Delhi and dragged to a waiting van.

At 5ft 3in tall and 53kg, Phogat is just one class above the lightest category. But her unorthodox style has made her a fearsome opponent. The US wrestler Sarah Hildebrandt, whom Phogat beat on the way to qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics, said: “I have never practised these crazy situations that Vinesh puts you in.” It was no surprise that when the police tried to stop Phogat and other Indian wrestling stars from embarking on a protest march last month, she didn’t go without a fight.

Phogat, 29, was sitting in a huddle of protesters on the ground, clasping a bamboo stick flying the Indian flag, as dozens of riot police moved in. When they attempted to drag her away, Phogat’s husband, also a wrestler, flung his arms around her in a protective bear hug. Police managed to rip him off but, instinct kicking in, Phogat leapt instead towards her cousin Sangeeta, another wrestler who was still holding the flagpole. The two clung to each other, locked in a grappling hold, with the nation’s tricolour wedged between them. As police finally wrenched the two athletes apart, Sangeeta screamed in frustration.

“Look, her clothes are torn,” murmured a policewoman, as her fellow officers dragged Phogat into a police bus. “They shouldn’t have done that.”

The events marked the most dramatic episode in an unprecedented stand taken by some of India’s best-known sports stars against a powerful politician. For months, athletes have put their training schedules and, in some cases, life-long ambitions on hold to mount a sit-in protest in the city centre, using social media to amplify their message.

Phogat and other female wrestlers, including bronze medal-winning Olympian Sakshi Malik, allege that Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, a member of parliament with the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), sexually harassed female athletes during his 11-year tenure as president of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI). Singh, 66, denied the wrestlers’ accusations. India’s premier Narendra Modi has appeared to ignore the celebrity activists taking aim at one of his most influential MPs.

It was a different story after the 2016 Olympics, when Modi invited Malik and other Olympians to his home. “He told us, ‘You are our daughters’,” Malik tells the FT, with pride in her voice. But the populist PM’s indifference to the wrestlers’ claims was put to the test when the protesters decided to march towards India’s new parliament building on the day he was due to inaugurate it. With the marchers around 2km from the new political landmark, riot police intervened.

Even before the police detained Phogat and Malik, the wrestlers’ quest for accountability had turned into a national scandal, raising questions about patronage and the abuse of power. And although the women denied any larger agenda, their #MeToo moment threatens to embarrass Modi a year before India’s general elections, upsetting his government’s carefully crafted narrative of growth and progress.

Phogat is a slight figure with almond-shaped eyes. You’d never guess she fights for a living, except for her ears. Like others who’ve grown up pinning rivals to a wrestling mat, Phogat’s are puffed with scar tissue. Sitting under a tarpaulin at the protest site in central New Delhi a few days before her confrontation with police, she enthuses about the sport which made her name. “Strength, speed, mind games, agility” — wrestling combines all of these qualities, she says.

Phogat is speaking in a tent fashioned out of plastic sheeting and yellow police barricades, as motorised fans battle the ferocious north Indian summer. Ropes have been stretched out to divide the space into what looked like makeshift wrestling rings. The protesting wrestlers are still attempting some training, with the Olympics round the corner again next year.

Phogat’s native Haryana, north of Delhi, is not an easy place to succeed as a young female athlete — just over one in 10 women aged 20 to 24 are married before the age of 18. But she was part of a family which managed to defy expectations. Only eight when she lost her father — reportedly shot dead in a land dispute — Phogat was introduced to wrestling by her uncle, Mahavir Singh Phogat, an amateur wrestler who had trained his daughters Geeta and Babita to wrestle. The family’s enormous success eventually inspired a 2016 movie Dangal (Wrestling), which was India’s highest-grossing box-office hit worldwide until this year.

Not content to stay in the shadows of her cousins, Phogat became the first Indian woman to win gold at the Asian Games. On sports’ greatest stage of all, however, she has so far experienced disappointment. A knee injury ended her hopes at the Rio Olympics in 2016, and there was more frustration in Tokyo in 2021. Phogat entered the Games as top seed in her category but, looking fatigued, went out in the second round without taking a point from her opponent.

She was shattered. “Everyone outside is treating me like I am a dead thing,” she wrote in The Indian Express. “I’m truly broken.” And she received little comfort from her sporting body. The WFI slapped Phogat with a temporary ban, citing her refusal to train with the Indian team before the games.

Indian wrestlers, right, Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat, and Sakshee Malikkh stand on a police barricade as they speak to their supporters near landmark India Gate monument during a protest march against Wrestling Federation of India President Brijbhushan Sharan Singh
Wrestlers Bajrang Punia (right), Vinesh Phogat (centre) and Sakshi Malik address supporters at the protest in Delhi in May © Altaf Qadri/AP photo

Phogat remains bitterly critical of her own failures. “I believe I have made a very tiny contribution to the game,” she says. But she’s quick to add she didn’t always receive the coaching that could have helped her reach her potential. “There is a big hole in India’s ability to get medals because people who have never played any sport are imposed on us.” She is referring to Singh, who took the WFI’s top office in 2012. And he’s far from the only politician to seek control of the country’s sporting federations, which are mostly government funded but run autonomously. As well as conferring legitimacy, some sports bodies in India are “notorious for being dens of corruption and rent seeking,” according to Milan Vaishnav, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s South Asia Program and the author of When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics.

In the wrestlers’ telling, Singh wasted no time in making the federation into his fiefdom. “Before Brij Bhushan, if the athletes said anything, they were being heard,” says Phogat. “But after one or two years, he captured everything.” Sports journalists who observed Singh’s leadership of the federation portrayed a president who imprinted his own style on wrestling, personally overseeing bouts where participants fought not just for places in international competitions, but also to take home prize buffalo.

Phogat’s accusations of gross mismanagement against Singh are more serious, from match fixing to manipulating the federation’s presidential elections. And in Phogat’s version of events, Singh’s presidency had an even darker side. For the past two years, she alleges, junior wrestlers have complained in phone calls to seniors including Phogat about being sexually harassed while on tours and at training camps. “In any competition, if there are 10 girls going somewhere and if coaches are going with them, girls will be harassed, mentally, physically.” Phogat claims girls have told stories of some coaches demanding sexual favours in return for additional support, like vitamins. Many Indian athletes come from poor families and struggle to access the supplemental nutrition needed for training. The FT was not able to independently corroborate these claims. The trigger for Phogat protesting was knowing that, in her own family, a number of children as young as 10 were just getting into wrestling. “They are just like dolls,” she says.

In January, Phogat and other wrestlers mounted a small protest in Delhi demanding Singh’s removal. It seemed to have had the desired effect when India’s sports ministry announced a committee would probe the allegations and Singh stepped aside to let the investigation go ahead. The wrestlers returned to Haryana. But by April, with no sign of a report by the committee being released publicly, they were back in Delhi.

This time they demanded that the police register a case against Singh for alleged harassment. Delhi police only accepted their complaint after they appealed to the Supreme Court. Indian newspapers have reported details of the claims made to police by seven unnamed female wrestlers against Singh. They include unwanted touching, groping and stalking. One of the complaints against Singh was made by a minor (although this was later withdrawn). In normal circumstances, a person accused of sexually harassing a minor would be arrested and held until trial. Yet Singh remained a free man. The impression spread that the politician, who controls an important electoral district, was being shielded by the BJP ahead of next year’s vote.

The wrestlers’ complaints of harassment have resonated with many women. Reports of gruesome femicides regularly generate weeks-long rolling news coverage in India. Opposition parties have jumped on the wrestlers’ bandwagon, but the episode has split Phogat’s family, setting her against her cousin Babita, a wrestler turned BJP lawmaker, and drawn criticism that the wrestlers have made themselves a foil for India’s caste politics. Malik and Phogat both belong to the jat community, which is considered by some as a caste and by others as an ethnic group. “They are trying to divide people by saying the protesters are all from the same family and community,” argues Malik’s mother Sudesh, who is supporting her daughter. “But when these girls won medals they said they were Indians, not Haryanvi or jat.”

Phogat acknowledges that, in calling for support, the wrestlers may have invited trouble. But she denies that the protest stems from a grudge against Singh over the Olympics. “For argument’s sake, I can accept that I might have something personal”, says Phogat, her voice rising. “[But] how can he be trusted, the man who has got [some] 40 cases going against him?” Singh says he has been acquitted of all charges. “And athletes like us, who are absolutely clean, how can he level these charges against us?” Phogat continues. “How can you trust someone like him?”

Nearly 600km south-east in the state of Uttar Pradesh, a pink sunset retreats from the sky over the Saryu river. Scores of men are bathing in their underwear, while volunteers and priests hang garlands of marigolds and light oil lamps for prayers. Behind them is the temple complex in the ancient city of Ayodhya, where for centuries Hindus and India’s minority Muslims have worshipped.

The festive scene is broken up when the screech of police sirens announces the arrival of a security-heavy cavalcade that contains a popular local politician. Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh emerges, clad in the vivid orange associated with rightwing Hindu nationalism, a crown-like turban on his head and heavy chains of flowers round his neck. Ostensibly here to perform his regular prayer session, Singh is evidently taking full advantage of the opportunity to further demonstrate his standing in India’s most populous state.

In 1992, Singh was among the mob here that destroyed a 16th- century Muslim mosque, actions which triggered communal riots across the country. His determination to make the contested site at Ayodhya into a Hindu temple was, he says, a key reason he got into politics. In 2019, after years of lobbying from Singh and others, along with promises from Modi, the Supreme Court ruled a Hindu mandir could be built where the mosque stood.

Singh personifies the brand of nationalism that dominates Indian politics currently. He is also an exemplar of what the author Vaishnav calls “criminal politicians” in India. The proportion of lawmakers accused of serious crimes now makes up 43 per cent of parliament’s lower house. In Singh’s case, the dozens of allegations against him have included robbery and attempted murder. Though never convicted of any crimes, he volunteers detailed information about the parts of his body which have sustained bullet wounds and freely admits to shooting a man dead during a 45-minute gun battle in 1984.

But to his constituents in rural, poverty-ridden Uttar Pradesh, long neglected by the Indian state, Singh is a dabang (daredevil). Crucially, he’s their dabang. A farmer in a nearby village tells us how he visited Singh to petition for his help with a land-encroachment issue. “He not only gave me an audience, he called a local land official to get my land measured and the problem sorted out,” says the farmer.

Later that night we meet at Singh’s home, a white-painted pile in a sprawling residential complex that sits in stark contrast to the raw brick and corrugated iron shacks that proliferate nearby. “Let [critics] say what they want to say about me,” he says. “People in my five, six, seven districts love me.”

Singh wears a Rolex, which he notes is “very expensive”, three rings and a heavy gold bangle. The throne-like appearance of the carved wooden chair he sits on is enhanced by the turban he is wearing. With customary pugilism, he defends his record as WFI president and categorically denies all allegations of sexual harassment. “All across the country there must be hundreds and thousands of people who are into wrestling and who play, but only nine of them came out against me,” he argues.

The sport Singh headed is one of India’s most successful on the international stage, and he produces sheets of statistics from a briefcase to prove it. Yet its troubling aspect can’t be ignored. Wrestler Sushil Kumar, the country’s only two-time individual Olympic medallist and India’s flag bearer at London 2012, has been in jail since 2021, suspected of involvement in the murder of another male wrestler. Kumar claims he is innocent.

Singh insists he has reformed wrestling, making changes which have disrupted the dominance of wrestlers from Haryana, Phogat’s state. He claims that the wrestlers are angry about his policy moves and that their statements about his alleged harassment have been inconsistent. “This is Indian politics, jat community,” he says, referring to the group to which the Phogats belong. “They are targeting Modi through me.”

His version of events is simple. The wrestlers started opposing him over his policies. Then the media put “words into their mouths” about sexual harassment. “And whenever the investigation is complete, no allegation will be proven on me.”

On the banks of the Ganga river three weeks ago, Phogat and Malik clutched their medals and sobbed. After their detention, they decided to throw the accolades into the holy waterway. But local political leaders intervened and the medals stayed dry.

Still, the moment got international attention. United World Wrestling, the governing body that oversees amateur wrestling, quickly condemned the wrestlers’ treatment. The International Olympic Committee called for “an unbiased, criminal investigation”. And, a few days later, the wrestlers were summoned by India’s powerful home minister, Amit Shah. Commentators began to debate whether votes from Singh’s constituents outweighed the liability he represents for Modi’s reputation. Just two weeks after police apprehended the wrestlers in Delhi, the same force charged Singh with molestation and harassment offences. His secretary declined to comment on the charges. The matter will be heard by a Delhi court this week.

Chloe Cornish is the FT’s Mumbai correspondent; Jyotsna Singh is an FT Delhi-based reporter

Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article