Battling the Bahubali muscle: women’s struggle for justice against powerful politicians

The wrestlers are strong, articulate, disciplined winners who’ve travelled all over the world and are public figures in their own right. Yet even they had to knock on the Supreme Court’s doors for the most basic demand of getting the police to do their job and lodge an FIR (first information report).

On April 21, seven women wrestlers went to Delhi’s Connaught Place police to file a complaint against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, a six-time BJP MP who heads the Wrestling Federation of India (what skill politicians bring to sporting bodies is a question for another day). The police shooed them away and refused to file an FIR.

Undaunted, the women approached the Supreme Court. On Wednesday, solicitor general Tushar Mehta told the top court that the police “felt” some preliminary enquiry was needed before registering an FIR. Chief Justice DY Chandrachud said the allegations were “serious” and listed the next hearing for Friday.

On Friday, when the hearing began after lunch, the Delhi police quickly told the court it would register an FIR after all. Senior advocate Kapil Sibal, representing the women, also asked the court to issue directions to provide security to the wrestlers.

Wrestlers Vinesh Phogat addresses the media during a protest against Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief Brij Bhushan Singh, (Source: ANI)

Singh is accused of abusing his position as federation head and sexually molesting several women wrestlers including one who was 16, legally a minor, at the time.

In the public eye

The issue first flared up in January when the wrestlers came to Delhi’s Jantar Mantar in what Sportstar calls the “biggest protest by Indian athletes against sports administrators in recent memory”.

Two-time world medallist Vinesh Phogat said she personally knew of “at least 10 to 20 girls” who had been sexually harassed at wrestling camp. Sources say the number is likely to be significantly higher.

Given the media spotlight, the sports ministry set up an oversight committee headed by boxer MC Mary Kom. Reassured of action, the protestors went home.

Kom was given four weeks to prepare her report, asked for an extension of two additional weeks and says she has submitted the report to the ministry.

Four months later, the wrestlers were back. “This is not wrestling’s fight alone. I request all the athletes of the country, all the players, to come and join us,” Bajrang Punia said.

The bahubali muscle

In the badlands of Uttar Pradesh, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh is what is known as a “bahubali” or strong man. His election affidavit lists four cases ending against him, including dacoity and attempt to murder.

The refusal to lodge an FIR against him is precisely “because he is a member of Parliament of the ruling party,” Kapil Sibal told me on the phone.

At the time of writing, only Kapil Dev, Abhinav Bindra, Neeraj Chopra and Sania Mirza had come out in support for the wrestlers.

Most dispiriting was the statement by Indian Olympic Association president PT Usha who criticised the wrestlers of “indiscipline” and “tarnishing the image of the country”. It summarised a common and misogynist attitude to women who find the courage to speak up: Good women don’t complain

Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief Brij Bhushan Singh (Source: PTI)

(Read: Who is BJP MP Brij Bhushan Singh, wrestling body chief accused of sexual harassment)

But Singh is not the only politician to be accused of sexual assault.

In January this year, a junior athletics coach held a press conference where she accused Haryana sports minister Sandeep Singh of sexual harassment. After Chandigarh police booked Singh for stalking, sexual harassment, criminal force, illegal confinement and criminal intimidation, Singh quit as sports minister on “moral grounds”. But he continues to be a minister in the BJP government, retaining his second portfolio as minister for printing and stationery.

It’s easy to see which way the wind blows. Haryana chief minister said mere allegations don’t make a person guilty; the Speaker of the assembly made caustic remarks on how such allegations are often followed by a “compromise” and even the chairperson of the state women’s commission said the charges appear to be “unbelievable”, write Jagmati Sangwan and Indu Agnihotri in this opinion piece.

In court, Singh’s lawyer has asked for time to file a reply to a Special Investigation Team’s request for a lie detector test.

Then, on Tuesday April 25, the woman coach was returning home after filling fuel in her two-wheeler when, she says, a black SUV tried to run her over. “I was saved as I stepped aside in the nick of time,” she told Hindustan Times.

And, of course, there is Rakesh Singh Senger, the MLA who was finally expelled from the BJP.

It took a desperate threat by a 19-year-old woman to immolate herself in front of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s house before the police would even arrest Senger.

In 2019, a Delhi court, under the supervision of the Supreme Court, found Senger guilty of kidnapping and raping the 19-year-old in 2017. The judgment also criticised the CBI for the delay in filing a charge-sheet in the case and prolonging the trial. And it referred to the vendetta against the woman and her family members.

From Bilkis to Hathras, blatant impunity

Enough has been written about how 11 men convicted of such heinous crimes as gang-rape and mass murder during the 2002 Gujarat riots were granted early release from jail after being sentenced to life imprisonment.

The governments are clearly dragging their feet – one of the judges in the two judge bench, KM Joseph retires in June – as it said it was “considering” filing a review petition against the order to produce the file.

“Every time there is a hearing, one accused will come to this court and seek adjournment. Four weeks later, another accused will do the same and this will go on till December. We are aware of this strategy as well,” said Justice BV Nagarathna, the other judge on the bench.

In fact, said senior advocate Vrinda Grover: “Judicial delay is an adjunct to impunity.”

Sometimes the hurdle isn’t an individual politician but the state.

Perhaps no case has highlighted the sheer brazen-ness of state power than the Hathras case where a 19-year-old Dalit woman was cremated in the middle of the night by the police. Her family was not allowed to even see her for a final farewell.

In March this year, a UP court acquitted three of the four men accused of raping and murdering the woman.

In Andhra Pradesh, it took 15 years after 11 tribal women were allegedly gang-raped at gunpoint by an anti-Naxal special police team at Vakapalli, for a special court to deliver judgment: Not guilty. The verdict, however, was a result of “shoddy investigation” the judge said and ruled that the rape survivors were entitled to compensation.

Two of the 11 women had already died during the trial.

News you may have missed

Marriage equality update

Members of United Hindu Front stage a protest against same-sex marriage (Source: PTI)

Lawyers for the 52 petitioners who are asking for the same right to marry as any other citizen of India, have wrapped up their arguments before a five-judge Supreme Court bench. The court is now hearing from Solicitor General Tushar Mehta on why this right should not be granted. On the sixth day of arguments , the bench acknowledged that rewriting the Special Marriage Act to make it gender neutral would be a complex task involving several laws. It conceded that legislative change is the job of Parliament but urged the state to recognise non-heterosexual unions with some institutional label. “There is a corresponding duty on the state to at least recognise that all the incidents of social cohabitation must find recognition in the law,” the bench observed.

Surrogacy test

Their only child, a 23-year-old son was killed in a road accident. The mother, now 45, has had a hysterectomy. There is a long line in the adoption queue. And the father is 57, two years older than the cut off age stipulated in the surrogacy law.

In response to the desperate plea by a couple seeking to have a child through surrogacy, the Karnataka high court pointed to several anomalies. For instance, the court said, altruistic surrogacy should logically be extended to women who are not necessarily blood relatives. The only thing that counts, the court said, was the genetic, physical and financial status of the couple seeking surrogacy.

And the good news…

You know that stereotype about girls and maths? It’s this sexist stereotype that has resulted in girls performing more poorly than boys, finds a new report. Looking at data from 100 countries, the report by Unicef finds that boys have higher odds of learning maths skills than girls because negative gender norms held by parents, teacher and peers are contributing to this disparity, undermining girls’ confidence and setting them up for failure.

Field notes

Representational Image (Source: Unsplash)

Last year, women reported higher levels of burnout. But this year, Deloitte’s Women@Work global outlook for 2023, found not just lower levels of burnout but more women reporting positive experiences with hybrid work.

Challenges remain. The number of women who feel unable to switch off from work has increased while the number of women who are comfortable talking about mental health concerns with employers has decreased. Stigma around women’s health also included challenges related to menstruation and menopause.

Read the report here.


Balesh Dhankar (Source: Facebook)

In Sydney, Balesh Dhankhar, a Haryana-born NRI, has been described as the “worst rapist” in the city’s history, by a court that convicted him for as many as 39 sexual offences.

Dhankhar’s cross examination in court revealed stomach-churning details of how he lured his victims with fake job ads, used drugs to render them unconscious before raping them, filming them, and even maintaining meticulous files on each. The Sydney Morning Herald says Dhankhar who headed the Overseas Friends of the BJP and had uploaded pictures of himself with Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried to conceal his identity through the trial using suppression orders, sprinting away from cameras outside court and even removing photographs from social media. He will be sentenced later in the year.

In Vatican City, women will be allowed to participate and vote for the first time at an upcoming meeting in October of Catholic bishops. The meeting, or synod, will also see the participation of lay people for the first time, a change that has the approval and sanction of Pope Francis, reports CNN.

In Thailand, a conservative political party has backed the legalisation of sex toys as it “seeks to revive its appeal” before next month’s general elections, reports The Guardian. Ratchada Thanadirek of the Democrat party said sex toys were being smuggled into the country anyway, leading to a potential loss of revenue by way of taxes. The penalty for selling sex toys in the country can be as high as a three-year prison term and a fine of the rough equivalent of Rs 1.42 lakh.

A good week for the abortion pill with the US Supreme Court preserving women’s access to mifepristone, the drug used in the most common method of abortion. The top court has granted emergency requests from the Joe Biden administration and Danco Labs that makes the drug until an appeal against a lower court order that effectively banned the drug. In Japan, meanwhile, the health ministry has approved the country’s first abortion pill, decades after other countries made abortion medication widely available.

Who’s afraid of marriage equality?

At the heart of the Supreme Court marriage equality hearings lie a host of patriarchal anxieties over the challenge to the definition of family

Nobody can predict which way the courts will rule. But to listen to the proceedings, is to hear the story of a nation where people fall in love and dream of building lives and setting up their own families. It is to hear of what senior advocate Saurabh Kirpal calls “lavender marriages”, where gay men are married off to women under family pressure. (Biplov Bhuyan/HT PHOTO)

So far, the objection to marriage equality has been roughly on two grounds. The first, it is the job of Parliament to debate and legislate on the matter. And the second, marriage is a union between “biological” men and women with the intent to procreate; those asking for marriage rights represent an “urban elitist” point of view that is divorced from the reality of India.

Of course, there are other objections. Gay parents can’t be good parents, is the astounding, and baseless, claim of the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR). And then there’s the new entrant to the Objector’s Group, the Bar Council of India, with views that uncannily echo the government of India.

Parliaments in voting democracies are often motivated by majoritarian opinion. But populist views do not always align with constitutional rights. As former attorney general, Mukul Rohatgi told the court: “I cannot be discriminated against because we may be 10,000 and the others are 10 crore.”

You don’t have to go back far in history to know how the courts have stepped in when Parliament has hesitated. It was the courts that first ruled on triple talaq in October 2017 before Parliament enacted a law two years later. It was the courts that issued the Vishakha guidelines against workplace sexual harassment 16 years before Parliament, prompted by public protests, finally enacted a law in 2013.

Unstated in these objections lie a host of patriarchal anxieties. At the heart of the marriage equality petitions is marriage obviously, but, going beyond this, the issue fundamentally touches the definition of family itself.

At present, the law defines family as the one you are born into (the natal family), which would include legally adopted children, and the one you marry into (the marital family).

Banded together somewhat lazily as “same-sex marriage”, the 52 petitioners each have different stories. Some have legally recognised marriages abroad and have even adopted children together but find that in India their union has no legal status.

“Same sex” doesn’t even apply to petitioners, including transpersons and intersex people who want the court to expand the traditional definition of family. Far from “urban elitist”, these young people in small towns and villages are being forcibly married off, beaten, locked up or thrown out of the family and forced to beg.

When the family is the primary source of violence, shouldn’t citizens have the right to choose their families, asked senior advocate Vrinda Grover. Grover is representing a client whose choices are not respected by her family. The client suffers from poor health but knows that life-or-death decisions will be made for her by this legally recognised family and not those she loves and trusts. Should she not have the right to choose her family?

We need, Grover urged the court, a “new imagination of marriage and family which is based on love, care and respect.”

Transpersons already have families; they are in relationships and have adopted children, but these are not recognised by the law, said senior advocate Jayna Kothari. “Is a family different just because your gender identity is different?”

The bench is proceeding with caution. It has set the limits of change–should it come–by restricting the hearing to the Special Marriage Act (SMA) enacted in 1954 for interfaith marriages. It will not get into personal law. It will not even get into the “nitty gritty” of adoption, inheritance etc, which are governed by personal law, as clarified to senior advocate Maneka Guruswamy on day four of the hearings.

Yet, even this truncated concession is unlikely to assuage fears in a country where 93% of Indians, regardless of their sexual orientation, still marry the way their parents did i.e. through arranged marriages in keeping with faith and caste endogamy, according to a 2018 survey by the Lok Foundation-Oxford University administered by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

The idea of any two people falling in love continues to be so radical in modern India that it can, and does, lead to so-called honour killings. The thought that a daughter might run off with the wrong kind of man leads to severe curtailment of her movements. The concept of an interfaith marriage is so alarming that it has resulted in laws in several states that virtually make it impossible for Hindus and Muslims to marry.

If inter-caste, inter-faith love marriages amongst heterosexual couples cause such consternation, can you imagine the alarm bells ringing over the very idea of marriage equality?

Nobody can predict which way the courts will rule. But to listen to the proceedings, is to hear the story of a nation where people fall in love and dream of building lives and setting up their own families. It is to hear of what senior advocate Saurabh Kirpal calls “lavender marriages”, where gay men are married off to women under family pressure.

It tells you that people don’t want to lead these duplicitous lives any longer. It tells you that we don’t choose our sexual orientation any more than we choose to be right-handed or left. It tells you that love just happens, and you can only hope that it will find a way.

Namita Bhandare writes on gender.

The views expressed are personal.

Demo title

Couples who wish to marry under the Special Marriage Act must serve a 30-day notice during which their personal details are on public display. This violates their privacy and leaves many vulnerable to parental and community reprisal.

The police met her, her partner and her father to conduct an ‘inquiry’. Why get married in court? Was the father ok with her decision? Fortunately for ‘S’, he was, even though the Act does not require parental permission, only consenting adults.

“In Uttar Pradesh it is routine to call couples and often their parents to the police station, particularly in cases of inter-religious marriages,” said Lucknow-based lawyer Renu Mishra.

Enacted in 1954, the SMA was for those who wished to marry outside their religion’s personal laws and customs, caste and, often, parental consent.