The wrestlers’ protests can save the akhada

In the patriarchal dustbowl of India, sport has been the key to transforming the lives of girls. Now, a generation of girls stands to lose what their predecessors laid out for them

A prolonged protest could derail the progress of the past few years. The website Scroll reports that the wrestlers’ agitation has already resulted in many budding female wrestlers rethinking their careers. A whole generation of girls in sport stand to lose what their predecessors laid out, despite the challenges, for them. (ANI)

It’s a question the women wrestlers do not want to consider: What if you lose? “But we will not,” Sakshi Malik says firmly. “It may take time, but we will win.”

Vinesh Phogat is a bit more cautious. “I have no idea what will happen,” she admits, “But I can tell you that we will not go from here.”

“Here” is the protest site at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, barely 100 metres from the government house allotted to Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, six-time Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament and current head of the Wrestling Federation of India, who has been accused by at least seven women, including a minor, of sexual harassment.

The unprecedented protest began in January. Then, reassured by the government that their complaint would be looked into, the wrestlers went home. Nothing happened. The findings of a committee set up to look into the issue were not made public. The police refused to file a first information report (FIR). And so, the women went to the Supreme Court to get the police to file two FIRS, but this time, they say, they won’t go home till they get justice.

These are India’s most decorated athletes —Sakshi is the first female wrestler to win an Olympic medal; Vinesh is a world champion with golds at the Commonwealth and Asian games. They have everything to lose. Vinesh is worried that the protest might not leave her with enough time to train for the Asian Games. “It’s a big risk for me to protest,” she says. “But something has to change. We tolerated so much. Now when we can speak and fight, why should we continue to be silent? We owe it to so many young girls.”

We are speaking in a cordoned-off area at the protest site that gives the wrestlers a semblance of privacy and a chance to rest. It’s a little after lunch and Sakshi’s mother-in-law and her sister speak quietly among themselves. Further off on the mattresses, Vinesh scrolls through her phone. And still farther, Bajrang Punia gamely poses for selfies with various khap panchayat leaders from Sonepat, Rohtak and Charkhi Dadari who urge “our daughters” to fight.

Outside, there’s a small queue of people awaiting their turn on the mike. “These girls have brought glory to the nation. They must get justice. If not, the nation’s women will come here and register their protest,” says one woman who describes herself a social worker.

A decade earlier such a protest would have been unimaginable. Who could have ever imagined that khap panchayats, with their rigid rules about gotra, marriage and women’s place in society, would throw their muscle behind women fighting for justice?

A decade earlier who could have imagined that these women would have spoken up about sexual harassment and the abuse of power in a hierarchical structure which puts administrators ahead of athletes?

A decade earlier who could have imagined that women could even wrestle, travel the world, win medals for India and become stars in their own right?

When she began training at age six in 2001, Vinesh had the support of her family but the neighbours couldn’t understand why her uncle, the legendary Mahavir Singh Phogat, was encouraging his daughters and nieces to train at his akhada. “Today, people accept that girls should play. Not just in Haryana, but also in Rajasthan, Delhi, western Uttar Pradesh, Punjab,” Vinesh says.

Phogat’s akhada in Balali was the first in any village that allowed women to wrestle, writes Rudraneil Sengupta in his 2016 book, Enter the Dangal: Travels through India’s wrestling landscape. “It happened so fast,” Sengupta says, “Now, every small village has an akhada that is open to girls.”

This, more than medals, is what the women have achieved. They’ve been role models to a new generation of young girls in dusty villages and the bylanes of slums who can dare to dream and aspire because they showed the way.

In the patriarchal dustbowl of India, sport has been the key to transforming the lives of girls. Haryana does poorly on many gender indices, including its infamous sex ratio, but Haryanvi parents recognise that doing well in sport can lead to good jobs, including coveted government jobs. And so, in a state where the ghunghat is still observed in the villages, girls are encouraged to play sport, bringing glory, cash, medals and honour to themselves, their villages and the country.

Not all girls bring medals. And yet the simple concept of girls playing sport is nothing short of revolutionary.

Even after parents are won over, girls must still fight stereotype and scoffing neighbours; scrap for basic infrastructure and ignore the empty stands; dodge shifty administrators and handsy coaches. Despite the profusion of role models in women’s sport, a 2021 UNDP report found that only 1% of girls in rural areas wanted to take up sport professionally.

A prolonged protest and its outcome are likely to have a major impact. Already, reports the website Scroll, the ongoing agitation has led many budding female wrestlers to rethink their careers. A whole generation of girls in sport stands to lose what their predecessors laid out for them.

Finally, Vinesh answers my question. What if you lose?

“Then every girl will lose,” she says.

Namita Bhandare writes on gender The views expressed are personal

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