regular-article-logo Wednesday, 24 April 2024

Bajrang Punia writes to PM Modi, returns Padma Shri medal as Brij Bhushan’s aide becomes WFI chief

I am putting my medal on the letter written to PM Modi. I will not take this medal back home, says Punia

Imran Ahmed Siddiqui New Delhi Published 23.12.23, 06:04 AM
Wrestler Bajrang Punia holds his Padma Shri award near the Kartavya Path in New Delhi on Friday.

Wrestler Bajrang Punia holds his Padma Shri award near the Kartavya Path in New Delhi on Friday. PTI picture.

Olympic wrestling medallist Bajrang Punia on Friday wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying he was returning his Padma Shri in protest against the election of Sanjay Singh, an alleged loyalist of BJP parliamentarian and sexual harassment accused Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, as Wrestling Federation of India president.

Around 5pm, police stopped Punia on Kartavya Path (Rajpath) as he headed for Parliament to meet Modi and hand over his Padma Shri medal and the letter. The wrestler then placed the medal on the pavement.


“I am putting my medal on the letter written to PM Modi. I will not take this medal back home,” he told reporters. The police picked up both the letter and the medal.

On Thursday, a tearful Olympic medallist Sakshi Malik, 31, had announced her retirement from wrestling in protest at Sanjay Singh’s election a few hours earlier.

Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra interacts with wrestler Sakshi Malik and others in New Delhi on Friday.

Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra interacts with wrestler Sakshi Malik and others in New Delhi on Friday. PTI picture

Several top men and women wrestlers had protested at Jantar Mantar for weeks earlier this year against Brij Bhushan, then WFI chief, accusing him of sexually harassing women wrestlers. After the protest was forcibly broken up, some of them had travelled to Haridwar to toss their medals into the Ganga but were dissuaded by well-wishers.

Punia’s open letter to Modi, written in Hindi, says: “I can’t live my life as a Padma Shri awardee while our women wrestlers are insulted. Hence I return this award to you.”

It adds: “Sports have empowered our women athletes and changed their lives but the situation is such that the women who could have been the brand ambassadors of Beti Bachao Beti Padhao are now leaving the sport. And we, the wrestlers who were awarded, could not do anything.”

Referring to Sanjay Singh’s election, Punia’s letter says: “We shed tears the entire night. We did not understand what to do or where to go. The government has given us a lot. I was conferred with the Padma Shri in 2019 and I also received the Arjuna and Khel Ratna awards. When I got these awards, I was on cloud nine. But today the sadness weighs more and the reason is a women wrestler left the sport because of (fears over) her security.”

Punia had on Thursday accused the government of going back on “its word that no Brij Bhushan loyalist would contest the WFI polls”.

The wrestler has posted the three-page letter, addressed to Modi, on X saying: “I am returning my Padma Shri award to the Prime Minister. This is my letter to announce that.”

When the police stopped him on Kartavya Path and asked whether he had permission to go to Parliament, Punia had said: “No, I don’t have permission. If you can, please forward this letter to the PM because I cannot go inside. I am not protesting nor being aggressive.”

He told reporters: “When I reflect on this day, these medals and awards hurt me. I wonder why we were even given these since, when we fought for our daughters and sisters, we failed. I feel that I am not fit for this award. The federation was formed to support the players, not to demean and push them to the extreme of retirement.”

Punia’s letter says: “Dear PM Ji, hope your health is well. You must be busy in the service of the nation but I am writing this to draw your attention to the wrestlers of the country.

“You must be aware that the women wrestlers of the country started a protest in January this year against Brij Bhushan Singh accusing him of grave sexual harassment. I too joined the protest. The protesting wrestlers returned to their homes only after the government promised strong action.

“But there was no FIR against Brij Bhushan even after three months. We again took to the streets in April so that the Delhi police would at least file an FIR against him. There were 19 complaints in January but the number had come down to 7 by April. This means Brij Bhushan exerted his influence and power and forced the other 12 women wrestlers to abandon their protest.”

The Delhi police, who report to the Union home ministry, eventually did register an FIR against Brij Bhushan after being prodded by the Supreme Court, but the MP was never arrested.

“Our protest continued for 40 days. There was so much pressure on us during those days. Our protest site was vandalised and we were dragged out of Delhi and not allowed to protest any more,” the letter says.

“We did not know what to do next, so we went to immerse our medals in the Ganga. There we were stopped by farmer leaders and (wrestling) coaches. At that time a responsible minister from your cabinet called us up and assured us justice. We also met the Union home minister, who too promised us justice. So we stopped our protest.”

On May 28, the Delhi police had roughed up the protesting wrestlers and dragged them away from their Jantar Mantar protest site while Modi was inaugurating the new Parliament building.

“But in the election of the WFI on December 21, the federation came under Brij Bhushan once again,” the letter says, alluding to Sanjay Singh’s election.

“A sexual harassment accused said he would prevail over the federation like he had always done. Coming under tremendous pressure and mental strain, Sakshi Malik announced her retirement from wrestling.”

On Thursday, addressing a news conference in Delhi, an emotional Sakshi had placed her shoes on the table, announced her retirement and walked out in tears.

Delhi Aam Aadmi Party MLA Durgesh Pathak, a member of the party’s political affairs committee, told reporters that when wrestlers win medals, the entire BJP basks in their glory.

“They put up their photos on billboards, trying to show the world that Prime Minister Narendra Modi also had a hand in the victory. As if Modiji also shared a few tactics on how to wrestle,” he said. “But now, when they have been struggling for the past year, no one has stood by them. Only the common people of this country stood with them.”

Flagging most of the wrestlers’ background as farmers, he said he was waiting to see “whether farmer and Vice-President Jagdeep Dhankhar breaks his silence on this, as farmers have faced oppression”.

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