Legend has it that six decades ago, a young Muhammad Ali had tossed his Olympic gold medal into the River Ohio or wanted to do so in a protest against racism in America.
On Tuesday, India’s protesting wrestlers were stopped from throwing their medals into the Ganga in Haridwar, which they had decided to do in disgust at a dispensation that used their badges of honour “as a mask for its own publicity campaign”.
Farmer leader Naresh Tikait, who dissuaded them, gave the Centre five days to act on the wrestlers’ demand to arrest Wrestling Federation of India chief and BJP parliamentarian Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh on sexual harassment charges.
In a Hindi statement earlier in the day, the country’s top wrestlers including Sakshi Malik, Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia had criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Droupadi Murmu for failing to show concern for their plight or act against Singh.
“We don’t want these medals now because by making us wear them this shiny system is using it as a mask for its own publicity campaign while exploiting us. And when we speak against this exploitation it prepares to send us to jail,” the statement said.
The wrestlers said they would immerse their medals in the Ganga in Haridwar at 6pm and sit on a hunger strike “until death” at the India Gate in Delhi.
“These medals are our lives, our soul. There will be no meaning to our lives after immersing these medals in the Ganga. That’s why we will sit on hunger strike unto death at India Gate. India Gate is a place for our martyrs who laid down their lives for this country. We are not as great and pure as those soldiers but when we represented this country on the international stage, we shared their emotions,” the statement said.
Delhi police said the wrestlers would not be allowed to protest at India Gate.
The wrestlers arrived in the Uttarakhand pilgrimage town at 5pm with hundreds of supporters and sat on the banks of the river, holding their medals and citations, ready to throw them into the Ganga. But they were stopped by Tikait, who had come over after learning of their plan.
Vinesh is a world champion while Bajrang and Sakshi are Olympic bronze medallists.
On Sunday, Delhi police had roughed up several of the protesting men and women wrestlers, including Sakshi, Punia and Phogat, pinning some of them to the ground before dragging them away and detaining them while Modi was inaugurating the new Parliament building barely 1.5km away.
In their joint statement, put out on their respective Twitter handles, the wrestlers said that throughout the whole of Monday, “some of our women wrestlers” had hidden themselves in agricultural fields, apparently fearing further police action.
They said the Prime Minister “who calls us our daughters” had not once shown his concern for them. “Rather, he invited our ‘oppressor’ (Singh) to the inauguration of the new Parliament building.”
Taking a dig at Modi’s Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaign, the wrestlers said: “Where is our place in this shiny system? Where is the place for the daughters of India? Have we been reduced to slogans or election agendas to come to power?”
The statement added: “Now we feel there is no meaning and value to these medals adorning our necks. First, it used to seem unthinkable to even consider returning these medals, but as things stand now, how do we even live compromising our dignity and self-respect?
“The next question was — who do we return these medals to? Do we return these to our President, who is herself a woman? But our heart said no, because she resides barely 2km away from where we were protesting and she did nothing and just watched and said nothing.
“Do we return (the medals) to our Prime Minister who once called us his daughters? Our heart said ‘no’, because he never came to speak to his daughters. Rather, he invited our oppressor to the inauguration of the new Parliament building. He even posed for photographs in bright and shiny white clothes as if he was telling us that he is the system. We have been stained by this brightness.
“We are going to immerse these medals in Mother Ganga. Just as we consider Ganga to be pure, we have won these medals with the same purity as the holy Ganga. These medals are holy for the entire country and there can’t be a better place to keep them than the holy Ganga rather than their acting as a mask for the unholy system that took advantage of them and now is siding with the wrongdoer.”
The wrestlers’ statement continued: “You all saw what happened with us on May 28, you saw the way police behaved with us and how they arrested us with brutality. We were protesting peacefully. Our protest site was destroyed and snatched from us by the police and the next day they even filed FIRs against us under serious IPC sections.”
The charges in the FIRs include rioting.
“Have the women wrestlers committed a crime by asking for justice even after being sexually harassed? The police and the system are behaving as though we are criminals, whereas the actual harasser is making fun of us and is making women wrestlers uncomfortable and laughing at them. He is even talking of wanting to bring changes to the Pocso Act.”
Singh faces charges under the Indian Penal Code as well as the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (Pocso) Act because one of his seven accusers is a minor.
“We women wrestlers feel there is nothing left for us in this country as the system has treated us cheaply. We’re reminded of the moment when we won Olympic and World Championships medals. Now we feel, why did we win them, did we win them so that the system behaves so cheaply with us? They dragged us and then made us criminals.
“The system should have arrested the actual oppressor but this system is going after the victims to force us to end our protest, to break and intimidate us.
“This dirty system is doing its job, we are doing ours. Now people must decide who they want to side with — its daughters or that shiny white system that abuses them.”
CPI parliamentarian Binoy Viswam on Tuesday wrote to Modi seeking justice for the women wrestlers and saying “it hurts the nation immensely to see them in such pain”.
“These wrestlers have inspired thousands to break barriers and go after their dreams. In protecting an MP from your party, your regime is stomping over all those dreams,” he wrote.”
As for Ali, he himself gave different accounts of his act, and according to some authorities he had simply lost the medal. In 1996, the International Olympic Committee replaced the medal, 36 years after Ali had won it at the Rome Olympics.
World body threat
United World Wrestling, the world body that governs amateur wrestling, has condemned the treatment of the wrestlers and threatened to suspend India if the WFI elections were not held within 45 days, news agency ANI tweeted. The UWW urged Indian authorities to conduct an impartial investigation into the allegations against Singh.