The young wrestlers were warming up at Jantar Mantar, their mentors and coaches following up with them from time to time. The men in uniform were also taking up their positions around the barricades, keeping their rifles steady. A few people with cameras and mikes had started gathering, many of them YouTubers, independent journalists, or just enthusiasts. As the day went by, the crowd grew — a group of women from Haryana marched in; another group of farmers from western Uttar Pradesh arrived; there was a rally of industrial employees, agricultural workers, and a few political leaders; students from Delhi andits surroundings came a little later, their colourful rally had the loudest chants.
The dharna has started its proceedings by now. Sometimes, the wrestlers are chairing the meeting; at times, the coaches are taking charge. Kisan and trade union leaders are also volunteering in managing the stage and the speakers. People are expressing solidarity in their own way: some are agitated, some are grieving, and some are singing their rage away.
The protest stage of the wrestlers at Jantar Mantar has been buzzing, with new hands joining them every day. What is the protest all about? Is it against sexual harassment? Against institutional impunity? Or is it more complex than what it appears to be?
Vinesh Phogat was in her early 20s when she won a medal and broke into tears as she saw the Tricolour being hoisted. Vinesh was also one of the first wrestlers to raise uncomfortable questions from the dharna manch. She asked what stops cricketers, who expressed their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, from standing with the Indian wrestlers? Is it their brand deals that kept them mum?
Barring a few Olympians and cricketers — Kapil Dev was among them — other top sportspersons have not opened their mouths in support of the protesting wrestlers. P.T. Usha, a Rajya Sabha member nominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the president of the Indian Olympic Association, who had sat on these complaints, brought the overused dagger of ‘honour and discipline’ to counter the protest. She said that the wrestlers had brought “shame” to the country by demanding justice for those who had allegedly been sexually harassed by the chief of the Wrestling Federation of India. Later, she met the protesting wrestlers and said that she had been ‘misquoted’ by the media.
But Usha made two valid points that have their genealogy in the traditional patriarchal system. First, honour is perceived to be tied down to women’s sexuality. Thus, rape as an act of violence not only perpetrates physical harm but also rips apart the ‘honour’ of women and men who fail to protect the victim. The brutalisation is the result of a woman’s ‘misdemeanour’, her choice in dressing, words and conduct. Second, Usha’s usage of ‘shame’ to vilify the protest echoes the regressive idea that the victims are responsible for ensuring their dignity and by failing to do so and, then, demanding justice, they are humiliating the nation. Perpetrators of hate crimes often use this framework to justify their action; interfaith couples are killed and women are burnt to death in the name of ‘honour’ as well. This depraved logic subtly shifts the onus of complicity from the predator to the prey. The reason why India still does not acknowledge marital rape, the reason why more than 50% of the victims of sexual harassment are preyed upon by their close kin, and why formal complaints are not lodged in the majority of cases of sexual harassment can be attributed to the crooked ideas of ‘honour’ and ‘shame’.
The wrestlers’ protest is trending on Twitter; tweets and messages of support are pouring in. But that is not the whole picture. Two other hashtags had also been trending: #standwithPTUsha and #standwithBrijBhushanSingh. The content of the first valourised Usha’s athletic achievements and asked whether these young athletes are even worthy of questioning a ‘senior’ athlete like Usha.
The second hashtag, #standwithBrijBhushanSingh, gives the darkest chapters of India’s social fabric a nudge. One tweet says, “brother-in-law and the sister are sitting in protest with another athlete from the same caste, are their intentions genuine?” Thus, the sporting laurels of the wrestlers were superseded by their social identity. Till the time they served the purpose of theneoliberal Hindutva State, theiridentity was that of an Indian. Butthe moment their actions challenged the authorities or demanded the rights of a citizen, they are immediately reduced to a caste subject. The handles that are posting such content, fake or original, use their ‘Thakur/Kshatriya/Rajput’ identities quite openly in their usernames. Interestingly, the protesting wrestlers mostly hail from the Jat community, whereas the accused, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, is from the Thakur caste. Sports has aided many Jats from rural Haryana to achievesome social and economic mobility. Is it this mobility that the landed, politically powerful Thakurs are contesting?
The love for sports has also paved the way for women to come out and take part in public events. The success of women wrestlers spurred others to craft their own space within and beyond patriarchal geographies. Apart from the pride that they brought to the country, their state and the community, the women wrestlers shaped the aspirations of a younger generation of women to break the proverbial glass ceiling.
The protest by women wrestlers, therefore, must be seen in this broader context. Women’s bodies have always been symbolic sites of control and domination; during conflicts, their bodies become the site of violence. At a time when middle castes such as the Jats are negotiating modernity to attain social and economic mobility, what could be the possible response from the ruling castes? Should the impunity that has been granted to and the support that the accused is getting not be examined in terms of his caste privileges as well as the ideological inclination of the Hindutva brigade?
The differing projections of P.T. Usha and Vinesh Phogat by the Hindutva State in propagating the ideas of the good woman and the bad woman merit attention too. The former — the good woman — brings trophies and serves the political-ideological apparatus of the ruling class; the latter — the bad woman — is the indisciplined rebel who advances her caste interests and brings shame to the nation.
The central slogan of the wrestlers’ protest resonates around gender justice. But it is not limited to that. Bajrang Punia’s appeal to khap panchayats and community-based student organisations’ support to the protest reveal its inherent complexities and dynamics. In a way, the wrestlers are bargaining with the State with all their currencies — their legitimacy as successful Olympians, their mass acceptance as national heroes, and, importantly, their embedded social identity.
Dipsita Dhar is the All India Joint-Secretary of the Students’ Federation of India and is pursuing her PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University