Growing support for the protesting wrestlers appears to be a positive sign. It indicates how large numbers of people feel: their desire for justice, their outrage at the physical hardships being forced on the protesters and the police violence, their pride in young women from non-urban backgrounds who have made the country proud with their hard-won feats. The situation has at its centre women, one a minor, who complained about sexual harassment against the man in charge. But why should they need support at all? They have complained against an alleged crime; why must they sit in protest as though there is no process of law? That is a bigger issue than public support, which has nothing to do with the justice process. What the support, welcome and wonderful as it may be, does is to bring in a thousand other factors into play — political, social, economic. It pits the State against the people, emphasising government inaction and its weaponising of the police, thus creating a gripping theatre where the alleged crime, its gravity and impact on the women become a thumbnail sketch. The trigger certainly, but thumbnail, nonetheless.
That diminishes the searing effects of sexual violence and male sexual entitlement which define relationships in Indian society. That the wrestlers are exceptional in their achievements for the nation makes this clearer. Their struggle to be heard through incredible odds is almost emblematic of society’s normalisation of sexual oppression. Against this are publicised images of the accused surrounded by sadhus, with senior leaders of the majority religion calling him a ‘religious’ man who has been needlessly drawn into a ‘controversy’. The presence of sadhus during the inauguration of the new Parliament building put the official seal on their importance in the country. Their rhetoric, reducing alleged sexual harassment to a needless controversy, is thus a marker of the institutionalised degradation of women that the Narendra Modi-led government supports, manifested as it often is in the treatment of victims of gang rape or in the freeing of the convicts in the Bilkis Bano case. The government’s silence — where is the protest from present sports heroes that the people adore? — is a perfect match for the sadhus’ smug rhetoric that associates being ‘religious’ with being above the law. It is a great tragedy that it is necessary to welcome the support that the protesting wrestlers are getting today.