Delhi police on Sunday roughed up several of India’s protesting wrestlers, pushing some of them to the ground before dragging them away and detaining them, the action unfolding barely 1.5km from where Prime Minister Narendra Modi was inaugurating the new “temple of democracy”.
Taken away on buses to police stations around midday, the men and women wrestlers — protesting at Jantar Mantar for over a month demanding that their federation chief and BJP parliamentarian Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh be arrested on sexual harassment charges — were still in custody by 11pm.
The police acted as the wrestlers — who included Olympic medallists Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia and Asian Games champion Vinesh Phogat — and their supporters tried to march to the new Parliament to stage a Mahila Panchayat (women’s assembly).
Late in the evening, a police officer refused to rule out arrests and accused the wrestlers of “anti-national activities on the historic day of inauguration of the new Parliament building by Prime Minister Modi”.
New agency ANI quoted the Delhi police to tweet at 10.18pm that an FIR had been filed “against protest organisers and others” under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections 147, 149, 186, 188, 332, 353 and Section 3 of the PDPP Act.
The charges include rioting, assault or criminal force on a public servant, voluntarily causing hurt to a public servant and damage to public property, punishable by up to three years in jail.
The Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) slammed the Narendra Modi government’s “cowardly” action while over 1,150 people including activists, lawyers, academics, former civil servants, artists and concerned citizens released a statement condemning the “brutal” police crackdown.
The administration had since last night barricaded Delhi’s borders and stopped thousands of farmers in Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh from travelling to Delhi to participate in the Mahila Panchayat, for which the SKM had expressed support.
At Jantar Mantar, Tricolour-wielding wrestlers and their supporters tried to protect one another as the police scuffled with them. Vinesh, surrounded by police, provided strong resistance and a woman grappler, wrestled to the ground by policewomen, clung to her while lying on the road holding the national flag.
Vinesh broke down while being dragged by policewomen to a bus. “Brij Bhushan Singh is roaming free, he is being given shelter by the government and we athletes who won medals for the country are now being put in jail for demanding justice for the country’s daughters,” she said.
“Welcome to the new country,” she said from the bus window.
By the end of an hour, the police had dragged and lifted the wrestlers and their supporters into buses and driven them to various police stations. The police also removed all the mats, cots, tents and coolers from the protest site.
Sakshi tweeted a video of the police’s action and said: “Sad day for Indian sports. Was it a crime to bring medals for the country? If yes, then hang us.... This is how our champions are being treated. The world is watching us.”
The police said the wrestlers had broken barricades and violated law and order — an allegation the wrestlers denied.
In a video message in Hindi, Phogat said that “democracy is being murdered openly at Jantar Mantar” and that the nation would remember how “women who were demanding their rights were suppressed when the Prime Minister was inaugurating the new Parliament”.
A police officer said the force would “take legal action (against the wrestlers) after an inquiry”.
He added: “We had urged the wrestlers to not indulge in anti-national activities on the historic day of inauguration of the new Parliament building by Prime Minister Modi. It is an important day for our country and a proud moment. So any type of agitation or march on this day is anti-national. We respect and love our athletes but can’t allow them to break law and order.”
Bajrang said that grave injustice was being meted out to the wrestlers for demanding justice. “Over 2,000 of our supporters were detained. Everywhere dictatorship is going on,” he tweeted.
Earlier, he had told reporters: “The accused has such audacity that he is talking about changing the Pocso Act and you are doing nothing against him and here are athletes who are demanding justice with folded hands and you are ill-treating them.”
The Delhi police last month registered two FIRs against Singh following a prod from the Supreme Court after seven wrestlers, including a minor, filed complaints against him.
The first FIR, registered on a complaint from a minor wrestler, invoked the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (Pocso) Act, and the second, based on complaints from adult women wrestlers, invoked the Indian Penal Code’s provisions against sexual harassment and misconduct. Singh has denied all the allegations.
Earlier in the morning, Malik had appealed to the international wrestling fraternity to support the protest.
“To all my international fraternity. Our Prime Minister is inaugurating our new Parliament. But on the other hand, our supporters have been arrested for supporting us. By arresting people how we can call us ‘mother of democracy’. India’s daughters are in pain,” she had tweeted.
The Samyukta Kisan Morcha — spearhead of the 2020-21 farmer protest against three farm laws — condemned the “shameful attack on wrestlers, farmers and women” and termed it a “black day for Indian democracy”.