Top Indian wrestler accuses government of silence over sexual harassment probe

By Rupam Jain

SONIPAT, India (Reuters) – An Olympic wrestler on Saturday criticised the pace of a police inquiry into sexual harassment accusations against the chief of India’s national wrestling body.

Vinesh Phogat, a two-time Olympian who has accused Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh of sexually abusing her, said she has also been hurt by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence on the issue.

Phogat is one of seven female athletes to have lodged a police case against Singh accusing him of sexually harassing them.

Singh, who is also a federal lawmaker from Modi’s ruling party, has denied allegations of making sexual advances, groping and threatening female athletes if they refused to meet him alone.

“I have only felt a deep sense of humiliation since I mustered the courage to protest,” Phogat told Reuters in her first interview since she and fellow wrestlers were forced out of a protest site by the police last month.

Delhi Police have filed two cases against Singh, including one under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act.

Phogat, 28, who is the first Indian female wrestler to win both the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games gold, claims that during training camps and tournaments Singh would use “every possible way to single out young athletes and grope them repeatedly”.

“It was the same disgusting pattern over and over again and I am among the victims,” she said at her residence in northern Haryana state.

In her police complaint, seen by Reuters, Phogat said she contemplated suicide after the “mental trauma” but felt reinvigorated after a 2021 meeting with Modi, who promised to look into the complaints by the female wrestlers.

“It’s been emotionally draining, the PM has not said anything about this case,” Phogat said.

She said the accusers had also complained to Sports Minister Anurag Thakur in “greater detail”.

“But he (Thakur) was not just interested in listening to my concerns…he was busy on his phone when I was talking to him,” said Phogat.

Thakur and Modi’s office were not immediately available for comment.

A lawyer and close aide to Singh said all the allegations were fake and fabricated by women to tarnish the chief’s career.

“The fact that no one was listening to us forced me and others to start a public protest as we wanted the nation to know how top athletes were being mistreated,” Phogat said.

The wrestlers took to the streets in January but withdrew the protest after Singh was stripped of all administrative power at the WFI.

They resumed their protest on April 23, but several of them were briefly detained and the protest site was forcibly cleared on May 28.

Images of the athletes being dragged away and carried off in buses went viral, sparking criticism from top athletes and opposition politicians.

The wrestlers also threatened to throw their medals into the Ganges – India’s holiest river – before agreeing to meeting with Home Minister Amit Shah and later with the sports minister.

Thakur subsequently said the police would complete their investigation by June 15 and requested the wrestlers not to demonstrate until then.

“We wanted Singh to be dragged out of his home, but because he is a powerful man he is roaming around and we are being told to sit at home,” an emotional Phogat said.

Singh is scheduled to hold a public rally in his political constituency on Sunday.

The International Olympic Committee has condemned the detainment of the wrestlers and criticised the “lack of results” in the investigation.

(This story has been corrected to amend a quote in paragraph 5)

(Reporting by Rupam Jain; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty, Mike Harrison and Frances Kerry)