Top Indian female wrestler quits in protest over new president of wrestling body

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – A top Indian female wrestler announced on Thursday she was quitting in protest after the country’s wrestling federation elected a new president backed by his predecessor, who has been accused of sexually harassing women athletes.

Sakshi Malik, who won the women’s 58 kg freestyle bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympics, had led protests earlier this year against Brij Bhushan Singh, the former chief of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), in a case that drew international headlines and cast a spotlight on the safety of women athletes in India.

Malik, 31, announced her decision to retire from the sport immediately after Sanjay Singh was elected as the WFI’s new president.

Brij Bhushan Singh, who is also a federal lawmaker from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was charged in June with sexually harassing six female wrestlers during his tenure.

He has rejected all the charges against him. His case is pending before the trial court, BJP officials have said.

“We slept for 40 days on the roads and a lot of people from several parts of the country came to support us,” Malik told a news conference in New Delhi, referring to the protests earlier this year.

“If Brij Bhushan Singh’s business partner and a close aide is elected as the president of WFI, I quit wrestling”, she said before leaving the venue with tears in her eyes.

Asked by reporters on Thursday about Malik’s decision to quit, Brij Bhushan Singh said, “I have nothing to do with it.”

In recent months Singh actively campaigned for Sanjay Singh to replace him and predicted his victory to the local press. Sanjay Singh was not available for comment about his ties with Brij Bhushan Singh.

Sanjay Singh told local media he was committed to support wrestlers who had suffered a setback in recent months. He did not comment on Malik’s decision.

Malik and other wrestlers held their first protest in January but called it off that month after Brij Bhushan Singh was stripped of his administrative powers by the sports ministry and the government promised to investigate the complaints.

But the athletes resumed their protest in April after the government did not disclose the findings from a panel that investigated the allegations.

United World Wrestling (UWW), the game’s governing body which had suspended the WFI after the scandal, was not immediately available for comment on Thursday.

The WFI missed the August deadline to appoint a new president, forcing Indian wrestlers to compete as neutral athletes in global events.

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