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SILENCED WARRIORS: UNMASKING CORRUPTION AND DEMOCRACY'S STRUGGLE AGAINST POLITICAL POWER

Author: Khushi Chopra, II year of B.A.,LL.B.(Hons.) from Institute of Law, Nirma University, Ahmedabad


“One of the cherished aspects of the political life in India is a tradition to express grievances through direct action or peaceful protest. Organised, non-violent protests were a key weapon in the struggle for independence, and the right to protest is now recognized as a fundamental right in the Constitution”- the Supreme Court ruled out in the landmark judgment of Anita Thakur vs State of Jammu and Kashmir[i].

Sadly, this much ‘cherished aspect’ of Indian Political life is fading nowadays as the current government - under the influence or fear of a few politicians - is determined to snatch the right to protest from its citizens in matters which tend to go against them. It was 18th January when the wrestlers staged a protest on Jantar Mantar after which it again sparked in April post the non-disclosure of the oversight committee’s report on this matter by the sports ministry.[ii]Since then, the wrestlers are pinned to the floor protesting their demands of resignation and subsequent arrest of the six-times MP and three-times WFI’s chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh by accusing him of sexually harassing female wrestlers by taking advantage of his position and power.[iii] These voices are perpetually ignored by the government let alone addressed, instead, there have been several attempts by the ruling party to curb the protest through the use of the executive such as police, law enforcement and investigation agencies as well as manifesting control over the judiciary.

Three of the country’s top wrestlers - olympic medalists Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia and two-time world champion medalist VineshPhogat - are leading this protest. In an interview, they revealed that protest was not the way forward for them initially in January when they sought to resolve this sensitive matter through the doors of the judiciary, but because of the disability of this handicapped system whose command is in the hands of powerful politicians such as Brij Bhushan, they were forced to take up this matter in front ofpublic after three months.They had this hope that they would be heard because they were someone who have earned medals for the country,thus expected to have a certain say and respect in society because of their achievements. But their only fault was that they had trusted the fallacies of the politicians who have the tendency to suddenly appear for them when they achieve something to take all the ‘credits’ or so to say votes. The wrestlers are being punished for demanding justice and inculcating fear in the minds of the country’s top wrestlerscreates a domino effect of hopelessness and mistrust amongst the common citizens as well. This shatters the very essence of a democracy which makes one of the protesting wrestlers VineshPhogat, representing the voice of millions of oppressed women, wonder if India is a dictatorship disguised as a democracy.[iv]

A total of two FIRs have been filed in this matter against the accused after several efforts including an order by the SC, initially, the Delhi police refused to file the FIRs without a prior probe.[v] However, for the grievous offenses which he has been accused of, filing an FIR is a mandate i.e. u/s 8 of the POCSO Act and sections 354, 354A and 354D of IPC.[vi]Section 8 of the POCSO Act provides punishment for sexual assault, which is punishable with imprisonment from three years to five years; the second FIR is under Section 354 IPC (assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty, that is punishable with imprisonment from one to five years), Section 354A IPC (sexual harassment and punishment for sexual harassment, that is punishable with imprisonment that may extend to one year) and Section 354D (stalking, that is punishable with imprisonment that may extend to one year).[vii]

Apart from these allegations, Brij Bhushan is a history-sheeterwho has about forty criminal cases alongside his name in cases of rioting to murder. In 1990, he was arrested under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act and jailed for giving shelter to people associated with Dawood Ibrahim.[viii] In relation to the present case, apart from denying the claims on their face, he had insulted the medals of wrestlers by saying that “they can easily be bought for Rs.15”, in the row when wrestlers were going to immerse them in the Ganges. He had the audacity to propose a rally with “the blessings of the sadhus” to repeal and amend the same act under which he was accusedi.e. POCSO, by hinting that these laws to protect children and women are being misused.It is mandatory for public institutions and organisations such as the WFI to constitute a sexual harassment committeethat has not been implemented efficiently and even if they are, politicians such as Brij Bhushan try to gain active control over their functioning. In the present case, the victims were denied justice and also threatened to complain further.

This poses a serious question on the principles of a party and government that claims to be honest, integral and fearless, which couldremove big ministers and influential journalistsin the blink of an eye, be tormented by Brij Bhushan. One obvious reason is obviouslythe vote bank politics primarily in Singh’s constituency, Gonda.But if BJP could gather majority votes in the name of Modi, then what dire need was there to save this man and spoil the party’s image as a whole? Why is the ruling party helpless in front of a ‘mere’ politician?

In a recent incident, the police scrapped off by detaining the wrestlers and prohibiting the wrestlers from protesting at Jantar Mantar after they were preparing to participate in the ‘Mahila Samman Mahapanchayat’ in front of the new parliament building following its inauguration on 28th June. They were shoved into buses, the police officers cleared the protest site by removing their belongings such as tarpaulin, mattresses, and fans. Paradoxically, the wrestlers themselves were arrested for rioting, unlawful assembly, and obstructing public servants from performing their duty. FIRs were lodged against them within seven hours of this incident however, it took seven days for an FIR to be filed against Brij Bhushan. The wrestlers are wrongly accused by such people of acting politically in their self-interest against the new policies of change in selection rules i.e. through trial for participating in national competitions. Justice Madan Lokur opined, “How terrible is the attitude of the police that instead of seriously investigating the FIR against the alleged perpetrator of a sexual offence, the victims who are national heroes now have an FIR against them.”[ix]

Such incidents by the corrupted police officials are condemnable and are criticized collectively by thecivil society, activists, other athletes and sportspersons, political parties, NGOs,khap panchayats, leaders of farmers’ protests, and organisations such as International Olympic Committee[x], United World Wrestling, etc. as a violation to human rights and the fundamental right to protest which is enshrined in the Indian constitution. Some prominent names who stood up in support of the protest and the wrestlers include Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal, Mamta Bannerjee, Neeraj Chopra and Geeta Phogat.Such actions by the executive and investigation agencies raise suspicion over further processing of this case.

It seems from the sports minister Anurag Thakur’s remark that government is least bothered about the cause for which wrestlers are protesting when he said, “Don’t take any steps that could undermine sports.” This was made a day after they tried to immerse their medals in river Ganga. The sheer dedication and courage of wrestlers has made them put their wrestling career on stake for the sake of justice. This also poses a risk for India’s Olympic Dream because if India’s most compatible wrestlers are protesting at Jantar Mantar and not practicing when the most crucial wrestling tournaments such as the World Championships and the Asian Games are just three months away, then who’ll bag medals for the country. These repercussions are being considered by the protesting wrestlers as Bajrang Punia said, “the entire country has pinned its hopes on us to get another medal - and we really want to - but here we are, sitting for 30 days with no resolution.”[xi]Regardless, the wrestlers have acted with resilience and determination like ‘Silenced Warriors’. They soon realized the hollowness of political promises of the government after initially trying to seek justice through the judiciary, only to be let down by the flawed system which forced them to take their fight in public.

The law must be blind in its application without being influenced by the politics and judiciary’s nexus by imparting justice irrespective of the status and influence of the accused.As this protest is gaining more and more support of people and opposition, the supporters of Brij Bhushan came up with the allegation that this matter is turning political in nature which apparently points at a ‘political objective’ to the same. But if not this, then what kind of matters should be taken up? Is the ruling party trying to avoid such crucial issues that need to be politicised and discussed upon by diverting the voters’ attention to communal and nationalist agendas to hide the government’s inadequacies?

Going forward, this issue has far more significance in the realm of contemporary Indian politics than it is being broadcasted by the weakened fourth estate. From equality of justice for all to equal protection of legal and political institutions, from curbing the right to protest to controlling press freedom, plenty of issues arise out of this protest which need to be debated upon in the parliament and addressed by the government before the upcoming elections.The mainstream media acts as a propaganda machine and the executive as a tool to constrain civil liberties rather than an instrument to impart justice. Such hollowness of the system has a trickle-down effect on how people and gradually the whole world perceive the country’s overall status as “the biggest democracy”. This matter is not limited between Brij Bhushan and the wrestlers or the victims, but the bigger question is who will win in the race between democracy and corrupted political power.

[i]Anita Thakur v. State of J&K, (2016) 15 SCC 525 [ii]https://www.hindustantimes.com/sports/others/wrestlers-protest-a-timeline-101682701099443.html [iii]Sharat Pradhan, 2024 is the reason why WFI chief Brij Bhushan remains protected, Times of India (May 5, 2023), https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/why-wfi-chief-brij-bhushan-sharan-singh-hasnt-been-fired-yet/articleshow/100007803.cms?from=mdr. [iv]https://www.hindustantimes.com/sports/others/bajrang-punia-vinesh-phogat-lead-top-indian-wrestlers-protest-against-wfi-president-s-dictatorship-101674031980255.html [v]Nandita Haksar, Wrestlers protest shows how Indian law is a tool of oppression rather than an instrument of justice, (May 29, 2023), https://scroll.in/article/1049932/wrestlers-protest-shows-how-indian-law-is-a-tool-of-oppression-rather-than-an-instrument-of-justice. [vi]Mekhala Saran, Wrestlers' Protest: Can Delhi Police Action Stand Legal Scrutiny?, (May 31, 2023), https://www.thequint.com/news/law/wrestlers-protest-delhi-police-action-fir-legal-analysis. [vii]The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, §8 The Indian Penal Code, 1860, §354, §354A and §354D [viii]Saba Naqvi, Saba Naqvi: Does ‘Mirzapur’ defame UP? If you’d met the dons I have, you’d know how bad it really is, (Jan. 23, 2021), https://scroll.in/article/984844/saba-naqvi-does-mirzapur-defame-up-if-youd-met-the-dons-i-have-youd-know-how-bad-it-really-is. [ix]Supra. [x]BBC News, Wrestlers' protest: IOC says police action against Indian athletes very disturbing, BBC News (May 31, 2023), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-65762495. [xi]Zoya Mateen, VineshPhogat at Jantar Mantar: India wrestlers risk Olympic dream for '#MeToo' protest, BBC News (May 22, 2023), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-65630952.

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