India’s top wrestlers held off from throwing their medals into the country’s sacred Ganges River on Tuesday — as part of an ongoing protest against sexual harassment — after a community leader intervened and persuaded them against doing so.
The wrestlers, who have been demanding the resignation and arrest of the president of the wrestling federation for allegedly sexually harassing young female athletes, had said they would throw their medals into the river and then begin a hunger strike in the capital New Delhi.
The protest is being led by two women — Olympic medalist Sakshi Malik and world championships medalist Vinesh Phogat — as well as Olympic medalist Bajrang Punia, who is male. They reached the city of Haridwar in the evening, sat on the banks of the river and tearfully clutched their medals as a crowd gathered around them.
They changed their mind after Naresh Tikait, a community leader, reached the site and convinced the wrestlers to give the government five days to respond, local media reported.
“These medals are our life and soul. After we immerse them in the Ganga river, there would be no meaning for us to live. So we will go to India Gate and sit on a fast unto death,” the wrestlers had said in a statement released earlier Tuesday. The India Gate is a war memorial located in the heart of New Delhi.
The wrestlers, joined by hundreds of supporters, have been staging a protest in the center of New Delhi for a month, amid a brutal heatwave while foregoing their training schedules. The protest has drawn support from opposition parties and farmer unions as most of the Indian wrestlers come from the northern agricultural states of Haryana and Punjab.
They accuse Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the president of the Wrestling Federation of India, of sexually harassing seven young female wrestlers, one of whom was a minor. Singh, a 66-year-old powerful lawmaker representing the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has denied the accusations and called the protests “politically motivated” by the opposition Congress party.
On Sunday, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the new Parliament building, police detained a number of protesting wrestlers, including Punia and Malik, who were attempting to march to the building. Some of the protesters scuffled with police and were taken away in a bus.
In their statement on Tuesday, the wrestlers said they were treated in “a barbaric manner” by the police and that their protest site was dismantled.
“Did we commit a crime by demanding justice for the sexual harassment committed against the female wrestlers? We have been treated like criminals,” they said. “We women wrestlers feel there is nothing left for us in this country.”
Phogat claimed in January that several coaches have exploited female wrestlers at the behest of the WFI president.
Indian police are investigating the allegations of sexual harassment against Singh, and he has been questioned in the case. India’s Supreme Court has also acknowledged that the case involves “serious allegations of sexual harassment,” but it has been met with silence from the ruling party leaders, including Modi.
After their initial protest in January, Indian Sports Minister Anurag Singh Thakur asked the president of the federation to step aside and help in carrying out the probe. He also said a committee would be set up to investigate the allegations and that a report would be released in four weeks.
But no report has been released in the months since while Singh continues to head the federation, prompting the wrestlers to resume their protest in April.
The case has again highlighted the #MeToo movement in India, which picked up pace in 2018 when a spate of actresses and writers flooded social media with allegations of sexual harassment and assault.