When Brijbhushan Sharan Singh enters the wrestling hall, one cannot go unnoticed. He arrived in a convoy of SUVs with a crowd of 20-30 followers. Officials bow to him, touch his feet, and chant “Long live Netaji Zindabad” as he sits in his chair. It’s clear he’s the man in charge, and he’s got the attention.
The contest continues but only until the 66-year-old Singh, president of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) since 2012, starts talking. He yells at the wrestlers, gives advice, tells jokes, threatens to throw out the parents, goes after the referees if he thinks they’ve missed a move, calling himself the most “shaktishali (mighty)”. says, and his posse responds by laughing and cheering.
The cheers, though, may have died down on Thursday as calls for his ouster reached a fever pitch.
Singh has been accused of mental torture and sexual harassment by a group of wrestlers led by Olympians Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik. Other wrestlers – Bajrang Punia and Ravi Dahiya – have called for an end to his authoritarian ways. The wrestlers, as a group, have said they will not return to the mat as long as Singh is at the helm.
Singh is standing firm against this attack. After all, he is a difficult man to intimidate. The six-time Member of Parliament, who entered the Lok Sabha for the first time in 1991, is currently the sitting Member of Parliament for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from Kaiserganj in Uttar Pradesh. He has previously faced multiple criminal cases including attempted murder, robbery conviction, disappearance of evidence and obstructing a public servant from performing his duty. He has not been convicted of any charges.
But contrary to earlier allegations against him – he was named in the Babri Masjid demolition case and even held a rally in May 2022 to oppose Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray’s visit to Ayodhya. The latest controversy comes at a time when the BJP is gearing up. 2024 Lok Sabha Elections. And now, with public sentiment building against him, it remains to be seen if he survives the revolt of Indian sports superstars.
“97% of players are with WFI. Their (protesting wrestlers) career is over, they can’t win medals anymore. I am saddened by allegations of sexual harassment. No player can blame me or chief coach (Jitendra (Yadav) cannot make such allegations. Some wrestlers were pressured to sit on the sit-in,” Singh said as the walls appeared to close.
Backtracking, though, would be a huge loss for a man used to doing things his own way. With almost every citizen, mic in hand, he’s taking the top wrestlers round for all the mats to show his people how they follow his instructions.
In January 2021, during the national championship in Noida, he suspended a railway coach for being “too active”. He publicly slapped an athlete in Ranchi in December 2021. Despite the act being caught on camera, he was unapologetic. Instead, his statement was rather boastful: “It was a light tap, I didn’t hit him hard, if I had, he would have gone a long way.”
In August 2022, he stopped just 54 seconds into the trials to represent India in the 59 kg category for the World Wrestling Championships as a group of spectators from Ayodhya, who were special guests, stopped. Wasn’t invited to give a “blessing.” Two competitors before the start of the competition.
Over the years, such incidents have become more common because Singh believes people are kept in line. He says he uses these methods during political rallies and believes they work in sports as well.
Once when he was asked whether he was the leader or the wrestler first, he said, “Pahle Pehlwan (first wrestler)”.
Strength is a way of life for him and that’s how he reached the top of the wrestling federation. He started as the president of the Gonda District Wrestling Association in 2004, and then became the president of the Uttar Pradesh Wrestling Association in 2008, before finally becoming the president of the National Wrestling Association in 2012. In 2019, Singh was elected president of the WFI unopposed. – The third time that Singh had held the post.
But Singh now seems to be running out of time. The Union Sports Ministry on Wednesday gave the WFI 72 hours to respond to the allegations. But still he has the support of his political colleagues. “I have known Brijbhushan since he was a student at Saket College in Ayodhya. He was good in studies, played a prominent role in the Ram temple movement and has been loved by saints ever since. I don’t know what the allegations are. Who is behind it, but it seems to me that it could be some kind of conspiracy against them,” said Mahant Ram Vilas Das Vedanthi, former BJP MP and co-accused in the Babri Masjid demolition case.
Singh is claimed to have encouraged the allegations of sexual harassment and would “hang himself” if any of the allegations were true.
So the battle lines have been drawn. Will Singh discover the deviations of the game where Applecart can be upset in ways that few can predict? Or will the “Shaktishali” leaders somehow manage to survive?
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