Hundreds join protesting wrestlers in candlelight march to India Gate

Wrestlers demanding the arrest of former Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh for alleged sexual harassment led hundreds in a candlelight march to India Gate on Tuesday as their sit-in at Jantan Mantar completed 31 days.

Hundreds join protesting wrestlers in candlelight march to India Gate(Twitter/@journoshantanu)

Olympic medallists Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik along with two-time world championships medallist Vinesh Phogat walked in the blistering evening heat with about 1,500 persons, including members of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), All India Mahila Congress, Bhim Army and many student organisations joining in.

The march began at 4:30pm, half an hour earlier than originally planned, under heavy security with personnel from Delhi Police, Central Reserve Police Force and Rapid Action Force deployed. Raising slogans and waving the national flag, the protesters went past the heavily barricaded residence of Singh and took the radial road leading to the famous monument. The marchers took around 90 minutes to cover the cordoned off 2.5km stretch before lighting candles at Indian Gate to “dissipate Singh’s darkness”.

As the numbers swelled and fears of a possible stampede grew, Punia, Phogat and Malik climbed a police barricade and addressed the crowd.

“Our protest has completed a month and I’d like to thank all our supporters who have stood by us. I’d like to tell you that we are ready to give our lives to get justice for these girls,” Punia announced to wild cheers.

“It is not our fight alone. We are fighting for every woman who faces harassment in this country. I’d urge everyone to join us in our fight for justice,” Phogat said.

“For the last one month, we’ve been asking for Singh’s arrest. It’s a matter of shame that nothing has happened. As we speak, we are told that several organisations around the country also took out similar marches in their cities and districts,” the Asian Games champion added.

While there were buses ready to ferry the protesters from Jantar Mantar to Andhra Bhavan from where they were to march, most walked the entire stretch chanting slogans for justice and holding placards demanding Singh’s arrest.

“We would like to commend our supporters for maintaining peace and order. The fight will continue as long as we don’t get justice,” Punia said after the march.

Earlier in the day, Punia and Phogat visited Delhi University and interacted with some student groups. On Monday, Malik and her husband Satyavrat Kadian went to Jawaharlal Nehru University to garner support from students.

“We want to reach out to the youth of this country and a lot of student organisations are already with us,” Punia said.

The wrestlers reiterated their decision to attend the Mahila Mahapanchayat on May 28, outside the new parliament building on the day it is inaugurated. “We will reach there at 11 am. Women will be at the forefront of the peaceful protest and will be supported by youth groups and members from khaps. We will frame the course of the protest there,” he added.

A month on, little progress

The protest having completed a month, there appears no end in sight to the sit-in. Despite two first information reports (FIRs) being registered against Singh, a sixth-term MP from Uttar Pradesh’s Kaiserganj, the case has not made much progress with the protesters insisting that they won’t call off the protest until he is arrested. On Tuesday, Singh announced a public meeting in Ayodhya early next month in the presence of seers.

The wrestling federation’s functions are being run by the Indian Olympic Committee (IOA) ad hoc committee that conducted U-17 and U-23 men’s and women’s trials recently. The protesting wrestlers though are at the losing end, as of now, as their training and competitions plans have been disrupted.

Their Asian Games hopes as good as over. Malik, Phogat, and Punia will also miss the Bishkek Ranking Series next month where, as per the team announced by WFI on Tuesday. Anuj Kumar has replaced Punia (65kg) while Pooja Gehlot and Sonam Malik have come in for Phogat (53kg) and Malik (62kg).

The wrestlers though are prepared for the long haul. They have repeatedly said getting justice for the wrestlers who have lodged police complaints remains their top priority. Punia has put the current protest over winning medals.

The past month has seen them clash with the IOA, government and Sports Authority of India, besides a late-night confrontation with the police.

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