An idol crumbles: How PT Usha missed the podium again
The nation’s all-time great track star and Indian Olympic Association (IOA) president PT Usha thinks that the Jantar Mantar agitation against wrestling body president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh was not good for the country’s image. She also labelled the Olympians taking up the cause of the women wrestlers alleging sexual harassment against Singh, indisciplined.
For someone so conscious about the nation’s global perception, it would be interesting to know how Usha feels about Singh representing Indian wrestling on the world stage. The police complaint by 7 women wrestlers, one of them a minor, isn’t the WFI president’s first brush with the law.
Being booked under TADA for allegedly harbouring Dawood Ibrahim associates in the 90s, Singh’s name figures in several ongoing court cases. Arms act violations and attempt to murder charges are stains that don’t make him a poster boy of the sports administration’s squeaky clean image. A history-sheeter as federation chief – is it a factoid that Indians can proudly flaunt at wrestling halls around the world?
Usha’s comments had come about a day after World Championship medalist Vinesh Phogat, the face of the protest, had told this newspaper that the indifference of other sportspersons towards their fight showed their lack of courage to stand up to those in power. Heartbreakingly for Phogat and the Olympic medalists Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia – the much-celebrated grapplers spending their nights under the stars fighting mosquitoes – the sportsperson in power, read Usha, wasn’t just insensitive to the complainants but also undermining this unprecedented agitation.
Usha didn’t stop at that. Sounding like a matriarch angered by a family secret getting leaked, she pulled up the wrestlers for taking to the streets and not approaching the IOA. Had she kept herself abreast with the intriguing Wrestlers vs Singh saga, she would have understood the reason for the players’ mistrust in the system and past champions.
It’s been three months since the Sports Ministry put in place a high profile probe panel – chaired by boxing legend MC Mary Kom and Olympic medalist Yogeshwar Dutt as one of the member – to look into the sexual harassment allegations against Singh but a full report is still awaited. Not casting aspersions on the credibility of the country’s sporting greats but a disclaimer at this stage of the piece wouldn’t be out of place. Like the ruling party sitting MP Singh, both Usha and Mary Kom had been nominated to Rajya Sabha by the BJP. Dutt has fought elections for BJP and continues to be the party’s star campaigner.
The government did share what it called the “major findings” of the report prepared by the Mary Kom committee but was mysteriously silent on the core issue – the serious charges against the sitting MP Singh. Going to Delhi Police too didn’t help much. The detailed complaints, with specific time and place, by wrestlers too didn’t move the cops. They dragged their feet, dilly-dallied in filing FIR, till the Supreme Court stepped in.
Pushed to the corner, the wrestlers moved to Jantar Mantar – capital’s ‘last chance’ island that gives space to those who have lost all hope. At this point, the need of the hour for the IOA, the umbrella organisation for all sports, was to reach out to the wrestlers. The onus was also on Usha to win back the confidence of her fellow athletes – not just the Olympians giving interviews to media but more importantly the minor girl living the trauma of repeating her sexual harassment ordeal.
Usha, the 80s sprint queen, belongs to the era when athletes didn’t have forums to air their grievances. Back in the day, the federations’ office-bearers were obliged to constitute only one committee that did the selection. POSH and ICC were abbreviations that hadn’t been coined. Many former athletes, well after their retirement, have spoken about the nightmare of being a young woman with a sporting dream. Being all alone at academies and travelling to distant lands with male coaches, they would often face ugly situations. Some fearing backlash would swallow pride and learn to live with abuse. Others would give up on their dreams, get married or pursue careers where they would be misfits.
Had Usha taken a short walk from her Rajya Sabha MP accommodation to Jantar Mantar, she would have understood the gravitas of the moment. Lending ears to those on the fringes of the protest would have educated her about what this means to the wrestling fraternity.
In the early days of the protest, there was an old man with ramrod straight spine, dressed in sparkling white dhoti, kurta and turban, obliging a Haryanvi youtuber with his bytes. He was seething in anger, biting his lips to control his rage. He was talking about the pains a family takes to raise an Olympian. “Hamare Haryana ke log zameen bechdete hain apne bachon – ladka ya ladki – ko Olympian banane mai (People in Haryana sell their land to make their sons and daughters Olympians). They invest everything they have to make their children excel in sports and once they reach the top there is no one to protect them. Whose responsibility is this?,” he barked into the microphone, the veins of his neck swelling dangerously.
He went on for a while before the cameraman couldn’t take it anymore. He took his eyes away from the lens and the interview stopped. “Chaudhary saab, have some water,” he said. The proud man took a swig from the bottle but that didn’t push the lump down his throat. He would soon sit on the ground and break down.
Not far was a young mother of a budding wrestler talking to a television channel. She was worried about sending her to camps since the time she has read about the allegations. She pointed to Vinesh and Sakshi and said, “Look at them, they are role models for every young girl in the village. Now, they sit here as if they are nobody. If they are this helpless and don’t feel safe, what about my young girl,” she said while stopping the flow of tears with her dupatta. The lady reporter stopped her questions, rubbed the woman’s back. Going beyond her call of duty consoled her, “Everything will be fine, there will be a change.”
The ‘change’ that everyone at Jantar Mantar talks about concerns Singh. He has been in charge of the wrestling federation for close to a decade. During his reign the sport has been most consistent at the Olympics. Since Beijing 2008, there hasn’t been a Summer Games where an Indian wrestler has not been on the podium. But even the Mary Kom committee’s interim report points to WFI’s structural inadequacies. They mention the absence of the Internal Complaints Committee, lack of communication between the Federation and wrestlers. But there’s more to the story.
Abuse of power
Tales of Singh’s autocratic ways have been doing the rounds for years now. His appalling abuse of his position is almost theatrical. It can be best viewed during national championships. The scenes at these events are a throwback to a period of kings and subjects. Sitting on the stadium dias like a Maharaja watching a hand-to-hand combat at a coliseum, he would announce impromptu gifts to winners, change the verdict of a referee or, as is seen in a viral youtube video, deliver a rasping slap to an out of line wrestler.
Vinesh, at The Indian Express Idea Exchange, shared how things worked in Singh’s WFI. “He will do whatever he feels like…Federation officials keep troubling us for the smallest of things. They’ll act obnoxious. They threaten that somebody had complained against you, Neta (Singh) heard of it and he’s very angry, so be careful. Even an office water boy there had this attitude that ‘who the hell are you? I am the boss’.” Meanwhile, wrestlers who toe his line, be at his beck and call would get rewarded with post-retirement plum postings.
Usha should have known this system better. She has been around to decipher the difference between institutions and fiefdom, understanding the difference between an appointment and co-option. She had a chance to be the bulwark of the ‘change’ that Jantar Mantar was demanding. Usha seems to have missed the grand podium once again.
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