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'Deplorable': Concerned Citizens Condemn Silence of Country's Leadership on Wrestlers' Complaints

Prominent civil society members, former IAS officers and economists recommended that the investigation into the wrestlers' allegations against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh should be headed by a Supreme Court-appointed judge.

New Delhi: A group of prominent civil society members, including economists, lawyers and retired IAS officers, has issued a statement condemning the silence of the country’s senior leadership on the wrestlers’ protests.

Writing under the collective name ‘Concerned Citizens’, the group especially expressed its concern over the seemingly “compromised” nature of the Delhi police’s investigation into the wrestlers’ allegations, and the potential reasons behind the minor complainant retracting her complaint against Wrestling Federation of India chief and BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.

It observes that the Delhi police’s delay in filing FIRs against the accused, despite being mandated to file them immediately in light of some allegations involving cognisable offences, shows that “the persons accused in this case are far too influential for the investigating agency to be able to act expeditiously”.

The group also notes that while the Delhi police delayed filing FIRs against the accused, the Delhi police were quick to file them against the wrestlers during their march towards parliament, and drop the POCSO case against Singh despite there being unresolved questions around the minor changing her statement.

The statement includes a timeline of events surrounding the wrestler’s protest, beginning with allegations some women wrestlers made in 2017 against a wrestling coach of sexual abuse.

Towards the end, it says, “As a nation, we are responsible for supporting the women wrestlers … We feel that this can be ensured only if the Delhi police is fully insulated from political interference … We feel that this will be possible only if the investigation is subject to monitoring by a sitting or a retired judge appointed by the apex court.”

Delhi police have not arrested Singh as the wrestlers have demanded but filed a chargesheet against him on June 15. He is accused of sexual harassment and molestation, and misuse of his authority.

The protesting wrestlers have also criticised the senior leadership’s silence on their widely publicised protest against sexual harassment. Commonwealth and Asian Games gold medallist Vinesh Phogat said that the prime minister’s studied silence was emotionally draining.

Here is the statement’s full text:

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Silence of the Senior Leadership in the Country is Deplorable

Concerned Citizens’ Statement on Women Wrestlers’ Complaints

Date: July 3, 2023

We issued a statement earlier on June 10 expressing our deep anguish at the deplorable manner in which India’s medal-winning women wrestlers, who brought glory to the nation, were forced to come out into the open to complain about sexual harassment to which they were subjected by the head of the Wrestlers Federation of India (WFI) and other officials, how the entire government machinery, which is expected to safeguard women’s rights, should passively watch and remain silent, allowing investigations to proceed at a snail’s pace, at the cost of safeguarding the interests of the affected wrestlers.

The timeline of progress of the investigation in this case, as indicated below, suggests the urgent need to ensure that the concerns of the wrestlers are appreciated and addressed effectively:

1. There were allegations by some women wrestlers against the WFI officials as early as 2017 (https://thewire.in/women/mahavir-bishnoi-wrestling-coach-brij-bhushan-sharan-singh-sexual-harassment).

The fact that such allegations failed to prompt either the Sports Ministry or the WFI to set up an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) as mandated under Section 4 of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 indicates not only the indifference and insensitivity on the part of the office bearers of WHI of towards women wrestlers but also their continuing impunity to violate the law of the land.

As a result, there was no formal institutional mechanism for the victimised women wrestlers to register their complaints and get them investigated during the last 5-6 years. It is possible that many such complaints were made in the past and went unregistered. The ICC as provided in the Act would comprise, among others, independent women’s rights activists, who could examine the complaints in an impartial manner.

Also Read: Wrestling Patriarchy: The Herculean Task of India’s Sportswomen

Apparently, neither the Sports Ministry nor the WFI thought it was their obligation to set up such a committee, despite some women wrestlers complaining in the past of sexual harassment by WFI’s senior functionaries.

2. Failing to get justice, the women wrestlers were forced to go out into the open in mid-January, 2023 to hold public protests. The Delhi police were fully aware of this but, for some inexplicable reason, did not consider their complaints and file FIRs as required under Section 154 of the CrPC.

Since some complaints made by the wrestlers point to cognisable offences, it was mandatory for the police to file FIRs immediately, without waiting to complete the investigation. The apex court, in Lalita Kumari v. Govt. of U.P [W.P. (Crl) No; 68/2008] observed that “the scope of preliminary inquiry is not to verify the veracity or otherwise of the information received but only to ascertain whether the information reveals any cognisable offence”.

The fact that the Delhi police failed to comply with this showed that they were possibly influenced by extraneous considerations to delay filing FIRs and delay taking up investigation. It shows that the persons accused in this case are far too influential for the investigating agency to be able to act expeditiously

3. The Sports Ministry, instead of allowing the investigation to proceed independently, constituted an oversight committee to report on the wrestlers’ complaints. However, when that committee submitted a report, though belatedly, the Ministry chose not to place it in the public domain, which leads one to the inevitable inference that the report was not found to be in line with what it expected. In all fairness, copies of the report ought to have been made available to the complainants.

Also Read: Wrestlers’ Protest | Govt-Appointed Panel Was Biased Towards BJP MP Singh: Complainants

4. In the 3rd week of April, the wrestlers, including the minor, returned to resume their protest, demanded the police to register an FIR and demanded that the oversight committee’s report be released to the public. Failing to get any response either from the Delhi police or from the Sports Ministry, they were forced to approach the apex court for relief.

It was only on an intervention from the apex court that the Delhi police finally filed two FIRs, one under the POCSO Act against the head of the WFI and another under the relevant Sections of the IPC against both the head and the Secretary of the WFI. Based on the government’s response, the apex court took cognisance of the fact that the wrestlers faced threats and asked the police to provide them protection.

The developments that followed show that the apex court’s direction is yet to be complied with fully.

5. While the Delhi police did not arrest the accused any time, despite the offences alleged to have been committed by him being grave and despite the likelihood of the accused and his associates intimidating the complainants and the witnesses and tampering with the evidence, they showed no hesitation whatsoever to file FIRs against the wrestlers and detain them when they led a protest march to the Parliament.

Police stop protesting wrestlers from marching to new parliament building on May 28. Photo: Twitter/@SakshiMalik

6. It was after the wrestlers threatened to throw away their medals in River Ganga that the Sports Minister chose to meet them. The Minister assured them that the Delhi police would file a chargesheet in the case by June 15, 2023, and appealed that the wrestlers should call off their agitation. True to what he said, the Delhi police did file the chargesheet on June 15, 2023! Considering that an investigation such as this one is expected to be a quasi-judicial process not subject to any external pressure, this raised concerns about the objectivity and impartiality of the investigation in this case.

7. It was reported (https://theprint.in/india/wrestler-taken-to-wfi-office-adjacent-to-brij-bhushans-official-residence-for-scene-re-creation/1620722/) that the wrestlers were taken to the WFI office (which is located at Shri Brij Bhushan Singh’s official residence) in the name of “recreation of the crime scene”. If this report is factually correct, we feel that it amounted to the re-victimisation of the wrestlers, who have already been subject to considerable harassment.

8. As referred earlier, the Delhi police filed a chargesheet against the WFI chief under sections 354, 354A, and 354D of the Indian Penal Code, which deal with the offences of outraging a woman’s modesty, sexual harassment, and stalking respectively. [The] WFI Assistant Secretary has also been accused of abetting an offence and criminal intimidation under Sections 109 and 506, respectively, in addition to accusations of sexual harassment and outraging a woman’s modesty (https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-law/chargesheet-against-brij-bhushan-filed-what-charges-wfi-chief-8665000/).

In addition, on the ground that the minor wrestler had made a statement retracting her complaint against the WFI head, the Delhi police summarily dropped further action under the POCSO Act (https://news.abplive.com/news/india/wrestlers-protest-sakshi-malik-on-pocso-case-against-brij-bhushan-sharan-singh-wrestlers-to-decide-on-future-course-chargesheet-1609436).

Also Read: ‘Minor Wrestler Changed Statement Because Her Family Was Threatened’: Sakshi Malik

If what has been reported is factually correct, considering that the Delhi police would have already recorded the minor’s statement in the presence of a magistrate when the complaint was first received and keeping in view the fact of the wrestlers facing threat was raised before the apex court earlier, it raises questions on whether there was undue pressure on the minor and her family, forcing the minor to retract her statement. This is a matter that calls for an objective investigation.

Soon after the POCSO Act was enacted in 2012, the Ministry of Women & Child Development issued Model Guidelines in [September 2013] under Section 39 of the Act (https://wcd.nic.in/policies/model-guidelines-under-protection-children-sexual-offences-pocso-act2012) based on inputs of experts on child psychology and child development. Those guidelines explain why a minor may not disclose abuse. The reasons, which are illustrative, as indicated in the Guidelines are as follows:

“i) He/she is embarrassed

ii) He/ she does not know if what is happening to them is normal or not

iii) He/ she does not have the words to speak out

iv) The abuser is a known person and the child does not want to get them in trouble

v) The abuser told the child to keep it a secret

vi) The child is afraid that no one will believe him/ her

vii) The abuser bribes or threatens the child

viii) He/ she thinks you already know

Being aware of these signs would alert the counsellor to the possibility of sexual abuse.”

We are not sure whether the investigating agency is aware of these guidelines and acted in line with the same. Considering that the apex court, in the proceedings relating to the wrestlers’ complaints, took note of the existence of a threat to the wrestlers and directed the police to provide protection to them, the least that the Delhi police ought to have done was to ensure that none of the wrestlers including their families came under extraneous pressure to retract their complaints.

This is particularly important in the case of the minor. The political clout carried by the accused in this case could have influenced the police to be hesitant in extending the necessary protection to the complainants, especially, the minor, possibly resulting in the minor choosing to record a second statement afresh, which prompted the Delhi police to close the POCSO case against the head of the WFI. This is far too serious a matter to be ignored in this case.

Also Read: ‘If No Action Taken by June 15, We’ll Resume Protest’: Bajrang Punia After Meeting Anurag Thakur

The above-described timeline of investigation and the manner in which it has been conducted to date suggests that the investigation process has not done enough justice to the complainants.

We feel that in the specific case of the POCSO offences, the presumptive provisions of Section 29 of the POCSO Act “Where a person is prosecuted for committing or abetting or attempting to commit any offence under sections 3, 5, 7 and section 9 of this Act, the Special Court shall presume, that such person has committed or abetted or attempted to commit the offence, as the case may be unless the contrary is proved” need to be kept in view.

If the investigation, in this case is allowed to be influenced by the political leadership, as seems to be the case at present, the interests of the women wrestlers are likely to get compromised.

As a nation, we are responsible for supporting the women wrestlers, who brought glory to our country, to enable them to pursue their profession with dignity and self-esteem. We feel that this can be ensured only if the Delhi police is fully insulated from political interference and ensures that the investigation proceeds strictly in compliance with the law of the land. We feel that this will be possible only if the investigation is subject to monitoring by a sitting or a retired judge appointed by the apex court.

In conclusion, we are constrained to express our dismay and distress at the inexplicable silence on the part of the senior leadership at the way the investigation has progressed till now and the distressing manner in which the women wrestlers who have brought glory to the nation have been forced to resort to public agitation seeking justice. We sincerely hope that the political leaders in power today ponder over what Mahatma Gandhi said, “Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly.”

Signatories:

1. A Selvaraj, Retd IRS

2. Abha Bhaiya Co-ordinator, India One Billion Rising

3. Anil Sadagopal, Former Professor & Dean, Delhi University

4. Archana Prasad, Professor JNU

5. Arun Kumar, Economist

6. Aruna Roy, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan

7. Arundhati Dhura National Alliance of Peoples Movements

8. Asha Misha, General Secretary, All India Peoples’ Science Network

9. Ashok Choudhury – All India Union of Forest Working People

10. C. P. Chandrasekhar, Economist

11. Capt. S.Prabhala, Indian Navy Retd

12. Chirashree Dasgupta, Professor JNU

13. Dinesh Abrol, Scientist

14. Dunu Roy, Social scientist and political ecologist

15. E A S Sarma Former Secretary, GOI

16. F T R Colaso, Retd IPS

17. Fr. Cedric Prakash, Educationist

18. G Balagopal, Retd IAS

19. G K Pillai, Retd IAS

20. Gurjeet Singh Cheema, Retd IAS

21. H S Gujral, Retd IFS

22. Indira Jaising, Senior Advocate

23. J. Johnsily, Mahalir Association for Literacy Awareness and Rights

24. Joe Athialy, Financial Accountability Network

25. Joy Oommen, Retd IAS

26. Justice. Hari Paranthman. Retd Judge, Madras High Court

27. K V Bahgrih, Retd IAS

28. Kavita Kabeer, AIPSN

29. M G Devasahayam, Former Secretary Govt of Haryana

30. M.C.Rajan, Human Rights Lawyer

31. Madhu Bhaduri

32. Mariam Dhawale, GS AIDWA

33. Nithyanand Jayaraman, Chennai Solidarity group

34. P.R. Dasgupta, Former Secretary GOI

35. Pamela Philipose, Journalist

36. Prabhat Patnaik, Professor Emeritus, Economist

37. Prabir Purkayastha

38. Pradeep E, Professor, Bangalore

39. Priya Dharshini, Delhi Forum

40. R Elangovan DREU

41. R Nagalswamy, Retd IAAS

42. R. Poornalingam former Sec. Govt of India

43. Radhika Ganesh National Co-convenor, Young People for Politics, Ek Potlee Ret Ki

44. Rani Sarma, Writer and Historian

45. Rudi Wajiri, Retd IFS

46. S P Ambrose, Retd IAS

47. S. Krishnasamy, Retd Professor, M K University

48. S. Mohana, Retd Professor, Dindigul

49. S.P. Shukla, Former Secretary, GOI

50. Sandeep Pandey, Socialist Party of India

51. Sebastian Morris, Professor, Goa Institute of Management

52. Sharad Behar, Retd IAS

53. Sreedhar Ramamurthi, Environics Trust

54. Subhash Kolhekar, Social Justice & Health Rights NAPM

55. Sundar Burra, Retd Civil Servant

56. Sushil Khanna, IIM, Kolkata

57. T. Ramachandra Bhatt, Former Banker, Former Director, Mangalore

58. Tara Murali, Chennai

59. Thomas Franco, People First, Former GS, AIBOC

60. Vasanthi Devi, former Vice Chancellor, M S University

61. Venkatesh Athreya, Economist

62. Vivek Monteiro, CITU Maharashtra

63. Vinaya Malati Hari, BGVS Maharashtra