In a drama-filled Tuesday, some of India’s top wrestlers gathered on the banks of the Ganges here, accompanied by hundreds of supporters, who threatened to immerse their world and Olympic medals in the holy river, but refrained after being persuaded by Khap and farm leaders who had been searching for five days to address their complaints.
Olympic medalists Sakshi Malik, Bajrang Punia and Asian Games gold medalist Vinesh Phogat arrived in Har ki Pauri to protest the inaction against outgoing Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief Briji Bhushan Sharan Singh, who allegedly sexually harassed several women grapplers.
Sakshi, Vinesh and her cousin Sangeeta were seen sobbing as their husbands tried to console them even as many of their supporters formed a cordon around them.
The wrestlers stood in silence for about 20 minutes after reaching Har ki Pauri. Then they sat on the bank of the river, holding their medals and looking distressed.
Bajrang joined them after 40 minutes. Sombir Rathi, husband of Vinesh, held the Asian Games medals won by her wife. Sakshi tightly held the framed Olympic bronze medal she won in Rio 2016.
The entire episode recalled the 1960 incident when the legendary Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, threw his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River to protest racial segregation in the US.
However, after an hour and 45 minutes, they returned after several khaps and were urged by political leaders not to take such an extreme step. As the deadline for the medal immersion approached, senior farmers Sham Singh Malik and Naresh Tikait asked the grapplers for five days to resolve the issue.
“The khap leaders laid their turbans in front of us and said ‘don’t lose hope’. Maintain the dignity of the turban and return. So we decided to wait,” said wrestler Jitender Kinha, who was part of the protesting group.
There were chaotic scenes at Har ki Pauri as khap and farmer leaders broke the human chain of supporters to reach the grapplers, even as thousands of devotees who had gathered to mark Ganga Dussehra looked confused as the commotion reigned.
The wrestlers left without speaking to the media. Several other khap leaders and Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann also came out in support of the wrestlers but urged them to exercise restraint.