One of the most successful Olympic sports in India is wrestling. So, considering how revered and celebrated the sport is, the recent revelations of sexual abuse within the Indian Wrestling Federation have (understandably) sent shockwaves through the nation.
For years, India’s female wrestlers have faced numerous challenges, from lack of funding and infrastructure to social stigma and discrimination. Sadly, the most insidious of these challenges is the culture of harassment and abuse that plagues the sport.
However, the nation’s female wrestlers are no longer staying silent about the harassment they’ve faced within their sport. Activists and athletes alike have been actively shining a spotlight on the pervasive issue of gender-based violence within sports and have inspired a movement towards creating safer and more inclusive environments for all participants.
In a recent article titled ‘This is the culture’: The Indian wrestlers fighting sexual abuse, Al Jazeera reported on the dark underbelly of the sport. This exposé has further ignited a powerful movement aimed at dismantling systemic abuse, empowering survivors, and demanding justice.
According to the most recent government data on crimes in the nation, India documented 31,677 cases of rape in 2021, an average of 86 per day, while over 49 registered crimes against women were reported every single hour.
The brave survivors featured in Al Jazeera have shattered the silence surrounding their traumatic experiences. Their testimonies reveal a horrifying pattern of sexual abuse perpetrated by the President of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.
In turn, the survivors’ stories have ignited a fire within the hearts of millions, galvanising public support and solidarity. Social media platforms have become arenas of empowerment and unity, with the hashtag #SpeakUpForWrestlers trending across the nation. Advocacy groups, athletes, and concerned citizens have joined forces, demanding accountability, institutional reforms, and a safe environment for all wrestlers.
Most female wrestlers who have come forward are from rural areas, many of them from underprivileged backgrounds. And the majority of them hail from Haryana, a North Indian state known for its high incidence of female foeticide (the process of finding out the sex of the foetus and undergoing abortion if it is a girl), and honour killings (the killing of a relative, especially a girl or woman, who is perceived to have brought dishonour on the family).
The path to justice for survivors of sexual abuse is often fraught with obstacles, especially when confronting entrenched power structures. However, the strength and resilience of the survivors, coupled with the unwavering support of the public, have set the stage for a watershed moment in Indian wrestling.
On 18 January 2023, about 30 top wrestlers—both male and female—began a sit-in in Delhi in protest of Singh, the WFI President.
Indian Olympian wrestler Vinesh Phogat, 28, participated in the demonstration. Speaking to Al Jazeera about the “trigger point” that led her to protest against sexual harassment of women wrestlers in the country, Phogat explained that it was her niece. She went on to add that she didn’t want to hear any more accounts of women being sexually harassed by other men.
Following this initial demonstration, on 3 May, videos surfaced from another protest in New Delhi, which was started by another group of female wrestlers. This follow-up protest was a loud statement of women being tired, after a long-standing feud between the wrestlers and the WFI, which had already been going on for several years.
The athletes behind the movement have demanded an “immediate arrest” and sought the intervention of the Supreme Court, which directed the police to register a case against 66-year-old Singh, who is also serving as Member of Parliament from Kaiserganj as a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and is now accused of raping seven other women as well as a minor.
Though several additional sexual harassment cases were reported in the past, Singh succeeded in either making the charges disappear or made sure the complainants did not compete again.
“They had filed a written complaint with the WFI regarding coach sexual harassment. The coach was suspended for ten days but was reinstated as head coach after seven days. This is how the WFI operates. What action will the head take against others if he is that way himself?” Phogat told Al Jazeera.
To make their voices heard, these athletes have gathered in large numbers, brandishing signs and chanting slogans. They have marched through the streets, attracting attention and support from passersby and fellow athletes alike. Some have even gone on hunger strikes in a bid to draw more attention to their cause.
All of the protesting wrestlers have opted out of ranking events and competitions, and several have threatened to take back any state-sponsored medals they may have received if quick actions are not taken against the sexual misconduct plaguing the sport.
Despite facing opposition from government officials and a minority within the wrestling community, these fighters remain steadfast in their determination to achieve their goals, hoping to represent all of the women of India in their fight for their sport, and for future generations.
As the protests continue to gain momentum, it remains to be seen whether the government will listen to the voices of these determined athletes.
With its largest collection of personal data to date, India launches a brand new national system for identification of citizens called Aadhaar (Indian for ‘foundation’). 1.1 billion Indians have already signed up for the mandatory smart ID system, which presently permeates all layers of life and holds the key to accessing anything from government welfare services to traffic tickets and bank accounts.
Throughout the country, citizens have been required to report to Aadhaar centres, where their faces and eyes were scanned and fingerprints taken. Currently, and until otherwise instructed by the Indian Supreme Court, all citizens must be registered in the national Aadhaar database in order to purchase a local SIM card, open a bank account, receive government welfare services, participate in school competitions, and the list goes on. As usual, it is the poor who get most royally screwed, with Aadhaar malfunctions reportedly causing millions to lose access to food rations (in Jharkhand, for instance, this afflicted roughly 20 per cent of the state’s population).
Die hard fans of Aadhaar (of which there are many) claim that glitches can, and will, be fixed to ensure easy access to services for all. It is the surveillance aspect, however, that poses the real threat for Indian citizens. Though it doesn’t explicitly score and rate citizens—not yet—the programme nonetheless bears striking resemblance to its Chinese stepbrother: the newly piloted Social Credit system. The database was founded by a private firm under the supervision of a technology billionaire named Nandan Nilkani. This fact alone is highly problematic as it blurs the lines between public and private interests (which are already alarmingly fuzzy in a growing number of countries). Furthermore, similarly to the Chinese programme, Aadhaar is utilised to formulate a certain profile of citizens; many employers, for instance, already use Aadhaar to conduct background checks on job applicants.
Aadhaar thus raises grave ethical concerns, and although Prime Minister Narendra Modi argues the programme is aimed at making government services more efficient (claiming it already saved Indian taxpayers $9.4 billion by eliminating fraudulent welfare claims) and defines it as “India’s ticket to the future”, it’s impossible to remain apathetic to the degree of its invasiveness. Besides, the prospect of leakage has justifiably alarmed many across the country, with reports of at least 210 government websites leaking personal information of millions of Indians. In response, dozens of petitions against Aadhaar were submitted to the Indian Supreme Court, claiming it infringes on Indians’ right to privacy.
There is no doubt that the issue is complex. In a country like India, where millions can’t prove their identity, fraud is a serious problem and access to services is denied to millions. Both Indian government agencies and corporations therefore want to find a way to verify people’s identity and credibility in order to minimise abuse and enlarge the scope of services offered. Technology can certainly come in handy to facilitate these goals, but at what price? Is it possible to develop a smart registry of citizens with minimal infringement on their privacy?
Solutions exist, for those who genuinely seek them. One example is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) recently passed in the EU to protect the privacy rights of its citizens. According to the new regulations, institutions that collect personal data (such as banks and hospitals, for instance) will only be permitted to use the data for the purpose for which it was gathered. In order to allow companies to employ information for other ends, such as research, while complying with GDPR, the Dutch firm Rabobank developed a software which, through a pseudonymization process, retains the data’s original form while eliminating the identifying information from it (by replacing it with a series of random numbers). The altering of the data is carried out by a designated department, which will prevent one entity from possessing all of it and ensure each division of the organisation gains access only to information relevant to its operation.
As for the future of Aadhaar, it is hard to predict the decision of the Indian Supreme Court (due to be announced later this spring), but as the programme is already in place and covers over a billion citizens, it is highly unlikely the court would order to dismantle it. Modifications to it, however, such as eliminating registration as a condition to receive certain government benefits and prohibiting the centralisation of information under one agency, could be substantial.
It is true that a government should do all in its power to guarantee the functionality of the state (a task turning ever more challenging as populations across the globe swell up rapidly); it is therefore unreasonable to argue that no measures should be taken by the state authorities to maintain a proper registry of citizens and prevent abuse of public (as well as private) services. Thus taking advantage of technological innovations that can promote such endeavors is reasonable. Yet, the possession of private information of citizens in concentrated databases can be easily abused by the authorities for sinister purposes, or handed over to private hands who seek to utilise them for personal gains.
As we march deeper into the technological abyss of the future, issues of privacy and freedom will continue to clash with those of transparency and surveillance. It is therefore vital to recognise that discussions about privacy rights cannot be held independently from ones about the encroachment on government issues under the disguise of public interest, and on the shape and scope of a state’s obligations to its citizens.