I always felt that the Indian athlete, who wins a medal for their country and meets the Prime Minister while donning the navy blue blazer with the ‘India’ insignia emblazoned on top, is sacred soft power for the ruling dispensation.
When I’d see our Prime Minister go above and beyond to felicitate them, never lose a moment’s opportunity to build a rapport – that heartwarming moment when he consoled the Indian Women’s Hockey Team over a phone call after an agonising loss at the Tokyo Olympics 2020 – I would see the stature of these sportspersons rise equivalent to that of a soldier.
Win or lose, in those moments and thereon in their lives, their loyalty was unquestionable; their achievements were a marker of India’s progress in the world and our youth’s limitless potential.
For India, medallists at the Olympics are few and far between. We’ve won just 35 medals at the Summer Games since 1900. Given this context, an Olympic medallist is a unicorn for the world’s most populous nation, starved of sporting laurels — outside of cricket — that would do justice to its size.
“When two Olympic medallists, plus a quarter-finalist at the most recent Summer Games, sit on a dharna at Jantar Mantar demanding justice for victims of sexual harassment in a post-MeToo India, surely no one would doubt their motives,” thought my naive self in January.
Wrestlers Have Sprung the Troll Army Into Action
But months lapsed, and there was a committee probing the allegations of the wrestlers protesting at Jantar Mantar, and the committee was tactfully filled with former athletes harbouring a pro-BJP stance, and here we are in May. For the second time this year, India’s topmost wrestlers, in the prime of their playing careers, have had to shun the mat and take to the tarmac of New Delhi’s protest site in a year that awaits the World Wrestling Championships and the Asian Games.
I sense the impasse between the government and the wrestlers won’t end with vanilla assurances. The ruling party at the Centre knows it too.
So, their troll army has swung into action. Indian athletes of the rarest kind, who achieved podium finishes at the pinnacle of sport, are being painted in the same mould as the ‘andolanjeevi’ whom we’ve heard of in the past, whom our Prime Minister can identify by their clothes. But, in this case, the andolanjeevi mostly wear Nike and Under Armour.
This one WhatsApp forward in a family group is an undated photo of Bajrang Punia and Sangeeta Phogat — two of the protesting wrestlers — sitting at a table in what appears to be a restaurant. The caption claims that the wrestlers have breakfast every morning at The Royal Plaza, a hotel near their protest site, thus questioning the trueness of their ‘part-time dharna’ and its source of ‘funding’.
When the Chosen Mascots 'Go Rogue'
The legion of BJP supporters which trash-talks anyone who dares point fingers at the establishment has lapped up such lazy propagandist messages. So much so that even those who always reeked of apathy towards the less fortunate, are now even suspicious of India’s topmost Olympians and their 'vested interests' in staging a sit-in protest.
Instead, they believe the word of the accused, a known history sheeter, who’s counter-accusing Phogat and her fellow wrestlers of protesting under the patronage of the opposition politicians.
More pertinent, though, is that the BJP’s legion of supporters, which whips up misinformation in every uncomfortable situation, didn’t spare the wrestlers. Mind you, these are active athletes who, as recently as 2021, were attending a special breakfast meet at our Prime Minister’s residence as part of the Indian contingent that had returned from the Tokyo Olympics.
Punia, Phogat, and Sakshee Malikkh’s stellar sporting achievements over the years align with the BJP government’s idea of wielding soft power domestically by playing up a supposed amelioration in the country’s sporting prowess. The Khelo India Games, focusing on grassroots sports, are also part of PM Modi’s promise of development that’s all encompassing.
But when these chosen athlete mascots "go rogue" by starting to demand justice that’s long due, they grow inconvenient for the regime. I was naive to think the wrestlers’ complaints would be paid heed to; that the government would act against their Member of Parliament. And I’d again be innocent to think that the WhatsApp forward mentioned earlier is not the creation of a more sophisticated and networked machinery.
No One is Sacred to the BJP
Posts on this particular Facebook group give a broad sense of what staunch BJP supporters make of the protest. One post swears by Brij Bhushan’s honourable character because he took off his shoes while stepping onto the wrestling mat to bless Phogat and Malikkh.
Other posts call into question Phogat’s intentions, because a film on her sisters’ lives had Aamir Khan (a Muslim) in the lead; because she accused the WFI of mismanaging athletes' careers; and, because at 28, her sporting achievements aren’t supposedly as colourful as that of PT Usha, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) President, who was heckled when she visited the protest site because she had accused the wrestlers of tarnishing India’s image. The members of this Facebook group think just that — the wrestlers have colluded with the political opposition in a bid to malign India and the Modi government.
Another post appeals to the group's members to ignore the wrestlers and start posting about The Kerala Story. “Publicity humein hi karna hai (We have to do the film’s publicity),” the post adds. This, and a host of blatantly Islamophobic content, makes clear the motivations of those doubting the genuineness of the wrestlers’ dharna.
In pursuit of their larger civilisational goal of turning India into a Hindu Rashtra and showing Muslims their place as second-class citizens, BJP supporters would not tolerate any impediments. Complaints of sexual harassment against an MP of the ruling party would have never cut the ice with these deeply patriarchal middle-aged men who fight online for an imaginary cause when they should be helping their wives in the kitchen or talking to their daughters to know about the ogling and groping that women are subjected to while travelling by public transport.
Indian cricketers have been conspicuous by their silence in this entire episode. Maybe they foresaw the saffron party’s vitriol that would be directed towards the protestors, and were ‘sensibly’ scared enough to keep away from it. For all the talk about him being the ‘God’ of cricket, Sachin Tendulkar would not have been spared if he’d supported the protestors. And any message of solidarity from Aamir Khan would have seriously jeopardised his next release; if he doesn't already have a perpetual target on his back.
The most significant point to be gleaned from this episode is that no one and absolutely nothing is sacred to the BJP. Neither the soldier nor the sportsperson.
(Harshit Rakheja is a former journalist and now a digital campaigner for social impact at Change.org India. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)