Now that the results of the Karnataka elections are out, and the excitement of uncertainty has subsided, we can return to Jantar Mantar. The women wrestlers are still there. And they need solidarity more than ever. It is more than three weeks since they started their sit-in protest demanding action against the chief of the IWF Brij Bhushan Singh.
They along with many women wrestlers have lodged complaints of sexual abuse against Singh and have been demanding action against him. Their demand has been stonewalled by the government. They allege that the minister in charge has tried to shield the accused.
The president of the Indian Olympic Association, herself a former sportswoman, tried to discredit the protest and shame the protesting sportspersons. The big media, both print and electronic, launched a smear campaign against the protests, as has become their habit for the last nine years. Any protest against the government is seen with suspicion and defamed. Be it the farmers, students, Muslims, or any other section of society, if they stand up for their rights, the governments and the media pounce on them.
Despite the attack on them by the media, gradually people from different sections of society have reached out to them. Students have organised solidarity marches, gotten beaten up for doing that, farmers have reached the protest site to express solidarity and political leaders are also coming. They have faced resistance from the police but they did not relent.
Wrestlers’ Protest Gets a Political Colour
This is the second time these wrestlers are camping at the Jantar Mantar. When they decided to protest publicly for the first time, they declared that theirs was a non-political protest and they would not welcome any political leader. Brinda Karat was insultingly refused space on the stage and asked to return. They decamped after the government formed a committee to look into their complaint.
What was done and not done, was in complete contravention of the law in this regard. But the wrestlers went with the word of the government and ended their protest. When months passed and nothing happened, they got exasperated and decided to return to the streets. Only to find that those spurned by them still stand by them. It would be unjust to say that they see in the protest another opportunity to embarrass the government and therefore, have jumped in.
The election campaign in Karnataka coincided with the protests. One does not know whether this protest was made an issue by the opposition in the campaign or not. But the campaign cast a shadow on the protest in a weird manner. The Congress Party declared that if in power, it would ban the Bajrang Dal. The Prime Minister made it an issue and attacked the Congress for insulting Bajrangbali. It was a ludicrous claim to make but you don’t expect better from Narendra Modi.
It was at this point that one of the protestors wrote a social media post supporting the Bajrang Dal. It was reported that Bajrang Punia, a wrestler sitting in the dharna wrote an Instagram post, “I am Bajrangi. I support Bajrang Dal. Jai Shri Ram.”
This post provoked many people who had been supporting the wrestlers from the very beginning of their protest. It was pointed out that the Bajrang Dal itself was a misogynist organisation. It is a violent body with a record of anti-Muslim and anti-Christian violence. How can one support those who stand with such a criminal organisation?
It was then recalled that these protesting sportspersons have in the past expressed anti-Muslim opinions. Such supporters said that it would not be possible for them to support people who are with a violent organisation like the Bajrang Dal. After this public lashing, Punia deleted his post. But the issue remained and left a bitter taste in the mouth of the supporters of their struggle.
The Role of Khaps in the Larger Fight for Justice
This question comes back when one sees khaps coming out in support of these wrestlers. They also said that they would abide by the decision of the khaps. We know that khaps are caste-based bodies. They are largely misogynist and reactionary in many matters. They impose restrictions on girls and women and have views which go against the spirit of the Indian Constitution. What do we do then with the wrestlers in their battle for their constitutional rights? How does one sit with those who do not agree with the constitutional values and on other occasions might take a position in favour of a man like Singh in their community against a woman?
These are not easy questions. What should one do in such situations? A simple question one needs to ask is whether wrestlers were wronged or not. Whether their fight was justified or not. We had rallied in their support because of this fact, for the injustice against them, and for the justness of their struggle. Their political opinion was not relevant in this matter. We do not ask a person about her political or social opinion before extending our hand to her if she has fallen or if she is in a difficult situation. This is not human. Solidarity is or should be unconditional when a community or a group or even an individual is fighting for justice.
If we perform this duty towards the cause of justice, we expand the space for questions like these to be asked. These are not irrelevant questions. For those who say that they hardly matter we must ask if they can speak for those who wish for their death or who enjoy their humiliation? It would be quite understandable to wish for the success of their struggle and distance oneself from them. To expect Muslims and Christians to hold the hands of those who dine with their murderers is criminal.
One must however, understand that it is these struggles which turn into moments when such questions can be raised and debated. Bajrang Punia did delete his post. Was it out of embarrassment or was it a temporary tactical move? At the very least this episode demonstrated that it is not civilised to support Bajrang Dal. It lost one prominent public voice at this moment which is crucial. Struggles such as these where you find those you hate standing with you also lead you to rethink your social and political positions or revise your attitude towards them.
All struggles for justice should be sites for conversation and debate about our worldviews. They must better our understanding about our fellow beings and society. They can and should cure us of our prejudices. Our prejudices are mostly not of our making. So, to free us from them can also not be left to me.
One only hopes that this battle of wrestlers achieves justice for them but it should also help them become more just and humane in the process. It would happen only when this battle also becomes for them an experience of unconditional human solidarity.
(The writer teaches at Delhi University. He tweets @Apoorvanand__. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)