The day following India’s star wrestler and Rio Olympics medalist Sakshi Malik’s retirement in protest of Brij Bhushan’s aide winning the WFI chief election, Tokyo Olympics medalist Bajrang Punia decided to return his Padma Shri award on Friday.
In videos posted on X, Punia was not allowed to enter Kartavya Path in Delhi to return his Padma Shri. Punia then left his award on the footpath.
In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi which he posted on X, Punia said that he is returning his Padma Shri award, which was conferred upon him in 2019, to protest the election of Sanjay Singh as the president of the Wrestling Federation of India on Thursday.
Sanjay Singh is a close aide of Bharatiya Janata Party MP and former Wrestling Federation of India chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. Brij Bhushan was ousted from his post after the wrestlers, including Punia, Malik and Vinesh Phogat accused him of sexual harassment and intimidation.
Punia said that despite being conferred with various honours for his achievements in the sport, he could do nothing to keep the sport safe for his fellow female wrestlers.
Living life as an “honoured” athlete would hurt him, Punia added.
Below is the full translated text of Bajrang Punia’s letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi:
Respected Prime Minister,
Hope you are well. You will be busy serving the country. Amidst your busy schedule, I would like to draw your attention to our sport of wrestling. You must be aware that in the month of January this year, the women wrestlers of the country had made serious allegations of sexual harassment against Brij Bhushan Singh, who was in charge of the wrestling federation.
When the movement started, I also joined it. The agitating wrestlers returned to their homes in January when the government assured them of taking concrete action. But even after three months, when the FIR was not filed against Brij Bhushan, then in the month of April, we wrestlers again took to the streets and protested asking the Delhi Police to at least register an FIR against Brij Bhushan Singh.
But things still did not work out, so we had to go to court. We had to go and lodge an FIR. In January, the number of complainant women wrestlers was 19, which came down to seven by April. That is, in three months, with his power, Brij Bhushan Singh had repelled 12 women wrestlers in their fight for justice. The movement lasted for 40 days. In these 40 days, one female wrestler further retreated. There was a lot of pressure on all of us. Our protest site was destroyed and we were chased out of Delhi and our protest was banned. When this happened we had no idea what to do. That’s why we thought of shedding our medals in the Ganga. When we went there, our coaches and the farmers did not allow us to do so. At the same time, a call came from one of your responsible ministers and we were told to come back. That justice would be done to us. Meanwhile, we also met our Home Minister, in which he assured us that he will support the women wrestlers in getting justice and will expel Brij Bhushan, his family and his henchmen from the Wrestling Federation. We accepted his advice and ended our movement from the streets, because the government would resolve the wrestling union and the fight for justice would be fought in the court These two things seemed logical to us.
But in the wrestling federation elections held on December 21, Brij Bhushan has once again won. He gave the statement that “there is dominance and there will be dominance.” A person accused of sexual exploitation of female wrestlers was again openly claiming his dominance over the body that manages wrestling. Under this mental pressure, Sakshi Malik, the only woman wrestler to win an Olympic medal, retired from wrestling.
All of us spent the night crying. We couldn’t understand where to go, what to do and how to live. The government and the people gave us so much respect. Should I continue to suffocate under the burden of this respect? In the year 2019, I was awarded the Padma Shri and was also honoured with the Khel Ratna and the Arjuna Award. I was very happy when I received these honours. It seemed my life had been successful. But today I am more unhappy than before and these honours are hurting me. There is only one reason. My fellow women wrestlers have to give up the sport of wrestling for their safety. The same sport which gave me this honour.
Sports had brought tremendous changes in the lives of our women players. Earlier, it could not be imagined in the rural areas that boys and girls would be seen playing together in the rural fields. But this could happen because of the courage of the first generation women players. You will see girls playing in every village and they are even going abroad to play. But those who were dominatin the sport or will continue to dominate, even their shadow scares the women players and now they have completely taken over again. The photo of them with flowers and garlands around their necks must have reached you. The daughters who were to become the brand ambassadors of Beti Bachao Beti Padhao have been put in such a situation that they have to step back from their game. We “respected” wrestlers could not do anything. I will not be able to live my life as a “respected” person after our female wrestlers were insulted. Such a life will torment me. That’s why I am returning this “honour” to you.
Whenever we used to go to any program, the stage director would introduce us by calling us Padma Shri, Khel Ratna and Arjun awardee wrestlers and people would clap with great enthusiasm. Now if someone calls me like this, I will feel disgusted because despite having so much respect, a female wrestler was deprived of the respectable life that everyone wants to live.
I have full faith in God, there is delay in his house but not darkness. One day justice will definitely triumph over injustice.