Wrestler Vinesh Phogat announced her decision to return the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna, the country’s highest sporting honor awarded to her in 2020, along with the Arjuna Award, in a strongly-worded open letter addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and shared on her social media platforms on Tuesday evening.
She said that awards “have no meaning in my life now” and “every woman wants to live life with respect”.
The World Championship medallist’s decision comes days after fellow wrestler Bajrang Punia returned his Padma Shri, protesting against the election of Sanjay Kumar Singh, a close aide of BJP MP and former Wrestling Federation of India chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, as the WFI’s new president.
Brij Bhushan has been charged with sexual harassment of women wrestlers.
In her letter, Vinesh wrote about the time when Sakshi — in 2016 — was made one of the ambassadors of the government’s ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ campaign after she won a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics. She said the decision had given them hope and filled them with pride.
“Do women athletes exist only to feature on government’s advertisements… are the protesting wrestlers traitors,” she asked.
“Those fancy flex boards with your advertisements have become old and Sakshi, too, has now retired. The exploiter has also said his dominance will continue and has indulged in very crude sloganeering. Just spare five minutes of your life and listen to the statements given by that man in the media, you will know what all he has done… What’s more serious is that he has forced many female wrestlers to step back. This is very scary,” read her letter.
She said she has tried to forget the entire incident but it “hasn’t been easy”. “Sir, our medals and awards are being said to be worth Rs 15, but these medals are dearer to us than our lives. When we won medals for the country, the whole country took pride in us. Now, when we raise our voices for justice, we are being called traitors. Are we traitors, Prime Minister?” she asked.
“I have started feeling disgusted with my awards. When I received these awards, my mother distributed sweets in our neighbourhood. Now I want to get rid of that image of Vinesh receiving the award because that was a dream, while what is happening with us now is the reality,” she said.
Sakshi Malik, the third wrestler leading the protest against Brij Bhushan, declared her intention to retire from wrestling shortly after the announcement of the WFI election results last week.
On December 24, three days after the WFI elections, the government suspended the new committee headed by Sanjay Kumar Singh, citing violation in the decision-making process and also noting that Brij Bhushan still controlled the federation.