The second leg of the protests by wrestlers in New Delhi has entered its second week—but even larger than the headlines that the Delhi Police have finally registered an FIR against the men accused of sexual harassment and abuse in the Wrestling Federation of India are those about PT Usha's comments.
On 27 April, retired track and field icon PT Usha said the athletes, who are sitting in at Jantar Mantar to demand action on their allegations of sexual harassment, should be "disciplined" and that their actions tarnished India’s image. The comments by the Indian Olympic Association president, who was elected to the Rajya Sabha last July, came as a shock to the wrestlers, who asked how peaceful protests can be equated with indiscipline.
Usha's comments are a reflection of the patriarchal system in which she has grown and flourished. Justice comes in second or even last, far behind notions of image, societal ‘norms’ and protection of perpetrators of crimes against women. It is well known that in the world of sports, women and gender minorities face the brunt of the power imbalance that enables abusers.
Importantly, Usha’s comments come as a reminder of the lack of support that gender minorities face in sports. Often because of this, they are left with two options: silent endurance or exclusion. In the 2022 Commonwealth Games, the Indian Women's Lawn Bowl team won gold, adding to India's tally of 61 medals. While their win made history as the first to win a gold medal in the specific sport and made it to the headlines, at a talk show the team members revealed the harassment they had been facing. Speaking to author Jyotsana Mohan on Table Talk with Jo, they said that even before they entered the competition, it was made clear to them that they were selected for their looks, which significantly demotivated them. Such harassment is often reduced to silent battles because of taught fear and lack of support.
This is one of many barriers that women and gender minorities have to face in a male-dominated field where any questioning and resistance makes you a target. In an interview with The Indian Express, one of the protesting athletes Vinesh Phoghat said that it was the realisation that the harassment would not stop and younger wrestlers would continue to face abuse that made them raise their voices. In a field where women are still fighting for respect, abuse creates walls that make collective action a necessity. In such circumstances, it’s important for influential people such as Usha to come out in support of the wrestlers, not speak the language of patriarchy.
Moreover, the uproar about Usha’s comments has garnered more attention than the lack of action against the alleged accused itself. This is the second protest the wrestlers have held and most people seemed to have turned a blind eye--until Usha spoke. Her comments seemed to have made them realise this is an important fight. While male politicians called out Usha, sportspersons such as Harbhajan Singh, Kapil Dev, and Neeraj Chopra took to social media to demand justice for the wrestlers. Society seems to have mastered the art of focusing their rage more on a woman, in power or not, than on joining the wrestlers in demanding action against those accused of sexual harassment.
Even now, social media is busy cancelling Usha rather than focusing on the systems that refuse to implement a zero-tolerance policy. This misdirection of anger shows how deeply manipulative patriarchy is and how reflexively biased it has made people. This is also why protests matter for any nation, to demand justice in a system that is designed to work against you. It's the protests that are truly supporting the wrestlers at Jantar Mantar. While protests won’t tarnish a nation’s image, a lack of them definitely will.