The Olympic wrestlers arrived on the banks of the sacred river Ganges late on Tuesday for what they had announced as a final act of desperation.
Two days before, the police had violently dismantled their protest camp in New Delhi and dragged them off to detention, striking a blow against their protracted effort to bring to account a politically powerful sports official they accuse of serial sexual harassment of female wrestlers.
Now, the athletes would throw their hard-earned medals, including two Olympic bronzes for a large nation curiously bereft of global sporting laurels, into the river and then begin a hunger strike.
“These medals decorating our necks no longer mean anything,” they said in a statement, adding that the authorities were “going after the victims” to force them to end their protest. “What is the point of life when you compromise on dignity?” the statement read.
The wrestlers, sobbing on the crowded riverbank, stopped short of discarding their medals at the end of two hours of high drama, as community leaders stepped in to ask them to give their pleas five more days. But their desperate act, after they were forced out of New Delhi’s main protest site, laid bare the shrinking space for protest in India’s capital nearly a decade into Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rule.
Activists, analysts and opposition politicians describe a pattern as Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., has grown increasingly allergic to dissent.
The party uses its majority in Parliament to disrupt any debate over uncomfortable issues. It deploys the police in New Delhi, which is under the control of India’s powerful home minister, to derail or prevent protests over those issues.
And, as equally powerful leverage, it unleashes a national broadcast media cowed to its interests, as well as an army of trolls and social media influencers, to demonize anyone who questions it.
In such an environment, the female wrestlers have learned how lonely and draining the process of justice remains for women when they face the wall of political power. Laws have been amended and reforms promised in recent years after brutal cases of violence and abuse against women, yet cases like the wrestlers’ demonstrate how misogyny remains deeply ingrained in the structures of power, advocates say.
Their plight could have wider demoralizing ramifications as India faces a dire need to tap into its widely underutilized female work force in its quest to become a major power.
Mr. Modi once celebrated these wrestlers, who rose to celebrity by beating the odds in a particularly male-dominated part of the country. But now that they have accused the chief of the country’s wrestling federation, a six-term lawmaker of the B.J.P., of sexual harassment and abuse, they have been met by what they call a political cover-up.
The protesting wrestlers — Sakshi Malik and Vinesh Phogat, along with a male wrestler, Bajrang Punia — say that the wrestling chief, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, 66, sexually harassed at least seven young women, one of whom was a minor, over the course of a decade, starting in 2012.
Mr. Singh has rejected the claims. “If a single allegation against me is proven, I will hang myself,” he said on Wednesday.
Officials in Mr. Modi’s party have tried to frame the accusations as a conspiracy cooked up by the political opposition less than a year before a national election, while saying the wrestlers should trust the sports authorities and the police to carry out an investigation.
The wrestlers say they have reasons not to trust the police. It took pressure from India’s Supreme Court to get the Delhi police to finally register a case against Mr. Singh. And while the Delhi police in other cases have been quick to arrest people on far less serious charges, Mr. Singh remains a free man, despite a strict law for the protection of minors that requires an arrest as proceedings continue.
As further cause for their distrust, the wrestlers cite the events of Sunday, when Mr. Singh attended the grand inauguration of a new Parliament building by Mr. Modi and posted pictures of him inside. That same day, the police tore down the wrestlers’ protest encampment, detained them and charged them with disrupting public order.
It was this final act — which United World Wrestling, the sport’s governing body, condemned in a statement that also expressed “disappointment over the lack of results of the investigations” — that led them to the river.
Protests in the capital have increasingly been relegated to a small designated site called Jantar Mantar. There, too, permission is required from a police force that has been accused by lawyers and activists of abusing “prohibitory orders” to prevent assemblies of dissenting groups while looking away when government supporters rally, at times even without permission.
Kavita Krishnan, a feminist activist, said she had seen a drastic shrinking of physical space for protest in the capital in recent years.
The previous coalition government headed by the Indian National Congress Party also tried to disrupt protests, particularly after a horrific gang rape case that shook India in 2012. But she and other activists were still able to hold regular protests, large and small, she said.
“We were not just picked up and carried off wholesale and prevented from having a demonstration at all,” she said.
“Jantar Mantar is the designated spot for protest, and the wrestlers are not allowed to continue their protest even there,” she said. “Even if at the designated places you can’t protest over a sustained length of time, where do you go?”
Suman Nalwa, a spokeswoman for the Delhi police, rejected suggestions that the police abuse laws to prevent assembly. She said Delhi continues to host frequent protests, particularly in Jantar Mantar.
“There are certain areas in New Delhi district because of security and law-and-order issues as well as traffic issues — they are out of bound for any kind of protest by anybody, irrespective of their political or ideological affiliations” she said.
When villagers and farmer groups announced that they would join the wrestlers at the protest site, more barricades were installed — some even welded to the road — while many of the groups were stopped at the city’s gates. After the camp was dismantled, the police put up large posters declaring that any assembly in the area was unlawful without prior permission.
On the banks of the Ganges in Haridwar late Tuesday, the wrestlers sat in a huddle as a large crowd of supporters and cameras surrounded them. Thousands were gathered for the evening sunset prayer.
Ms. Malik, the winner of an Olympic bronze and several other international medals, tightly hugged what her fellow protesters said was a box of her accolades and citations.
Around 7:30 p.m., a group of elderly farmer leaders arrived and pushed their way into the huddle for a meeting. When it became clear that they had persuaded the wrestlers not to throw their medals into the river, and to give the government five more days, a nearly comic quest ensued among protesters: Where were the medals? (The farmer leaders said they had taken the medals to protect them.)
“Who will send their daughters to play the sport when these kind of jackals are roaming around?” said Suhdir Kumar, a father of three, including one daughter, who was supporting the wrestlers’ protest.
“They are doing the right thing,” he said of the wrestlers. “At least they are opening the eyes of others.”
Mujib Mashal is The Times’s bureau chief for South Asia. Born in Kabul, he wrote for magazines including The Atlantic, Harper’s and Time before joining The Times. @MujMash
Hari Kumar is a reporter in the New Delhi bureau. He joined The Times in 1997. @HariNYT
Sameer Yasir is a reporter based in New Delhi. He joined The Times in 2020. @sameeryasir
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