Kolkata/New Delhi: A coach accused by protesting women wrestlers of having threatened complainants on behalf of Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief, BJP’s UP strongman Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh is himself an accused of similar crimes! A 2017 sexual harassment case based on a complaint filed by a woman who was a professional wrestler at the time remains pending.
In January and then again in April this year, top women wrestlers including Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia had alleged that coach Mahavir Prasad Bishnoi had threatened the complainants levelling serious sexual harassment allegations against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP with consequences if they did not withdraw their complaints.
Phogat and Punia had even said that along with the secretary general of the Haryana Wrestling Association Rakesh Singh, Bishnoi had allegedly offered bribes to the complainants and their families to “keep quiet”. Bishnoi had rubbished these claims as “baseless allegations” and was quoted by news agency PTI as saying that he did not even know who the victims were.
“If it’s proved that I am involved in giving threat calls, I am ready to be hanged,” Bishnoi had said at the time. Brij Bhushan had also made similar claims while denying that he sexually harassed the wrestlers. Interestingly, Bishnoi was given the Dronacharya Award in 2014, the country’s highest honour for sports coaches.
What the FIR says
A copy of a 2017 FIR registered in the Daryaganj Police Station has been accessed by The Wire and shows that Bishnoi was accused by a former woman wrestler of sustained sexual harassment and casteist verbal abuse. The allegations she makes in the FIR are significant as they point to enormous abuse of power by Bishnoi.
The FIR mentions Sections 354 and 354A (assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty), 509 (outraging the modesty of a woman), section 506 (criminal intimidation) of the Indian Penal Code.
Alongside are sections of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, which pertain to the outraging of modesty of an ST or SC woman, intentionally harassing, insulting or humiliating an ST or SC woman, and intentionally touching or sexually gesturing at an ST or SC woman.
The complainant was a national level wrestler who won medals in various national competitions in the past. Bishnoi was her chief coach, she noted in the complaint. Through the course of her training period, Bishnoi asked her for sexual favours, placing graphic verbal demands in some instances, her complaint said. The Wire is withholding her name and the division in which she worked to protect her identity at the request of her lawyer.
The complainant alleged that once, in New Delhi, he made demands to be dropped on her scooter, and touched her inappropriately from behind. The woman writes in the FIR that because Bishnoi is an “influential person”, she did not file a complaint initially. This emboldened him, she wrote, and on “numerous occasions during wrestling practice” he would touch her “very inappropriately on [her] chest, back and all over [her] body”.
The woman complainant also noted that he often deliberately made physical contact with her in order to be able to sexually harass her. On many occasions, he would address her caste and community in his insults, she said, and stressed that she should not “get disturbed by his actions” considering her caste background.
“He further said that as I am a Scheduled Caste woman I have no character and the heavens would not fall if he touches me. He said things which meant that being a Scheduled Caste woman I am of loose character. He would often ask for sexual favours and believed that because I am Scheduled Caste, I will not raise my voice and [am] an easy prey,” the complaint reads.
He would also often ask her to go to a hotel and repeatedly describe the nature of sexual favours he wanted, she charged. Once, her FIR says, he arrived at her players’ quarters – in which men were not allowed – and sexually assaulted her. Upon learning that she was pregnant, he asked her to get an abortion. During the period of her pregnancy too, Bishnoi would make various sexual demands of her.
Just before a board was to decide on the final team, while the players waited at Rajghat, Bishnoi insisted that the wrestler, who was pregnant at the time, engage in sexual activities with him, the FIR says. He threatened her with actual ouster from the team if she refused.
Others who were at the venue, she writes, saw her crying and she told them that the coach had been telling her “wrong things”.
Finally, in May 2017, the woman lodged a formal complaint against the coach and received threats not just from Bishnoi but also one Rajeev who called the woman’s husband and asked them to drop the case. They were also offered bribes by Bishnoi and Rajeev, they said.
“We were under constant fear for our lives,” the woman wrote in her complaint. She and her husband also lodged a complaint at the Sunlight Police Station. Even before the enquiry began, she was transferred to a different city. The fact that she was eight months pregnant, she notes, led her to believe that Bishnoi may have had a hand in this deputation.
The woman noted that she was eventually “weeded out of the team”.
What Bishnoi and the lawyers said
The case is still being heard at a special Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act court. Bishnoi’s counsel is Rajiv Mohan, the public prosecutor in the Nirbhaya case. Mohan said that the survivor has not recorded her statement yet.
“Sometimes she appears and sometimes she excuses herself, citing illness or her husband’s illness,” he said. But Mohan added that she has appeared “almost on all the dates” set by the court, including on the last one.
However the complainant survivor’s counsel, who asked not to be named, said that this claim was false and that Bishnoi’s lawyers do not appear on designated court dates. He also said that she has insisted on being cross questioned on the same day as when she gives her statement, but it was the other side has been insisting that she give her statement on one day and is cross questioned on a later date.
Rajiv Mohan, Bishnoi’s lawyer, also said that the case was one prompted by rivalry between two groups. This is a claim that Bishnoi also made to the media. Speaking at some length, Bishnoi said that he was the victim of the case and that all charges against him were false. “As coach of the [redacted department] I had to select four girls and tried to train her [the survivor] in the sport. But she got married, without informing me, and also became pregnant. She asked for medical leaves and I eventually had to tell her to leave the team,” he said.
When asked if pregnant women in the team were entitled to leaves, Bishnoi said that they get two years and six months of maternity leave. Bishnoi also claimed that the department complaint filed against him by the woman led to his suspension and the loss of “one or two promotions”.
“Although the department enquiry found that I was absolutely spotless, I eventually had to leave this job and took on a new role at SAI. I was the only Dronacharya awardee at that department and they did this to me,” he said.
Bishnoi further said that his experience was that in the last two decades, 18 out of the 20 cases of harassment filed by women have been proven false. When questioned on where women who feel like they are victims of gender crimes should go, Bishnoi said that there is a clear system in place within India’s wrestling infrastructure.
He then said, “Men are scared of women in wrestling. Women need rights, it’s true, but men also need some. You don’t know, but men have been committing suicide. I myself know of such cases. My department suspended me but they should have suspended the woman instead.”
Bishnoi also said that he did not see caste among his team’s players and claimed that SC/ST Act charges were added to harass him further. However, the woman’s lawyer said Bishnoi’s talk of rivalry was an attempt to divert from the main aspect of the case – but was not a surprise. “They function in this way. Either you succumb to their demands or you are out of the sport,” he said.
The case will next be heard on July 24.