Indian wrestler to return honour in protest over sport's new president

Bajrang Punia, the first Indian wrestler to win four world championship medals, announces to return Padma Shri

By Reuters

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Bajrang Punia. — Reuters file
Bajrang Punia. — Reuters file

Published: Fri 22 Dec 2023, 7:44 PM

A top Indian male wrestler is returning one of the country's highest civilian awards in protest over the election of a president to the sport's ruling body backed by his predecessor, who is accused of sexually harassing female wrestlers.

Bajrang Punia, the first Indian wrestler to win four world championship medals, was awarded the Padma Shri — the fourth highest civilian award — by the Indian president in 2019 for his achievements as an athlete.

Punia on Friday shared his letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on social media site X, saying he would "not be able to live with the respect bestowed upon him by the government of India at a time when women wrestlers have been insulted".

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His decision to return the award comes a day after Sanjay Singh was elected as chair of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI). Singh was backed by former WFI chief Brij Bhushan Singh.

Brij Bhushan Singh has rejected the allegations made against him. His case is pending trial, officials from Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have said.

There was no immediate official response from the government on Punia's letter to Modi.

On Thursday, protesting female wrestlers said they were shocked that a man supported by Brij Bhushan Singh was allowed to lead the WFI. One top female wrestler, Sakshi Malik, said their protests were being overlooked and announced her retirement from the sport.

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In January, Punia had joined female wrestlers' protests against Brij Bhushan Singh, who is also a federal lawmaker in the BJP. Singh was charged in June for sexually harassing six female wrestlers, stripped of administrative powers by the sports ministry and the government pledged to investigate the allegations and protect female athletes.

United World Wrestling (UWW), the sport's global governing body, suspended the WFI after the scandal.

The WFI missed the August deadline to appoint a new president, forcing Indian wrestlers to compete as neutral athletes in global events.

Opposition parties have criticised Modi's government over its response to the allegations, which have attracted global attention due to a series of scandals over the treatment of women in sport.


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