WFI polls: Vinesh Phogat to now return Khel Ratna, Arjuna awards

Double World Championships bronze medallist and two-time Olympian Vinesh Phogat announced on Tuesday that she is returning her Khel Ratna and Arjuna awards. The 29-year-old addressed a note to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on social media platform X to make her decision public.

Wrestler Vinesh Phogat during a press conference after Sanjay Singh, an associate of BJP MP and former chief of Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, became the new President of WFI, in New Delhi, Thursday, Dec. 21(PTI)

Phogat’s announcement comes four days after Tokyo Olympics bronze medallist Bajrang Punia returned his Padma Shri. On December 21, Rio Games bronze medallist Sakshi Malik had announced her retirement hours after the former Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh-backed Sanjay Singh’s panel dominated the WFI polls.

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The sports ministry on Sunday suspended WFI citing “blatant disregard for legal and procedural norms” and multiple violations of the federation constitution as well as the National Sports Code. The ministry instructed the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) to set up an ad-hoc committee to run the federation. IOA, whose ad hoc panel had run the body until the polls, is yet to name the fresh committee.

“I am returning my Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna and Arjuna Award. Many thanks to the powerful who have put me in this situation,” Phogat wrote. The wrestler was conferred with the Arjuna Award in 2016 and the Khel Ratna — India’s highest sports award for athletes — in 2020.

“Sakshi Malik has quit wrestling and Bajrang Punia has returned his Padma Shri. The entire country knows why the Olympic medallists were forced to do this and the news would have reached you as well. Mr Prime Minister, I am your country’s daughter Vinesh Phogat and I am writing to you to let you know what I have been going through for the past year,” she began.

“I remember that in 2016, when Sakshi Malik returned after winning the Olympic medal, the government made her a brand ambassador of beti bachao beti padhao (save the girl child, educate the girl child) programme. All women wrestlers were very happy. Now that Sakshi has been forced to quit wrestling, my mind goes back to 2016. Do women athletes exist only to feature in government ads? We don’t mind being in those ads because they give an impression that your government is seriously working for the betterment of women. I dreamt of winning an Olympic medal for the country but now that dream is increasingly becoming distant. I wish the upcoming women wrestlers realise their dreams.

“Our lives are nothing like those fancy advertisements. Whatever the women wrestlers have gone through in the past few years will give you an idea of how suffocated we are. By now, the flex boards of your fancy advertisements would have worn out. Sakshi has already retired and the perpetrator has not only spoken of his influence but has resorted to blatant sloganeering. Please take five minutes and listen to his statements and you’ll know what he has done. He has accepted to have made women wrestlers uncomfortable and has done his best to humiliate us. More importantly, he has forced many complainants to step back. That is truly horrifying.

“I have tried to put this entire episode behind me but it’s not easy. I did apprise you of everything when we met. For the past year, we have been on the streets demanding justice but no one has bothered to listen. They said our medals are worth 15 but these medals are dearer to us than our lives. Now that we have raised our voice for justice, we are being labelled as traitors. Mr. Prime Minister, are we traitors?

“I dn’t know what prompted Bajrang to return his Padma Shri but his image of returning the honour is eating me up. Like him, I detest my awards too. When I received these honours, my mother distributed sweets in the neighbourhood and urged my relatives to watch the news on TV. I shudder to think what those relatives would be telling my mother now.

“I want to get rid of the image of Vinesh accepting those honours, because that was a dream and whatever is happening to us is reality. No mother would want her daughter to go through this. I was awarded Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna and Arjuna Award, none of which means anything to me anymore. Every woman wants to live with dignity. For this reason, I am returning my Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna and Arjuna Award so that these awards do not weigh us down in our quest for a dignified life,” concluded Phogat.

Sanjay Singh, who returned to his hometown Varanasi on Tuesday, held a huge road show. “It was a proper show of strength. A cavalcade of hundreds of cars passed through the city and people showered their love. It took me six hours to cover 35 kilometres,” said Sanjay, whose Facebook page streamed the event.

“As far as Vinesh’s decision to return her awards is concerned, it’s none of my concern. It is her personal decision. I am hopeful that the sports ministry will reconsider its decision regarding WFI’s suspension,” he added.

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