By Rhea Mogul, CNN
(CNN) — Some of India’s top female wrestlers were detained by police Sunday, in a chaotic escalation of a weeks-long protest against the president of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), who they accuse of sexual harassment.
Olympians Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik were among those held as they attempted to march to New Delhi’s historic center, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi was inaugurating the country’s controversial new Parliament building.
According to Malik, one of India’s most celebrated female wrestlers, some protesters were peacefully marching to Parliament when scuffles broke out with police.
Officers “forcefully dragged and detained” the protesters, Malik told reporters from inside a police vehicle before being driven away. “We don’t know where they’re taking us,” said Malik, who was later released.
Senior Delhi Police officer Dependra Pathak told reporters Sunday the protesters “broke police barricades” and didn’t follow police instructions.
“They broke the law, and that’s why they were detained,” Pathak said. CNN has reached out to Delhi police to query the allegations against the wrestlers, which are reported to include rioting and disobeying a public servant.
Police also dismantled the protesters’ makeshift campsite in Jantar Mantar, the wrestlers said, though some protesters were still at the protest site late Sunday.
Dozens of wrestlers and their supporters have been camping at the site since last month to call for more action to be taken against WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who they accuse of sexual harassment.
Singh, a powerful lawmaker and politician from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is a controversial figure who is being investigated by police for alleged sexual harassment. He attended the inauguration of the new parliament, posting a picture of himself outside the building on Facebook.
He denies all allegations of sexual harassment, and has accused the wrestlers of playing a political game, alleging opposition parties are behind the protests, without providing evidence for the claim.
After her release late Sunday, two-time Olympian Phogat said democracy was being “murdered” at Jantar Mantar, even as Modi inaugurated the new parliament building.
“On one hand the Prime Minister has inaugurated the new building of democracy. On the other hand the arrests of our people are ongoing,” said the athlete, who is a member of one of India’s most well-known wrestling families.
Accusations of apathy
The allegations against Singh first came to light in January, when several leading wrestlers demanded an inquiry into claims of sexual harassment by younger athletes against him.
In a letter addressed to the president of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and shared on Twitter, five leading wrestlers said they wanted to create a “safe and secure place” for young wrestlers, especially sportswomen.
Soon after the letter was made public, Phogat and others took to the streets, demanding Singh’s dismissal. At the time, the WFI denied the allegations but said an inquiry was underway.
India’s sports ministry said it would look into the claims and Singh was asked to step aside for a few weeks. The wrestlers stopped their protest as a result, but more than three months on, they say not enough action has been taken.
In April, following protests and intervention by the country’s Supreme Court, Delhi police registered two cases against Singh, including the alleged sexual harassment of a minor.
In a tweet on Sunday, Malik called out the alleged double standard of the police.
“It takes 7 days for Delhi Police to register a (case) against Brij Bhushan… it didn’t even take 7 hours to register a (case) against us for peacefully protesting,” she wrote. “Has dictatorship started in this country? The whole world is watching how the government is treating its players.”
Modi inaugurates controversial parliament
While India’s top female athletes were clashing with police on the streets, Modi was inaugurating the country’s new parliament building in New Delhi, part of a $2.4 billion revamp of the capital’s historic center that his critics have called a “vanity project.”
In keeping with his position as a leader who is intent on shedding any vestige of India’s colonial past, and cementing it as the “mother of democracy,” Modi gave an impassioned speech from inside the building.
“This is a temple of our democracy that gives a message of India’s resolution to the world,” he said. “When India moves forward, the world moves forward.”
But the opening had become a flashpoint in the ongoing political and cultural war between Modi and his opponents.
Last week, 19 political parties announced they would boycott the opening, taking issue with Modi’s decision to inaugurate the parliament building himself, rather than letting India’s President and head of state, Droupadi Murmu, lead the ceremony.
Some politicians have also questioned the government’s choice of inauguration date, which falls on what would have been the birthday of the late Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a leading figure in India’s Hindu-nationalist movement.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) considers him a hero, while its opponents argue that Savarkar’s ideologies discriminated against minorities.
The new triangular parliament building is part of a major overhaul of New Delhi’s colonial-era administrative center dubbed the Central Vista Redevelopment Project. Since it was announced in September 2019, the plan has drawn criticism from politicians, architects and heritage experts over the cost and timing of the works.
Many of Modi’s critics voiced support for the protesting wrestlers after news of their detention emerged.
“Even while protesting in front of the Parliament, which stands as a symbol of justice and truth, our wrestlers got mistreated & manhandled instead of justice,” DK Shivakumar, the Deputy Chief Minister of India’s southern Karnataka state, wrote on Twitter.
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, general secretary of India’s opposition Congress Party, called the wrestlers’ detention “totally wrong” in a tweet Sunday.
“The arrogance of the BJP government has increased so much that the government is mercilessly trampling the voices of our women players under their boots,” she wrote. “The whole country is watching the arrogance of the government and this injustice.”
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