Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh: The Man at the Centre of India’s Wrestling Row
Asia India News Parliament Sexual Harassment Sports

Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh: The Man at the Centre of India’s Wrestling Row

Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh is an influential but controversial MP from India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). For several months, he’s been at the centre of India’s biggest sporting row.

The allegations against him are grave. Some of India’s top wrestlers, including Olympic medallists and world champions, accuse him of sexually harassing female athletes and have held months of protests demanding his arrest.

Mr Singh, who until recently had been the chief of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) for the past 12 years, has denied the allegations. He accuses the wrestlers of being “politically motivated” and recently said he would “hang himself even if a single allegation is proved” against him.

After months of headline-making protests by wrestlers – and a nudge from the Supreme Court – police in the capital Delhi registered two cases against him in April. Seven female wrestlers told the police that he had molested and groped them at training camps and tournaments.

As one of them is a minor, police invoked the stringent Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (Pocso) Act. In the past few days, reports say the minor has withdrawn her allegations. Wrestler Sakshi Malik told the BBC she believed “the player was pressurised into withdrawing the charges”. Mr Singh refused to comment on the allegation, saying “let law take its course”.

Lawyer Akshat Bajpai says most people charged under Pocso are immediately arrested – but six weeks later, police are yet to act against Mr Singh.

Although the government denies shielding him, the protesters and opposition politicians allege that the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is giving him a long rope because of political expediency.

Born on 8 January 1957 in Gonda district in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the six-term MP claims substantial support in a number of parliamentary constituencies and analysts say with general elections due next year, he is expected to play a pivotal role.

But Sharat Pradhan, senior journalist in the state capital Lucknow, says Mr Singh is never far from controversy and the 66-year-old is often in the news for the wrong reasons.

A 2021 video that has resurfaced on social media in recent months shows him hitting a young under-15 wrestler on stage for “misbehaving”. And last year, he bragged on camera that he had murdered a man who had killed his friend Ravinder Singh. “Whatever people say, let me tell you that I have committed one murder,” he told the reporter. “I put a rifle to [his] back and shot him. He died.”

Mr Singh was neither censured for his violent outburst against the young athlete nor was he arrested or charged for murder despite his confession.

Also, these were not the only times Mr Singh fell foul of the law – although he has never been convicted, he was named in more than three dozen cases amid accusations of theft, rioting, attempt to murder and kidnapping.

Mr Singh, who studied law in college and participated in wrestling competitions in his youth, became politically active while a student and joined the BJP in 1988. He was elected to parliament in 1991.

He first came into prominence for aggressively participating in the BJP’s movement for the construction of a temple in the town of Ayodhya. Along with several party leaders and workers, he was named as an accused in the December 1992 demolition of the 16th-Century Babri Mosque. Years later, they were all absolved.

But a few months before the 1996 elections, Mr Singh was arrested on charges of sheltering some associates of Dawood Ibrahim, India’s “most wanted man” who was charged with masterminding the 1993 deadly Mumbai bombings.

According to court documents, Mr Singh had accommodated the criminals in his official Delhi home and had even lent them his phone to speak to the underworld don. He spent nearly three months in jail under TADA, the stringent Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act, although he was finally cleared for a lack of evidence.

In the 2004 parliamentary elections, when the BJP candidate from Gonda, Ghanshyam Shukla, died in a road crash on the day of voting, many called it a murder and blamed it on Mr Singh. A decade later, in an interview with news website Scroll, Mr Singh confirmed that even Atal Bihari Vajpayee – BJP leader and then prime minister – had accused him of murder, but added that the rumour was started by his opponents.

In 2008 when the BJP expelled him for not following the party whip in a key vote in parliament, he cosied up to the regional Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, and won a seat for the party in the 2009 elections. But before the next elections in 2014, he was back with the BJP – badmouthing Mr Yadav. He won, and was re-elected in 2019.

Despite the controversy surrounding him at present, Mr Singh insists that he will contest next year’s elections.

Last Sunday, he addressed a rally – his first since the allegations – in his home town where he arrived in a huge convoy, leading a 25km-roadshow that was seen as a show of strength by analysts.

As local party leaders fawned over him, a female party colleague called him “the pride of the region” and an “inspiration for the youth”.

In Gonda and some of the adjoining districts, where Mr Singh and his family own and run more than 50 schools and colleges, he enjoys tremendous popularity.

When BBC Hindi’s Anant Zhanane recently visited one of the colleges to ask the students about allegations against Mr Singh, they started shouting slogans hailing him.

“He’s our guardian, a messiah for people on low income. We will be with him for life,” said Sonu Tiwari. Another student Vishwajeet Kumar Singh said the MP “lives in my heart, he’s my god”.

Mr Pradhan says, “Singh is cast in the same mould as mafia don-turned-politicians Atiq Ahmad [who was recently killed on live TV] or Mukhtar Ansari. He wields influence among those he helps and tries intimidation to control others.”

But, he believes, that his influence may be over-rated.

“The talk of him being able to deliver four-five seats for the BJP in the next elections is exaggerated. He’s formidable at present because he has the BJP’s backing. The moment the BJP cuts him off, his power would begin to wane.”

And that, he says, would very likely happen soon. The wrestlers’ protests have made global headlines and after a number of medal-winners were dragged through the streets last month when they tried to march on parliament, even the International Olympic Committee weighed in, calling on India to ensure the safety of athletes and carry out a fair investigation.

“Dropping Mr Singh may not help the BJP in undoing the damage already done to India’s reputation,” Mr Pradhan says, “but it may contain it from getting worse.”

Source : BBC