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Police in India detain wrestlers after they made sexual harassment allegations

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

The International Olympic Committee has condemned the police treatment of some of India's top wrestlers, who have been protesting against an influential lawmaker. He is accused of sexually harassing several female athletes, including a minor. From Delhi, Shalu Yadav reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

SHALU YADAV: An unprecedented moment in the history of sports in India - the police dragged some of the country's top wrestlers on the streets and detained them. Two Olympians, along with two-time world champion, had been protesting for months, which saw its climax in this moment last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAKSHI MALIK: (Through interpreter) The policeman's job is to arrest the culprit. But instead, they're using their power to crush us.

YADAV: India's first female wrestler to get an Olympic medal for the country, Sakshi Malik, screamed in frustration as the police vehicle drove her away.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

YADAV: "The culprit," the protesters say, "is Brij Bhushan Singh."

They accuse him of sexual misconduct towards some of the country's best-known female wrestlers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

YADAV: But just 3 miles away, as the protesters were beaten to the ground, Singh was posing gleefully for the cameras at the grand event hosted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for inauguration of the new Parliament.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIJ BHUSHAN SINGH: (Non-English language spoken).

YADAV: Brij Bhushan Singh is no ordinary man. He's a six-term lawmaker who holds a huge clout in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh that's governed by the ruling party, BJP, which sends the maximum number of MPs to the parliament. Now, the senior politician is accused by the country's seven most high-profile wrestlers, including a minor, of groping them, stalking them, demanding sexual favors and threatening them if they refuse to entertain his advances. He denies all the allegations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SINGH: (Through interpreter) If the charges against me are proved, I will hang myself to death. If they have proof against me, bring it to the fore.

YADAV: The wrestlers say that they do have evidence, but the police are not bringing the investigation forward. Under the Indian law, any person accused of abusing a minor is required to be arrested as proceedings continue, but this did not happen.

(CROSSTALK)

YADAV: The wrestlers' patience is wearing thin. With their medals bundled up and clutched to their chest, the dejected sports stars welled up as they reached the banks of Holy River Ganges, threatening to immerse their medals in it. Many here were reminded of the moment when legendary American boxer Muhammad Ali threw his medal away in the Ohio River to protest racism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: ...Shocking allegations of sexual harassment made by some of India's biggest names in wrestling.

YADAV: The controversy has uncovered a rot within the sports system in India that's so far remained carefully covered by the glorious sheen of medals. Many are calling this the #MeToo movement of Indian sports that will encourage other victims to open up about sexual abuse.

The International Olympic Committee called the turn of events disturbing and demanded an unbiased investigation into the matter. But with Singh's close association to the ruling BJP party, there's no guarantee that the wrestlers will find justice anytime soon, says Sharda Ugra, who's a longtime sports commentator in India.

SHARDA UGRA: I have no expectation that any act will come from there. It depends on what cause the Prime Minister's office wants to attach itself to, and the cause of wrestlers protesting is definitely not one of them. It's very, very obvious.

YADAV: A tough dilemma staring in the face of the Indian government - whether to choose medals over morals.

For NPR News, I'm Shalu Yadav in Delhi.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shalu Yadav

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