Beyond the Mat

The realities of Haryana’s women wrestlers

Budding wrestlers at Chhotu Ram Stadium, in Haryana’s Rohtak city, undergo rigorous training. Amit Mehra / Indian Express Archive
29 February, 2024

In Haryana’s Rohtak city, nestled along the Sheila Bypass, stands a weathered archway bearing the inscription “Sir Chhotu Ram Stadium”—a renowned hub for wrestling in the state. One morning in March 2023, a dedicated and rather impatient coach awaited the arrival of around sixty young women, all clad in loose-fitting shorts and T-shirts, sporting short haircuts, often leading observers to mistake them for boys. Prepared for the first of two daily rigorous training sessions, they would dedicate the next four intense hours to jack-knifing push-ups, deep knee bends, pull-ups and rope climbs.

In the broader context of Indian sports, wrestling has long been spotlighted by the media as a vehicle for empowering rural women, offering a transformative journey for those hailing from impoverished backgrounds. Yet, my fieldwork in Rohtak during the spring of 2023 unveiled a simpler reality: the dreams of these athletes were grounded in meeting familial expectations. “My parents have invested a lot in my wrestling career,” a 21-year-old wrestler told me. “I want to fulfil their wishes—win an Olympic medal and marry a man of their choice.”

Furthermore, in January 2023, this narrative of empowerment plummeted, as allegations of sexual harassment against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh—the chief of the Wrestling Federation of India at the time, and a member of parliament from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party—came to light. India’s top wrestlers took to the streets, demanding an investigation. The WFI, siding with Singh, denied the allegations and dismissed them as motivated.

“Women everywhere are subject to harassment, but this is the first time that wrestlers have protested against exploitation on the sports grounds,” Usha Sharma Sihag, a coach and co-founder of the Atlius wrestling school in Hisar district, told me. She added that the protesters were a minority. “Why would these poor girls risk their decade-long wrestling career for a lost battle against patriarchy? Anyway, the alternative to a sports career in Haryana is a life of domesticity—a fate wrestlers would do anything to resist.”