Updated: February 2, 2021 7:41:13 am
Minutes into the first day of the women’s wrestling national championships at a school on the outskirts of Agra, where over 200 contestants jostled with spectators to watch the action, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the 64-year-old president of Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), announced a cash prize.
Sitting on a cushioned sofa on a podium overlooking two mats, Singh declared: “Koi pehelwan agar kursi par khada ho, toh use dhakka maar-kar gira do aur mere paas se 500 rupay le jaiye (If you find any wrestler standing on a chair, then topple her with a push and take Rs 500 from me).”
On cue, the crowd laughed. But it was one of those moments when no one was quite sure if Singh — a six-time BJP MP from Kaiserganj in UP, who has multiple criminal cases against him, and WFI chief for nine years — was being sarcastic or serious. Order prevailed soon.
It was trademark Singh, the hands-on strongman-administrator who has had the last word in anything wrestling in India for close to a decade now. “These are all strong men and women. To control them, you need someone stronger. Is there anyone stronger here than me?” he asks.
In an era when sports tournaments have been turned into an event management industry, wrestling remains a throwback to the old times.
The event that featured Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik and many in contention for the Tokyo Games later this year had a “dangal” feel to it. Apart from medals and the perk of a possible Olympic berth, the participants also fought to take home a buffalo, named Ganga, worth Rs 1.5 lakh. However, even as the curtains were drawn, Ganga was seen tethered at the venue. Officials say the jury was still out, the worthy wrestler to earn the prize hadn’t yet been picked.
A common sight at any such tournament in India, national or international, senior or junior, is of Singh sitting on a podium with a mic in his hand. He will shout out instructions for referees and wrestlers, stop and start a bout as he deems fit, will form ad-hoc laws that defy the rulebook.
“This is how I have controlled crowds of 15,000-20,000 people at my political events,” says Singh. “I am using the same style here… I understand that as WFI president, I shouldn’t cheer for one pehelwan or say things out loud, but what can I do, sometimes I get carried away.”
Last week, during the men’s national championships in Noida, Singh suspended a Railways coach for being too animated on the sidelines. Then, he demanded that the judges dock a point from a Delhi wrestler’s score as his supporters entered the field of play. For almost 10 minutes, the judges argued there was no provision to take such a decision. “Hum keh rahe hai na, kar dijiye (I am saying this, please do it),” Singh told them before eventually relenting.
“It’s very tough to manage his expectations, especially when it comes to technical aspects of a bout,” says a referee. “But he also understands the sport, so once he calms down, he lets us deal with the situation.”
On rare occasions where he isn’t present physically at an event, Singh monitors the proceedings virtually. “In March 2020, we had our national championships in Himachal Pradesh and I couldn’t go there. So we installed cameras everywhere so I could see everything from my house in New Delhi,” says Singh.
In Agra, he threatened to deflate the tyres of those who did not follow parking rules, continued to tell the referees when to award or dock a point, vetoed video referrals and gave instructions to the UP police on crowd management — all with a mic in his hand and from the podium.
The players are aware of Singh’s influence. Last weekend, when dope-tainted wrestler Narsingh Yadav — who Singh adjudged to be innocent after he failed a drugs test in 2016 — lost his bout in controversial circumstances, he made an appeal not to the judges but directly to Singh. It was only after Singh determined that Yadav had no case was the matter closed.
Another familiar sight at these nationals is of participants seeking Singh’s blessings, even before going to parents or coaches, after winning a medal. “It’s become a tradition over the years,” says a wrestler. “Samajh lijiye samman se hi hai (You can understand that it is only out of respect).”
Says WFI vice-president Vinod Tomar: “Wrestlers are mostly disciplined but still, you need a strong man to control all these strong men.” Singh smirks: “Aur humse zyada shaktishali aur koi hai kya (And is there anyone else stronger than me?)”
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