In the ongoing protest by women wrestlers, one name has consistently popped up as being responsible – Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, 66, the president of the Wrestling Federation of India.
Brij Bhushan is a six-time BJP MP, who also had a stint with the Samajwadi Party, currently representing Uttar Pradesh’s Kaiserganj in the Lok Sabha. He is accused of allegedly sexually harassing players and misappropriating funds. Charges of sexual harassment were levelled against WFI coaches too. The protest includes leading names in the world of Indian wrestling, such as Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia, Sakshi Malik and Sangita Phogat.
The WFI has all allegations. Last week, after meeting with protesters, union minister Anurag Thakur said an oversight committee will investigate the allegations and submit its report in four weeks.
Meanwhile, Thakur said Brij Bhushan will cooperate with the investigation and “step aside” in the interim period.
The wrestlers subsequently ended their three-day protest at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. They’re all well-aware of the consequences of speaking out, and hope the government will take action.
“We can lose our lives for saying all this,” Vinesh Phogat said on January 18 at Jantar Mantar. “If anything happens to us, the president will be responsible for it.” She said she’d flagged their issues with prime minister Narendra Modi after the Tokyo Olympics last year and has subsequently received “death threats”.
As she spoke, a sports journalist at the venue commented, “Now Singh will have to resign.”
But will he?
A chequered past
Brij Bhushan has been president of the WFI since 2011. His children are also in the public eye. His son Prateek Bhushan Singh is a BJP MLA from Gonda; his other son Karan Bhushan Singh is vice-president of the WFI.
The protesters told journalists they hadn’t spoken up earlier because of fear.
Perhaps there’s reason to fear him. According to his election affidavit, Brij Bhushan has four pending cases against him, while he’s in “over 30 criminal cases”, though others peg it at “four dozen”. He’s called himself a baahubali who isn’t afraid of going to jail.
Crucially, Brij Bhushan has that he’s killed someone. This was in connection with the murder of Ravindra Singh, the brother of Samajwadi Party leader Vinod Kumar Singh, aka Pandit Singh, who once held sway over Gonda and Bahraich in Uttar Pradesh.
In the interview, Brij Bhushan said he shot the man who had killed Ravindra. “I pushed the man who shot Ravindra and shot him dead,” .
A journalist with a Gonda newspaper told Newslaundry that Brij Bhushan and Pandit had started their political journeys around the same time.
“Their region of political influence was also the same,” said the journalist, who has reported on UP politics for over 20 years. “After Ravindra’s death, their enmity increased. Pandit Singh believed his brother was killed because he was with Brij Bhushan.” Pandit Singh died of Covid-related complications in 2021.
Born in Gonda, Brij Bhushan’s interest in politics began as a college student in the 1970s. “His family supported the Congress but he was inclined towards the BJP from the beginning,” the journalist said. “His fortunes took a turn when LK Advani came to Gonda during the Ram Mandir rath yatra.”
This was in 1990. According to the journalist, Brij Bhushan was co-opted to drive a “chariot” as part of the yatra after the original driver fell ill. “This brought him closer to Advani. Later, he got a party ticket and his political journey began.”
This story might be the stuff of legends, though, because another journalist alleged that Brij Bhushan got closer to BJP leaders only during the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. He had participated in the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 and had a case filed against him. He was acquitted in 2020.
A journalist from Ayodhya said Brij Bhushan has “so many” cases filed against him that he’s called dabanng. In December 2021, he a wrestler on-stage during an event in Ranchi after he “lost his cool”. “No leader with decent or dignified conduct would have done that,” the journalist said.
A strongman with a ‘mini-economy’ in UP
As his political clout grew, Brij Bhushan developed his own mini-economy in Uttar Pradesh. Sources told Newslaundry he owns multiple colleges in the districts of Gonda, Basti, Bahraich and Ayodhya – some put the number at over 50. Students are purportedly “passed” if they pay a “lump sum amount”.
A journalist also alleged that Brij Bhushan “used his influence” to mine sand from the Sarayu and Ghaghra rivers, and has interests in liquor contracts and coal. “He has a huge mining business. He is full of bombast. Sometimes, he considers himself above the party because he won the MP seat six times consecutively. He thinks that whether or not the party gives him a ticket, he will become an MP.”
He also dabbles in real estate. “People had to sell their land against their will,” the Ayodhya journalist alleged. “After he built the Nandini Nagar Mahavidyalaya in Nawabganj, it expanded by 1-1.5 km...It is said the boundary of the college was never constructed! The expansion that started 30 years ago continues to this day.”
The turning point in Brij Bhushan’s tryst with controversy came in 1996, when he was accused of sheltering associates of underworld don Dawood Ibrahim. He was booked under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act and jailed. During his stint in prison, Atal Bihari Vajpayee allegedly , asking him to take courage and “remember Savarkarji who was sentenced to life imprisonment”.
“Later on, the CBI acquitted him,” said a senior journalist from Gonda. “In most allegations against him, he got bail due to lack of evidence. But it can’t be said that he’s beyond reproach. He did a lot of illegal work but survived due to political protection. Think about it, Vajpayee wrote a letter to the person accused of supporting Dawood Ibrahim. What political protection can be bigger than that?”
While he was in jail in 1996, the BJP gave his wife Ketki Devi Singh a party ticket and she won by a margin of 70,000 votes.
In 2009, Brij Bhushan parted ways with the BJP and joined the SP. He returned home to the BJP before Modi’s victory in 2014.
Yet Brij Bhushan’s politics often contradict his party’s. In 2009, when he was a BJP MP, he voted in favour of the Congress-led UPA government in the nuclear treaty. , he’s previously called Baba Ramdev the “king of adulterators” and criticised the Adityanath government’s preparedness for floods, saying they left the public to “bhagwan bharose”, the mercy of god.
He even fielded his own favourite candidates against BJP candidates. In 2017, during an event with Adityanath in Gonda, Brij Bhushan allegedly refused to sit next to the newly-elected chief minister “out of resentment”, the Ayodhya journalist said. “Adityanath beckoned several times to sit close to him but he didn’t. In that election, he fielded his candidate against the party’s candidate and made sure he won.”
Brij Bhushan is currently serving his third and final term as the head of the WFI. During the election to his first term, he won against Congress leader Deepender Singh Hooda, who he will file a defamation case against Brij Bhushan for “dragging” his name into the controversy.
A local journalist said Brij Bhushan “used to wrestle from a young age”, hence his interest in the sport.
Sports journalists are teeming with anonymous anecdotes about Brij Bhushan’s past behaviour during sporting events and towards wrestlers. While Newslaundry could not verify these incidents, they are quite telling.
A journalist who attended the Rio Olympics in 2016 said, “Sakshi Malik had just won the bronze medal. It was a big win, it was her day. We journalists were talking to her when Brij Bhushan and his men came and scolded her harshly, saying they would talk to the media. They were anxious to take credit. He was speaking as if he had won the medal.”
A journalist who was covered several Olympics said sexual harassment is worryingly common in sports like wrestling since participants are often from poorer backgrounds.
“Five years ago, a camp was organised in Lucknow. A junior girl filed a complaint and a Hindi newspaper reported that a case of sexual harassment had been registered,” said the journalist, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Singh got the case suppressed. Had it happened in Delhi, it would have been easier to work out the details. We tried but couldn’t find out anything about the complainant.”
He added, “That’s why camps are organised in places like Lucknow...There is no media and the police are with him.” It should be noted that the women wrestlers Brj Bhushan allegedly sexually exploited participants at national camps “for years”, singling out a centre in Lucknow.
Sports journalist Chander Shekhar Luthra told Newslaundry of his own clash with Brij Bhushan in 2016, when wrestler Narsingh Yadav failed a dope test and was subsequently banned for four years. Yadav had been scheduled to participate in the Rio Olympics.
“Singh insisted Narsingh would play. On August 4 that year, I wrote a story on how India would now not be able to compete in the 74 kg category,” Luthra said. “When I reached Rio, [Singh’s] people surrounded me and said, ‘What have you written? Wait and watch, he will play for India.’ These people kept fighting for Narsingh...Praveen Rana was also named in the 74 kg category but because of Singh’s stubbornness, no one could participate in that category that year.”
Another unnamed sports journalist said the government committee that will now investigate the allegations is a “tool to avoid” problems. “Even after such huge allegations and political pressure, they’ve formed a committee instead of removing him. That shows how powerful Singh is,” they said. “There is very little chance he will resign. Most committees formed till date have been inconclusive. Let’s see this one too.”
This story was translated from Hindi to English by Shardool Katyayan.
A weekly guide to the best of our stories from our editors and reporters. Note: Skip if you're a subscriber. All subscribers get a weekly, subscriber-only newsletter by default.