Kapil's Devils put their weight behind the wrestlers

By, New Delhi
Jun 02, 2023 11:21 PM IST

The 1983 World Cup-winning squad feel that the protesting wrestlers 'deserve better treatment'

On May 30, as India's elite wrestlers Bajrang Punia, Sakshi Malik, and Vinesh Phogat broke down at Har Ki Paudi while contemplating immersing their international medals in the Ganga, the WhatsApp group of the 1983 World Cup-winning cricket stars came to life.

Kapil Dev(PTI)
Kapil Dev(PTI)

They couldn't believe what was happening. There was shock and sadness. Many of them felt that they should find a way to support the wrestlers. So when two of Indian cricket's greatest legends, Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev, mooted the idea of issuing a joint statement, the rest of the group responded in the affirmative.

"The idea to draft a public statement came from Gavaskar and Kapil on our WhatsApp group which is our common forum to stay connected. The proposal had complete support from the rest of us," Roger Binny, a member of the '83 dream team and current BCCI president, told HT.

"Wrestlers have done so much for the country. They deserve better treatment. Both parties should come together and resolve the issue as soon as possible," Binny added.

On Friday, 'Kapil's Devils' expressed their distress on the way the protesting wrestlers were detained by Delhi Police on Sunday. The cricket stars also urged the wrestlers to abstain from "hasty decisions" and hoped for a quick resolution to their grievance.

"We are distressed and disturbed at the unseemly visuals of our champion wrestlers being manhandled. We are also most concerned that they are thinking of dumping their hard-earned medals into river Ganga," the statement read.

"Those medals have involved years of effort, sacrifice, determination, and grit and are not only their own but the nation's pride and joy. We urge them not to take any hasty decision in this matter and also fervently hope that their grievances are heard and resolved quickly. Let the law of the land prevail."

"Everybody was stunned at what was unfolding on the television. We started texting in the group. The general tone was, 'This is not fair. It shouldn't be happening,'" recalled Kirti Azad, one of the members of the World Cup-winning team.

The wrestlers' 36-day sit-in came to an abrupt end on Sunday when their march to the new Parliament — which was inaugurated the same day — was cut short by Delhi Police. The wrestlers and their supporters were dragged and detained and the police soon swooped in to clear the protest site.

On Tuesday afternoon, Punia, Phogat, and Malik issued a statement on Twitter announcing their decision to do away with their medals. It took a late intervention from Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) president Naresh Tikait, who rushed to Haridwar and deliberated with wrestlers for at least 30 minutes, for the latter to change their mind.

"I have been making noise in my capacity as a politician, but it was important that we came out as sportspersons. The way our wrestlers were treated on May 28 (Sunday) left us shell-shocked," Azad, who is also a member of Trinamool Congress, said.

Former all-rounder Madan Lal, who turned the '83 final India's way with the scalp of Vivian Richards, said, "Some of the former cricketers in the group have contracts with various platforms as experts during the busy Indian Premier League (IPL) season. But, despite the packed schedule, such cricketers followed every development of the protest closely. It was very distressing to see the way wrestlers were treated by the police. There has to be a better way to deal with this."

"It is heartbreaking that they decided to throw their medals. We aren't in favour of them immersing their medals because medals don't come easy. We urge the government to sort out this issue as soon as possible," the 72-year-old added.

The decision to issue the statement was finally taken on Tuesday, following which some members drafted the statement. The former cricketers also have a three-member 'core group' that has a WhatsApp group of its own. The statement was finalised by this group that comprises of Kapil, Gavaskar, and Azad.

"The statement was finetuned by this core group and sent. There were no second thoughts at any stage."

The tenor of the cricketers' WhatsApp group that they usually use to share jokes and memes, has also turned dour over the past few weeks with protest updates outnumbering innocuous posts.

"We have been sharing plans to celebrate the 40th anniversary (June 25) of our World Cup win, but of late, all we have been sharing is protest updates," said Azad.

"As former sportspersons, we know the kind of blood, sweat, and toil that goes into representing your country and winning an international medal. Imagine the mental agony these wrestlers must be in to decide on doing away with their medals. It was truly heartbreaking."

"Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh has been named under the POCSO Act. Under this Act, the accused is arrested first and then the investigation begins. But look at the way this case is being handled. Imagine what these women wrestlers must be going through," he added.

Over the past week, former India cricketers Anil Kumble and Robin Uthappa and Olympic gold medallists Abhinav Bindra and Neeraj Chopra have tweeted their support for the wrestlers. Lal's message to the wrestlers is simple: Keep fighting.

"All I want to tell the wrestlers is, please keep fighting. It is your right to protest. I don't know what is the truth, but if the wrestlers have gone so far, there must be an iota of truth in their allegations. All of us were really sad to see our sportspersons being treated this way. Sunday truly was the tipping point," Lal said.

Following Tuesday's high drama in Haridwar, the wrestlers have returned to their native places, leaving the decision-making of their stir to the khap leaders.

Representatives from around 170 khaps met in Haryana's Kurukshetra on Friday and gave the government seven days to drop all charges against wrestlers and arrest Singh, the former Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president accused of sexually harassing at least seven female wrestlers, including a minor. If their demands are not met by June 9, farm leaders and wrestlers will march to Jantar Mantar and resume their sit-in, it was announced.


    Shantanu Srivastava is an experienced sports journalist who has worked across print and digital media. He covers cricket and Olympic sports.

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