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Is it right to compare Indian wrestlers immersing medals in the Ganges with Muhammad Ali’s revolutionary act?

Last week, a few Indian wrestlers almost consigned their medals to the Ganges as a protest against the inaction of the authorities vis-à-vis Brij Bhushan Singh. Many are comparing this imminent act of immersion with boxing legend Muhammad Ali throwing his Olympic gold medal in the River Ohio. Here, the author draws a nexus between the Civil Rights Movement in the US of the 1960s and the wrestlers’ protests in today’s India, contending that there is a big gulf between the two causes, as the caste system continues to hamstring the protests in India.

AFTER the Delhi police manhandled them, detained them and slapped a slew of first information reports (FIRs) against them in connection with their demands for action against Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member of Parliament (MP) Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, Indian wrestlers Sakshi Malik, Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia decided to ‘immerse’ their medals in the Ganga at Haridwar on May 30, 2023. 

They did not actually go through with the act, reportedly stopping at the behest of Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) president Naresh Tikait, saying they would wait for five days for the authorities to take action against Brij Bhushan.

On June 3, the protesting wrestlers met with Union Home minister Amit Shah, a meeting home ministry officials have denied took place. As it turned out, they did not go ahead with the medal immersion and the medals are in safe custody with Tikait. 

Tikait said on June 2 that after the khap mahapanchayat in Haryana’s Kurukshetra that if Brij Bhushan is not arrested, then farmers will join the wrestlers at Jantar Mantar on June 9 and hold panchayats across the country.  

The wrestlers are not rejecting the society that disrespected them but asking for their proper place in it, a place of purity and power. 

Indian commentators supporting the wrestlers’ demands, which in the present circumstances is possibly everyone who is not a staunch supporter of the BJP, were quick to compare their gesture with that of boxing legend Muhammad Ali’s in the 1960 when he ‘threw’ his Olympic gold medal into River Ohio in Louisville, US. 

While the comparison comes easily because of the superficial similarities— there are rivers, contact sportspersons and their medals involved— I believe the differences are too great and too many between what Ali did (and what it meant in the US then) and what the wrestlers are doing (and what it means in India now).

Grappling with the comparison   

Let us start with the most obvious difference, the place Muhammad Ali held in the US society as a Black person in the 1960s and the place the wrestlers currently protesting against Brij Bhushan Singh have in the Indian society as Jats from Haryana. 

Simply speaking, Black people were not celebrated in the US public life, whether as athletes or as anything else. African-Americans, including basketball stars like Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Michael Jordan and Lebron James were yet to arrive, and they owed much to Ali for their arrival. 

In Ali’s time, Black people were supposed to be ‘invisible’ and unseen. They were supposed to do all the work but were not supposed to exist socially. The Jim Crow laws, which legalised racial segregation and even allowed establishments to put up signs saying ‘We don’t serve niggers’, were still operative in many US states until the 1960s or the first quarter of Ali’s life. 

Muhammad Ali broke into this scene and ‘forced’ himself upon the imagination of the US society. With his brilliance in the ring and signature outspokenness outside it, he made it impossible for the US society to ignore him and his origins. He made his community publicly visible against all odds and even against personal interests. 

The wrestlers’ protests are also not against Brahminical patriarchy but merely demanding a better place in Brahminical patriarchy.

As he says in his autobiography, what White people wanted from him was to be a ‘Black White hope’— a person who is only black in colour but who agrees with the White worldview and is otherwise indistinguishable from White people. For this betrayal of his people, White America was willing to shower him with riches, which he refused and for which he was punished.      

Also read: Sexual harassment allegations against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh: the story so far and what lies ahead

Do the protesting wrestlers occupy anywhere close to a concomitant space in the Indian society of today? I think the answer is an easy no. Aamir Khan’s Dangal, the highest-grossing Indian film ever, was directly inspired by the Phogat sisters, one of whom is a star protestor while another (Babita Kumari Phogat) is a member of the BJP (one is reminded of Harishankar Parsai’s satirical piece in which he talks about how Hindu joint families have at least one person in each political party). 

The film celebrated women wrestlers from Haryana and the Jat patriarch who trained them. Jat women sportspersons are both already accepted and respected in Haryana and in India. There is no systematic exclusion of these wrestlers or their community. If anything, they have abetted and benefitted from the systematic exclusion of others below them in the caste hierarchy.

Reason for the tenacious protests

Muhammad Ali took a committed stand not only for Black people but also for justice in general. He was one of the first ‘conscientious objectors’ who famously refused to fight the war in Vietnam because he could not see the logic of shooting at someone who had done him no harm for someone who had indeed done him harm. “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” he said.

Will the Indian wrestlers take a stand against India’s war against Pakistan or China, or in Kashmir, Bastar, Manipur, Nagaland and so on? Are they speaking against India sending arms to Myanmar’s junta (military)? They have not yet spoken against caste discrimination or even caste atrocities in their own villages.

The wrestlers not only have no problem with such wars but are positively in support of the Indian security forces in all their manifestations. They tend to not speak up against manifestly unjust causes because the wrestlers are not protesting injustice at all. They are not extending their own desire for justice, rightful as it may be, to other causes, some of which are larger and older than their own cause. 

Who is the backbone of the wrestlers’ protest?

Muhammad Ali’s values were completely antithetical to White supremacy and his protests had wider social significance in undermining the dominant power structure. He refused to be controlled by the interests of the powerful elites of the US and therefore did not get any support from those quarters. 

The values of these wrestlers are almost fully in tandem with Hindu power. They are not against caste or patriarchy. There is no talk of the oppressive structure or the need to change it. As long as their demands are met, they are willing to abide by the tenets of Hinduism. This is why they are getting the support of some of the most regressive elements in Indian society, the khap panchayats, infamous for their strong stand in favour of Brahminism in all its forms and for reinforcing caste hierarchies in villages through a combination of everyday terror and gruesome honour killings.   

One must totally repudiate Brahminism in all its forms for the possibility of repeating Ali’s gesture in India. 

Also read: Protesting wrestlers give 14-day deadline for Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh’s arrest, as support pours in from allies

India’s so-called progressives are usually very quick to dismiss khaps as evil because they take disagreeable stands (like setting traditional gender roles for men and women, or asking women not to dress provocatively if they don’t want to be molested, or treating the caste order as sacrosanct). But in this case, just because khaps have taken a stand with women against a BJP MP, the progressives have not only willingly suspended an examination of their politics but have also started engaging in revisionism with regard to the role of khaps in rural society. 

The question arisesis the politics of progressives in India based merely on their fickle and changing self-interest? Given their U-turn on khaps, it certainly seems that their stands for and against things come from no deeper source than the demands of the day against their electoral opponents. While one set of savarnas apply Hinduism to legitimise their claim to power, the other set applies the patina of progressiveness, which at the end of the day does not amount to anything much because of its superficiality and shallowness. 

One representative article of this attempt to ‘rethink’ khap panchayats reads, “Apart from the sports fraternity, who have been selective in expressing solidarity, the khaps were the only social networks easily accessible to these protesting athletes.” 

It does not pause to ask why no other social networks were accessible to the wrestlers in their ‘good’ fight even though almost all the activist networks in India are against the BJP. Why are khaps easily accessible to the protesting wrestlers, even though khaps are instrumental in BJP’s agenda to make India a Hindu rashtra (nation)? 

If the article had raised these questions, it would reach the inevitable conclusion that the wrestlers are willing and happy to build Hindu rashtra and for this reason, they cannot be supported by anyone except khap panchayats, who represent their caste interests. The protests do not necessitate a ‘rethink’ of khap panchayats at all, they just require ‘thinking’ about the symbiotic relationship between khap panchayats and the wrestlers. 

The article concludes that “rather than limiting khaps as reactionary feudal bodies, they may be understood as traditional institutions of maintaining the agrarian social order.” 

What is the agrarian social order if not caste-based reactionary feudalism? Might we use Dr Ambedkar’s oft-quoted description of India’s villages to drive the point home, “What is a village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness, caste and communalism?”

Any institution upholding this social order has to be limited to a reactionary feudal body because there is nothing else to uphold in India’s villages. 

The difference in Muhammad Ali and the wrestlers’ gestures 

Vinesh Phogat tweeted after her release from detention: “We will immerse them [the medals] in Mother Ganga. We believe the Ganga to be pure— we had worked hard with as much purity to win these medals.”

How can the Ganga be considered pure and motherly without accepting Brahminism? The concept of purity itself invoked both for Ganga and for themselves, does not make any sense outside the ambit of Brahminism. 

Muhammad Ali just threw his medal away in the river closest to him because it stopped meaning anything to him. However, Indian wrestlers are ritually purifying the medals by Brahminical methods  by throwing them in ‘Mother Ganga’.

While the wrestlers planned to travel all the way to the sacred land of Haridwar to immerse the medals in the Ganges (something they never actually went through with), in the tradition of immersing ashes in it, one would assume Muhammad Ali did not have any such gesture to make. He just threw his medal away in the river closest to him because it stopped meaning anything to him. 

By discarding the medal in the River Ohio, he was rejecting the society which gave the medal its symbolic power. On the other hand, by immersing them in ‘Mother Ganga’, Indian wrestlers are purifying the medals by Brahminical methods after Brij Bhushan and the BJP government polluted them by not giving them the respect they deserve. The wrestlers are not rejecting the society that disrespected them but are asking for their proper place in it, a place of purity and power. 

Also read: All India Trade Union Congress calls the Delhi Police’s act of arresting wrestlers undemocratic

Thus, this protest is not revolutionary but reactionary. As Dave Chappelle has said, the feminism of White women was not against racial discrimination or slavery, but only to demand a bigger portion of the spoils of slavery from White men. The wrestlers’ protests are also not against Brahminical patriarchy but are merely demanding a better place in the Brahminical patriarchy. 

Even their march on the day of the inauguration of the new Parliament was not against the complete Hinduisation of the Parliament but for a better place in the new Hinduised parliament. They demanded to keep Brij Bhushan out of the new Parliament, but they did not question the Sengol, the Akhand Bharat map, or even the need for a new Parliament itself. 

Is it possible to repeat Ali’s gesture in India? 

One must totally repudiate Brahminism in all its forms for the possibility of repeating Ali’s gesture in India. In Brahminical terms, the entire territory of India or Bharat Mata (Mother India)— with all its mountains, rivers, forests and villages— is imbued with sacred significance. Ma Narmada, Ma Yamuna, Ma Kaveri, Ma Godavari, Brahmaputra, Krishna— all rivers are either devis (goddesses) or devatas (gods) or sons and daughters of devis and devatas. No river is just a river, no mountain is just a mountain, and no forest is just a forest. 

Brahminism is a totalitarian system that not only fully and finally determines the place and role of every human being within a tightly-knit and inescapable hierarchical scheme but also of every material object. No two stones are valued alike in this scheme, not because of the abstract philosophical thought that posits absolute non-identity, but because every stone is more or less pure than every other stone based on who has seen it, touched it, tasted it, etc.

A stone licked by Parshuram is purer than a stone licked by Madhav Ram, which itself is purer than a stone licked by Vilas Paswan Ram.  

Instead of comparing the reactionary gesture of the wrestlers with Muhammad Ali’s revolutionary gesture, it would be better to clearly understand the difference between the two gestures, so that we can differentiate between revolutionary protests and reactionary demands.

Revolutionary protests aim at making a more just society for everyone while reactionary demands aim at satisfying self-interest even if it comes at the cost of increased social injustice for everyone else. As French philosopher Jacques Ranciere stated, revolutionary protests are not undertaken to demand a better place in the existing oppressive system but for a complete overhaul of the system itself. 

It is a disservice both to the legacy of the great Muhammad Ali and to protest movements in India to compare wrestlers’ demands to them.