The Olympic wrestlers arrived on the banks of the sacred river Ganges late on Tuesday for what they had announced as a final act of desperation.
Two days before, the police had violently dismantled their protest camp in New Delhi and dragged them off to detention, striking a blow against their protracted effort to bring to account a politically powerful sports official they accuse of serial sexual harassment of female wrestlers.
Now, the athletes would throw their hard-earned medals, including two Olympic bronzes for a large nation curiously bereft of global sporting laurels, into the river and then begin a hunger strike.
“These medals decorating our necks no longer mean anything,” they said in a statement, adding that the authorities were “going after the victims” to force them to end their protest. “What is the point of life when you compromise on dignity?” the statement read.
The wrestlers, sobbing on the crowded riverbank, stopped short of discarding their medals at the end of two hours of high drama, as community leaders stepped in to ask them to give their pleas five more days. But their desperate act, after they were forced out of New Delhi’s main protest site, laid bare the shrinking space for protest in India’s capital nearly a decade into Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rule.
Activists, analysts and opposition politicians describe a pattern as Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., has grown increasingly allergic to dissent.
The party uses its majority in Parliament to disrupt any debate over uncomfortable issues. It deploys the police in New Delhi, which is under the control of India’s powerful home minister, to derail or prevent protests over those issues.
And, as equally powerful leverage, it unleashes a national broadcast media cowed to its interests, as well as an army of trolls and social media influencers, to demonize anyone who questions it.
In such an environment, the female wrestlers have learned how lonely and draining the process of justice remains for women when they face the wall of political power. Laws have been amended and reforms promised in recent years after brutal cases of violence and abuse against women, yet cases like the wrestlers’ demonstrate how misogyny remains deeply ingrained in the structures of power, advocates say.
Their plight could have wider demoralizing ramifications as India faces a dire need to tap into its widely underutilized female work force in its quest to become a major power.
Mr. Modi once celebrated these wrestlers, who rose to celebrity by beating the odds in a particularly male-dominated part of the country. But now that they have accused the chief of the country’s wrestling federation, a six-term lawmaker of the B.J.P., of sexual harassment and abuse, they have been met by what they call a political cover-up.