Sudesh to Sonali Phogat: Bold Haryanvi Jat woman who lived life on her terms
Her rural roots in patriarchal Haryana, early marriage, motherhood…nothing deterred Sonali Phogat from pursuing her dreams in the glamour world and nurture political ambitions
: It was at 8.30am on August 23 when Haryana BJP leader and social influencer Sonali Phogat’s family received a call from her personal assistant, Sudhir Sangwan, who informed them that she had died of a heart attack at a hotel in Goa and disconnected the phone. Shocked and refusing to believe what they had just heard, the family members tried to contact Sangwan again and again but he did not pick up their calls.
“We kept dialling his number from multiple phones but got no response,” says Sonali’s brother, Vatan Dhaka, who runs the family’s jewellery shop in Hisar. An hour later, the news of Sonali’s death was flashing on TV channels and news websites. Her family kept insisting that she was healthy and could not have died due to a heart attack. They suspected foul play and accused Sangwan of conspiring and executing the “murder”.
AMBITIOUS START TO TRAGIC END
Born as Sudesh Dhaka on September 21, 1979, in a conservative Jat family in northwest Haryana’s patriarchal belt, she changed her name to Sonali Phogat after marrying Hisar-based landlord Sanjay Phogat in 1997. She started out as a Doordarshan TV anchor at Hisar in 2006. Two years later, she joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and went on to become the BJP Mahila Morcha national vice-president thanks to her networking skills and popular appeal.
Her good looks and acting skills got her a role in the Zee TV serial, Ek Maa Jo Laakhon Ke Liye Bani Amma, in 2016. She acted in the Haryanvi film, Chhoriyan Chhoron Se Kam Nahi Hoti, in 2019 besides featuring in a Haryanvi music album, Bandook Aali Jaatni. She was cast in web-series The Story of Badmasgarh and Saurashtra.
Glamour attracted her and she found her way in the tinsel world despite her rustic roots. Her father, Mahabir Dhaka, is a farmer who owns four acres of agricultural land, while her mother Santosh Devi’s world, like most women in these parts, is limited to their house at Bhuthan Kalan village in Fatehabad district. Sonali’s brother Vatan runs a jewellery shop, while another brother Rinku Dhaka is a property dealer. Second among five siblings, Sonali studied up to Class 10 at the village’s government school and was still a teenager when she was married off to Sanjay Phogat, a landlord of Harita village in Hisar district. The couple was blessed with a daughter, Yashodhara, who is now 15 and studies in a boarding school in Hisar.
“Marriage and motherhood did not deter her from pursuing her ambition of acting. She tried modelling, making TikTok videos, acting and even took part in the Big Boss reality show that made her a household name. Sonali was also drawn towards politics,” says Vatan.
Her husband dabbled in politics and let Sonali have her way when she decided to take the political plunge. Life changed for her after her husband’s death under mysterious circumstances at the family’s farmhouse at Dhandhoor village, 10km from Hisar, in 2016.
“Sonali was going to attend a journalist’s wedding in Delhi when she got to know about her husband’s death. She rushed back but it was too late. After that incident, she started staying frequently in Hisar unlike earlier when she would prefer staying at her Noida flat or in Mumbai as she was pursuing her acting career there,” her brother says.
ELUSIVE TICKET TO ASSEMBLY
Hisar-based journalist Surender Dalal recalls Sonali was first noticed in political circles in the run-up to the 2014 Haryana assembly elections while accompanying media tycoon and Zee TV owner Subhash Chandra, who was seeking the BJP ticket from Hisar. Though the party denied him the ticket, Sonali started preparing to contest from Nalwa assembly constituency in Hisar district. At the last moment, she was denied the BJP ticket too after INLD sitting MLA Ranbir Gangwa joined the saffron party ahead of the 2019 assembly elections and the party decided to pitch him from Nalwa. The BJP leadership decided to shift Sonali to Adampur constituency, the citadel of former Haryana chief minister Bhajan Lal. She contested against Bhajan Lal’s son Kuldeep Bishnoi in 2019 and suffered a setback. Recently, Bishnoi switched from the Congress to the BJP after resigning as Adampur MLA and is preparing for the byelection, the dates of which are yet to be announced.
Sonali told her supporters that she has been preparing for the 2024 assembly elections and if the party wants her for a test, referring to the bypoll, she was confident of defeating her opponents. Even after Bishnoi joined the BJP last month, Sonali continued to indirectly attack him through her online posts. Bishnoi tried to break the ice and met her at her farmhouse at Dhandhoor a few days before her death.
Sonali shared a good equation with several BJP leaders, including Union minister Nitin Gadkari, Haryana education minister Kanwar Pal Gurjar, former Haryana BJP chief Subhash Barala, former governor Kaptan Singh Solanki, Uttarakhand BJP general secretary Suresh Bhatt, former Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan.
But after Bishnoi’s entry, she felt slighted. Hisar-based political activist Ramesh Punia recalls his conversation with Sonali just two days before her death. “She told me that the BJP had been mounting pressure on her to seek votes for Kuldeep Bishnoi’s son Bhavya, who is eyeing the ticket for the Adampur byelection. She had also talked to former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda for a ticket if she joins the Congress. Hooda was non-committal and told her that the ticket would be given only after a survey. She was feeling humiliated after she did not get a chair during the governor’s visit to Guru Jambeshwar University recently,” he says.
Sonali was not new to controversies. On the political front, she faced a backlash while campaigning at Balsamand, the largest village in Adampur constituency, for the 2019 assembly elections. She exhorted people to chant the slogan, “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” and said those who didn’t do so “are from Pakistan”.
In 2020, she made headlines when a video surfaced on social media showing her slapping the Balsamand grain market committee secretary, Sultan Singh, a slipper for reportedly making derogatory remarks about her.
This May, some miscreants fired at a Jat community activist Daljeet Sisai, who was out of jail on parole, at Hansi and his wife accused Sonali of being behind the attack. During the farmers’ agitation against the Centre’s three farm laws, Sonali used derogatory words against them and they announced her boycott.
GRIT AND GLORY
Despite her run-ins with controversies in the real world, the former TikTok star was popular in the virtual one with nearly 9 lakh followers on Instagram. Her last post shows her walking in a white shirt and khaki trousers and posing in a pink turban.
Film director and actor Satish Kaushik remembers her as a good human being and a good artiste. “During the shooting of the film, Chhoriyan Chhoron Se Kam Nahi Han, she used to bring homemade food for us. She was a reliable and happy woman,” he says.
Another director, Rajesh Babar, says: “We in the film industry will remember her as the bold Haryanvi Jat girl. She was open-minded and proved herself at every level.”
Khajjan Singh, a Rohtak-based sociologist from Maharshi Dayanand University, says Sonali’s journey in acting and politics was remarkable and was largely achieved with the support of her family. “Till a few years ago, only educated people in the Jat hinterland used to send their girls to village schools. Girls in urban areas in Haryana have freedom to choose a career but even today, those in villages hardly have a say. Sonali not only dreamt but also achieved her goals after her marriage and it was largely because of her husband’s backing,” he adds.
LOYAL TO HER ROOTS
She may be Sonali for the world but for her mother Santosh, she is still Sudesh. “I asked my grandson Rudra to call his Sudesh bua (paternal aunt) on August 22. Sudesh told me that she was in Goa for a film shooting and would return on August 25. During our conversation, she complained of uneasiness and I told her to take a medicine. When I told her that we were thinking of reconstructing our ancestral home, she told me to wait till she was back. She had plans to rebuild the house with the latest design,” says the mother.
Sonali’s classmate Rajbir Singh of Bhuthan Kalan in Fatehabad says she was a bright student who was drawn towards glamour. “But even after earning name and fame, she would meet us warmly just like the good old days. During her visit to the village, people would comment on her lifestyle but she would ignore them. She carried out many developmental works for the village,” he says.