Media, politics, sex: Untangling a scandal that rocked Madhya Pradesh
Between 6.30am and 9pm on December 5, almost a dozen government teams in Indore cornered one man. The municipal corporation demolished his property, excise inspectors seized financial documents, the information technology department raided his newspaper’s office, the food and safety inspectors examined his restaurants and bars, and the city police set out to arrest him. They couldn’t find him. Jitendra Soni vanished hours before the hunt began. He knew he was in trouble.
Soni, 50, had fuelled a bigger scandal than any the city of Indore had confronted in years. Between 18 and 30 November, he published in his local evening tabloid, Sanjha Lokswami, and on its YouTube channel, a series of reports allegedly exposing the contents of a CD showing some Madhya Pradesh politicians and civil servants in a compromising position with women in an alleged honeytrap racket.Soni promised his readers and viewers many more reports showcasing footage from the CD, which, he claimed, included the some of biggest names in the state’s politics, bureaucracy and business.
The outlines of this honeytrap case were known across MP since September. On September 17, Indore’s city municipal engineer, Harbhajan Singh, lodged a first information report (FIR) at the Palasia police station, alleging that he was being blackmailed by two women who recorded his hotel room encounters with them and were demanding ~3 crore to not make the tapes public.
A Special Investigation Team (SIT) of MP police found that Singh was one of dozens of “VIPs” targeted by a honeytrap and extortion racket run by a 48-year-old woman from Bhopal. SIT officers alleged that the gang of women blackmailed the influential men with the audio and video proof of their encounters into granting government funds and contracts to companies and non-government organisations (NGOs) with which they were connected.
To this end, the officers said, senior members of the gang recruited young and needy women from rural areas to use as bait. On September 18 and 19, SIT arrested six of the gang’s eight members, including its alleged leader, Shweta Vijay Jain, from Bhopal. The police officers raided the gang members’ houses, seized their phones and pen drives, and recovered “more than 1,000 videos”.
The city engineer was suspended from his post amidst allegations that he had already provided a civic contract to a person close to Jain.
Nothing noteworthy happened after that. As speculation did the rounds about the VIPs implicated in the case, from a current minister’s son to a former chief minister, voices grew demanding that they be named and shamed. But the only major news to emerge from the investigations in the following weeks were back-to-back changes in the SIT’s composition.
“Everyone knew that the government had slowed down investigations,” said a journalist in Indore who did not want to be named. But Soni went much further. Rallying his own contacts and resources, he acquired a copy of the controversial CD.
Early in November, Soni handed over a CD with 17 hours of footage relating to the honeytrap racket to the magistrate at the Indore bench of the MP high court hearing a public interest litigation demanding a Central Bureau of Investigation probe into the case. Nothing came out of that either. “Jeetu Soni felt the case wasn’t progressing,” said the journalist.
The state government has maintained there is no link between the crackdown and the honeytrap racket, and that it acted against the businesses that Soni was involved in, particularly the “property mafia”.
On November 18, the front page of Sanjha Lokswami splashed the transcripts of an intimate encounter between a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and ex-minister, Laxmikant Sharma, and the lynchpin of the honeytrap racket, Shweta Vijay Jain, and its YouTube channel published the video.
Luridly titled and written, these reports carried Soni’s own byline. He referred to the women as “shapeshifters” and the men as “sinners.”
“In just two to three days, our YouTube channel had 25,000 views for the video even as other platforms were picking it up from there,” said Yogesh Joshi, digital editor of Sanjha Lokswami. “Public mein dhoom macha di (it caused a sensation among the public),” he added.
Later, BJP leader Laxmikant Sharma uploaded a video on YouTube responding to the “viral video” in which he didn’t only appear on intimate terms with Jain but also ranted against the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and MP’s ex-chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
In his defence video, he labelled the tapes as “a conspiracy hatched by my opponents who are trying to malign my image”.
He said: “I demand a thorough investigation into the matter. I remain devoted to the party and its mentor organisation – yesterday, today and forever.”
The tabloid continued its alleged expose in the following days, revealing the arrested women’s alleged relationships with the ex-principal secretary in the chief minister’s office, SK Mishra, and Indore’s municipal engineer, Harbhajan Singh.
SK Mishra and Harbhajan Singh refused to comment on the case.
The reports didn’t only feature the transcripts and videos of these meetings, but also documents such as registration papers for companies started by Jain and her associates in real estate and IT, and an affidavit in which she and her husband promised to no longer blackmail Mishra.
The revelations caused a sensation in MP. In Indore, people spoke about nothing else for days. “I received many calls from friends asking me who will be the next person to be exposed,” Joshi said. “There was a sense among the people that he [Soni] was going to expose a series of IAS officers,” said Arvind Tiwari, president of the Indore Press Club.
On December 2, municipal engineer Harbhajan Singh filed a complaint against Soni at the MIG police station in Indore alleging invasion of privacy. It is an offence under the IT Act to publish photographs and records of intimate conversations between two people.
Between then and December 7, government departments in Indore struck down on every aspect of Soni’s influence. His newspaper’s licence was recalled, his gun licence and state-sanctioned armed guards were withdrawn, his son arrested, and nearly every building owned by him and his family raided and then razed – bungalow, factory, bar, hotel, café, tabloid office, printing press.
While raiding his nightclub, “My Home”, the police found and rescued 67 women, allegedly trafficked from West Bengal and north eastern states, kept in the building and made to dance for the visitors every evening. At a press conference on December 6, Indore’s senior superintendent of police, Ruchi Vardhan Mishra, laid out the charges against him. Other than infringing Harbhajan Singh’s privacy, protected under the IT act, she said, Soni was guilty of “cheating, human trafficking, running an unauthoriseddance bar, possessing illegal arms, illegally grabbing and constructing buildings, conflict mediation by using muscle power and using his tabloid as a vehicle of blackmail”.
“The women rescued from his dance bar have talked about being exploited in their statements,” she added. The women have been sent to a rehabilitation home in Indore.
At the same press conference, SSP Mishra said 25 FIRs were filed against Soni in Indore’s various police stations. To smoothen the process, she added, her office set up three special cells to receive complaints and tips about Soni. She mentioned that the complaints were pouring in against him and his family. These include a vegetable vendor’s FIR alleging non-payment for supplies to Soni’s restaurant and a jewellery buyer’s FIR stating that the silver anklets he bought from the family’s shop turned out to only have “42% silver”.
As of December 25, 45 FIRs are registered against Soni. One of them charges him with rape. The complainant alleged that in 2016, on the sidelines of a large-scale garba (dance event) organised by him in Indore, which happens to be an annual affair, Soni raped her with the help of his bouncers while her own husband, a close friend of Soni’s, filmed the act.
The woman’s husband was arrested from Mumbai on December 16. Soni’s son, Amit, has also been arrested as an accomplice in his allegedly illegal business activities, and his brother and two of his nephews have been charged with related offences.
Representing Amit Soni in the Indore high court, Ajay Bagria rejected the charges against both son and father. “Jitendra Soni published the chats, photos and videos in order to increase his readership and audience. Even if he was blackmailing people, prosecute him for blackmail but why make up charges? The women found at his nightclub used to sing as part of an orchestra and had signed an affidavit stating that this was part of their contract. The structures that were demolished existed for 10-15 years. Why the action now? My question to prosecutors is: ‘what have you done with the CD he handed over to the court?’”
Meanwhile, six teams of MP police continue to chase Soni as the prize money for his arrest went up from ~25,000 to Rs 1 lakh.
JEWELLER TO JOURNALIST
Jitendra Soni is a household name in Indore. Born into a business family, he first managed the family’s jewellery store in the city’s famed Sarafa Bazaar before switching to the legal practice and then real estate. In 1993, he bought the ownership of a publication from a Congress leader who needed the money. Soni turned the standard morning newspaper into a muckraking evening tabloid and began to earn fame and notoriety in equal measure.
“Over 20 years, I have seen him in many avatars, from a simple jewellery shop owner to a controversial newspaper owner. Through these years he became progressively aggressive,” said Arvind Tiwari, president of the Indore Press Club. Most people in Indore who knew Soni say he used his tabloid to dig up dirt on people in positions of power – politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, lawyers and crime dons.
“He had a file on everyone. Often, the police sought access to his newsroom library when they needed information on a suspect,” said a senior editor in Indore who didn’t want to be named.
“Once we carried an article on someone, it was considered his biodata — a compilation of every incriminating fact about that person,” said a journalist with Sanjha Lokswami who also requested anonymity. “Every day we had a big story exposing someone or something – with documents and proof, from government tenders to medical prescriptions. We gave people something to talk about,” he added.
In Indore, which boasts a dozen evening publications, this is how Sanjha Lokswami stood out. Most of its sensational reports carried Soni’s byline.
“We used to think he is so brave,” said his employee.
By all accounts, Soni treated his newsroom as a “parallel investigation agency” where he alone was in charge of everything, from collecting news to writing headlines. His work didn’t stop at sting operations and independent raids. Roaming the city armed with a gun and ringed by musclemen, Soni also had a reputation for issuing threats and resolving disputes. Asked in an interview on a local news channel, Digi News, if people were right in calling him a don, he said: “My fight is for truth. If that means I am seen as a don, then I am glad to acknowledge myself as one.”
However, he denied the allegations that he used his “investigative journalism” to blackmail people in power. “If anyone can prove it, I will leave journalism today,” he said. He had mentioned that Indore’s biggest problem was that “this city is trapped in a web of crime around the property business and its media persons’ involvement in every piece of controversial land”.
Ironically, Soni himself was deeply involved in property-related controversies across Indore, and there is no lack of them in the city. “Indore is not only the traditional centre of commerce in central India, but also the place where many educational institutes and multinational companies are setting up base. As a result, it has a big property market but lack of regulation and corruption in sale and purchase,” said Pramod Tyagi, a city-based real-estate lawyer.
Fraud and coercion are rampant, according to everyday news reports in Indore that bring up the city’s web of property rackets: “housing loan mafia”, “stamp duty mafia”, “housing society mafia”. The city also abounds in “dispute settlement mafia.”
“These are influential white-collar settlers. They either sow a property conflict or identify a property under conflict. Then they exploit their contacts with politicians and officers to operate a parallel justice system. Say, I am the weak party, my property is worth Rs 50 lakh and someone is trying to grab it. I will go to a settler and he will settle with the stronger party to give me Rs 25 lakh. I will still be glad to get some money instead of none and the settler can keep the rest,” explained Tyagi.
This, allegedly, is how Soni made most of his money. From the raid at his newspaper office, the SSP said “the police recovered documents of at least 30 properties worth Rs 150 crore”.
This is also the main ground for the MP government’s crackdown against him. The state administration is linking multiple property-related complaints against him to build its case against Soni as well as to bring down the mafia network as the authorities raid and raze illegal buildings and encroachments across MP, from Gwalior to Jabalpur.
At a press conference on December 16, chief minister Kamal Nath vowed to make MP “free of land mafia.” Asked if the government’s focus on Jitendra Soni and property mafia was meant to divert attention from the honeytrap racket in which many of the state’s politicians and bureaucrats are presumed to be implicated, the CM said the action against Soni and his ilk has “nothing to do with the honeytrap scandal”.
On December 16, the SIT investigating the honeytrap case submitted a 490-page charge sheet at the Indore high court against the eight accused, of whom six are in police custody and two absconding. The charges against them include extortion, criminal intimidation, forgery, voyeurism, violation of privacy and human trafficking, among many others.
“I agree that extortion happened but not human trafficking,” said Dharmendra Gujjar, the lawyer defending the alleged mastermind, Shweta Vijay Jain. “There is no one who has come out to say she had been trafficked into the gang.”
Gujjar said his client owns a factory in Bhopal that manufactures medical capsules along with an NGO. “She was friends with Aarti Dayal who has been accused by Harbhajan Singh of blackmail, and she did introduce the two, but she had no more role to play in the case,” he said. In the charge sheet, however, several women have mentioned her role in the larger scheme.
“I was introduced to her by a friend. She used to ask me, ‘how long will you be dependent on the income of your husband and your in-laws? Be independent. I have a lot of assignments through which you can easily make money. I have many IAS friends you can meet and make videos with,”’ stated one of them, Preeti Singh.
“Police say ~2,000 crore worth contracts were given to Jain’s brother, but there isn’t one document proving this. Even if she did extort money from influential men, why hasn’t even one come forward? All government people, whose illicit earnings stretch to crores of rupees, have paid up what they were asked for and don’t want anything to do with the case,” said Gujjar. “Other than being transferred to a different department, no action has been taken against Harbhajan Singh,” Gujjar added.
If suspected of granting out-of-turn contracts or funds, government officers can be charged under the provisions of the Prevention of Corruption Act. SIT is still awaiting the results of the forensic examination of the audio and video recordings related to the honeytrap scandal from the Central Forensic Science Laboratory in New Delhi
The lawyer of Aarti Dayal, who is accused of honey trapping Singh, Ghanshyam Gupta, said his client is a woman of simple means who runs an NGO in Bhopal. She did meet Singh on more than one occasion, he said, but “she never made any video or published it. If anyone did benefit in terms of jobs or contracts from government officers, it was Shweta Jain.”
His client’s only fault, he said, was that “she wanted to be friends with a big government officer”.
Soni remains on the run.