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Above: The Indore police along with eight other departments conducted simultaneous raids at Jeetu Soni’s (top left) hotel (top right) and his newspaper office

A controversial businessman and media owner who created a storm with his honey-trap, exposés of conversations between call girls and VIPs, faces the inevitable backlash

By Rakesh Dixit in Bhopal

In Indore, Jeetu Soni is described variously as a real estate operator, a hotelier and a newspaper owner. The audacious businessman ran his hotel, which boasted of bar girls, and an evening tabloid with scant disregard for the law or morality. However, his audacity proved his nemesis when Soni’s tabloid Sanjha Lokswami dared to publish “intimate” chats between a call girl, a former minister and a retired IAS officer. The paper later uploaded the chats on YouTube.

In a pre-dawn swoop on December 1, the Indore police, along with eight other departments, conducted simultaneous raids at Soni’s hotel and his newspaper office. The crackdown was inevitable considering that those honey-trapped belonged to the power elite in Indore and Bhopal, including politicians and bureaucrats. The police raids in September had already opened a can of worms as it revealed what was arguably India’s most sensational sex scandal involving an unspecified number of top politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen. They were found honey-trapped by a gang of beautiful women. There were nearly 4,000 explicit recordings that the police had seized following the arrest of five women on September 17 in Indore and Bhopal.

The leak created a climate of fear in the corridors of power after two of the city’s powerful men were shown allowing themselves to be blackmailed and the threat of other politicians and IAS/ IPS officers being exposed loomed large. Senior bureaucrats in Bhopal were so apprehensive that they expressed their fears to Chief Minister Kamal Nath.

The government weighed its options to pre-empt further embarrassment, and the answer was obvious: Jeetu Soni’s dubious businesses offered the perfect pretext to hit back and preclude further leaks of recordings. Indore Municipal Corporation engineer Harbhajan Singh was behind the FIR being registered—Singh’s original complaint had led to the honey-trap girls being apprehended. After this, nine departments, including police, district administration, excise, food, Municipal Corporation and narcotics took joint action.

In the raids that lasted for over 12 hours, the police “rescued” 67 bar dancers and seven children from the dance bar and recovered 36 live cartridges and six used cartridges from Soni’s house. According to Indore SSP Ruchivardhan Mishra, the police seized documents related to the honey-trap scandal from Soni’s house, pen drives, CDs and a registry of more than 30 properties with a market price of Rs 150 crore. The recovered electronic material was handed ov­er to the Indore bench of the MP High Court which is monitoring the progress of the investigation in the scandal.

According to Mishra, the rescued women were found in small rooms on the top floor of the dance bar. “The women belong to West Bengal and Assam and were not allowed to move out of the hotel. They were allowed to go home only once a year and were being forced to perform vulgar dances. They were neither given any salary nor allowed any PPF accounts,” Ruchivardhan said at a press conference after the raids were completed by the police.

The police have booked Soni, his son, Amit Soni, and others under Section 370 of the Human Trafficking Act, Arms Act and the IT Act. Jeetu Soni has also been booked for blackmailing and causing obstruction to a public servant while performing his duty. He is absconding after the raids and police have announced a reward of Rs 10,000 for information leading to his arrest. Defending the police action, State DGP VK Singh said: “No matter how powerful you are or how well connected you are, if you are doing anything illegal, action will be taken against you.”

The police operation led to the offices of the newspaper being sealed. Journalist bodies called it a brazen attempt by the state government to muzzle the freedom of the press.

The chief minister is, however, unfazed by the criticism over sealing of the newspaper. He has said that there will be a war against organised mafias in the state. “No one can pressurise me. I got the information about blackmailing a month ago. Keeping this in mind, this action has been taken. Whatever officers will appear associated with such elements, strict action will be taken against them as well,” he said. His political rivals have found a new stick to beat him with. BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya said that the retaliatory action taken against the media is reprehensible. “The state government is trying to suppress the honey-trap case,” he said.

Given Soni’s track record, the police action against his not-so-clean businesses might appear justifiable but the timing of the action has raised eyebrows. Jeetu Soni has been running his notorious hotel and bar for over two decades. His notoriety as a shady real estate operator has also been an open secret for a long time.

Moreover, Soni is not the only businessman in Indore known for shady business deals. The selective crackdown on Soni in the wake of his newspaper’s explosive revelations of the embarrassingly intimate chats has earned him some kind of sympathy. For a section of the media, Soni has emerged as a sort of hero who put his affluence at stake to expose debauched officers and politicians.

In fact, the police raids have proved counterproductive for the government in a sense that they have brought the honey-trap scandal into sharper focus. Social media is abuzz with barbs and banters against Kamal Nath, wondering why he chose to shoot the messenger instead of punishing the officers and politicians involved in the sex scandal. Following the initial exposé, the bureaucracy and police have come under considerable suspicion, leading to a crisis of credibility in the government.

The opposition BJP has also not been left untouched by the scandal. A month ago, Soni’s paper ran a story about a leaked conversation between one of the five accused in the Vyapam scam, Shweta Swapnil Jain, and a former minister in the BJP government, Laxmikant Sharma. It created a massive political storm because Sharma was seen in the leaked video abusing former Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan.

Sharma was the main accused in the Vyapam scam. He was the minister of technical education under which the agency that oversaw the job-cum-admission rip-off, the Professional Examination Board (PEB), functioned. In the leaked video, Sharma is heard accusing Chouhan of ruining his political career. He also cast aspersions on the RSS, purportedly saying, “When the Sangh guys don’t get women, they make do with boys.”

Even before the storm over the former minister’s leaked video could subside, the evening newspaper came out with another—and more explosive—audio chat between Jain and SK Mishra, a confidant of Chouhan. Mishra, who retired in 2017 as principal secretary to the chief minister, was heard spewing the most vulgar language while chatting with Jain. Its content is unprintable but the gist of the conversation unmistakably suggests that Mishra was under the spell of Jain and had helped her fleece the government fund.

From honey-trap to Vyapam, one man’s scandalous scoop in his newspaper has shaken the political foundations of the state.

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