"What I do doesn’t make me who I am. I can’t be defined by my trade." - Sonu Punjaban alias Geeta Arora in 2011 to a police officer
“The modesty of a woman is next to her soul,” Judge Pritam Singh. “Convict Geeta Arora alias Sonu Punjaban crossed all the limits to be called a woman and deserves severest punishment provided under the law.”
When a Delhi Court finally handed out the quantum of the sentence to her this week, the judge brought up the incident of her putting chilli powder on the victim’s breasts to instil fear in her.
In the long list of unspeakable crimes, that was merely an example, the police said. She was capable of much more.
Over the years that I have spoken to the police about her, they have attributed to her the vices that their morality could not bear. Like smoking and drinking. A fallen woman. The predominant approach to female criminality has mostly been moralistic. The judgement is a testimony to that belief held by many. Perhaps that’s why Sonu Punjaban intrigues many as a woman who denied herself these virtues to run an organised syndicate where she traded minors and kept many others on her payrolls to cater to the sexual desires of many in Delhi.
Sonu -‘Bad Woman’- Punjaban is Now a Convicted Criminal
In the nine years that followed after I first saw her in another court in the capital, Sonu Punjaban remained in the news for mostly the same reasons. She was let off in 2014 for lack of evidence and then arrested again in 2017 on the basis of a complaint filed by a minor in 2014 after which the victim had disappeared until she was traced again in November 2017.
Her conviction happened last week and she hit the headlines once again. Female offenders have often been put into one of two simple categories – “bad” women and “mad/sad” women” and often, the discourse around them have been steered by the morality compass.
Sonu Punjaban was a “bad woman” whose “vice crimes” were contrary to what the society views as virtuous or moral.
“Generally, the pimps are male and women are victims. Here, it is different,” DCP Bhisham Singh of Delhi Police said. “This time she is charged under POCSO since the girl was a minor at the time of the complaint.”
The quantum of the sentence was handed out by the court on Wednesday. She got 24 years of rigorous imprisonment. Sonu has been sentenced under IPC Acts 328, 342, 366A, 372, 373, 120B, along with 4, 5 and 6 Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act. Sonu has been convicted under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act.
Why We Need to Talk About Sonu Punjaban
Sonu Punjaban, the most notorious woman pimp who ran a multi-crore sex trafficking racket out of national capital, the pimp who was let go because of lack of evidence even when she was slapped with the stringent MCOCA in 2011, has evaded the police for a long time, almost mocking them for arresting her when they both knew she would get out on bail and continue with whatever she was doing. Sonu Punjaban was arrested under the immoral trafficking prevention act in Preet Vihar in 2007. In 2008, she was again caught for the same offence while out on bail.
In April 2011, Sonu Punjaban was arrested for the third time under the ITP Act for trafficking women. They invoked MCOCA against her, and asked for an extension of another 90 days in April to file the chargesheet.
At the time, Ichadhari Baba, another high-profile pimp from Delhi, was also serving time in Tihar. Allegedly it was Sonu who tipped off the flamboyant self-styled spiritual guru to the police.
“Whenever a vacuum is created in these kinds of crimes, someone fills it. That’s what happened here. After Ichadhari Baba was arrested, Sonu Punjaban expanded her business,” Bhisham Singh, DCP crime who led the investigations in the 2014 case, said.
In her television interviews that she gave when she was out on parole in 2019 she said the police was hounding her and none of the girls had ever come on record to say she was a pimp.
She knew hers was a story that would make headlines. She knew the victim and the perpetrator roles. She had been both.
It was her story that inspired the character of Bholi Punjaban in ‘Fukrey’ (2013) and Fukrey Returns (2017) played by Richa Chadda.
How Geeta Colony’s Geeta Arora Became Sonu Punjaban
Geeta Arora was born in 1981 in Delhi's Geeta Colony. Her grandfather, a refugee from Pakistan, settled in Rohtak. Her father Om Prakash moved to Delhi and started driving auto rickshaw. The family then lived on rent in Geeta Colony in East Delhi. Sonu's elder sister Bala got married to Satish alias Bobby, who was also the son of her aunt. Satish and his younger brother, Vijay, murdered the man their sister Nisha was having an affair with and were arrested.
When Vijay got out on parole in 1996, Geeta married him.
That’s how it all began. In the old albums that I saw when I first went to her house in 2011, there was a photograph of Vijay against the backdrop of mountains. At the time, her son Paras, nine, was waiting for his mother to bring him toy cars. He is now 17. There had been an adopted daughter but the family had taken her away when Vijay died.
Her mother Veena had said her daughter destroyed herself because she had loved Vijay too much.
Sonu Punjaban’s father passed away in 2003. That’s when she started working as a beautician in Preet Vihar where she met a colleague named Neetu who introduced her to flesh trade and then worked for a woman called Kiran in Rohini as a prostitute.
In her conversations with the police, she had recounted the names of the pimps who were in charge of these areas: Bobby Chhakka, Pooja, Pradeep, Azad, Govind, Nagma alias Ariba.
When she took control of the business, she charged almost 60 percent of the earnings as commission for providing security, and the network. According to the investigating officer Pankaj Negi, her cars would cover almost 500 kilometres within the city in one night picking up girls and dropping them off to various locations for “client service.”
“Prostitution is public service,” she had declared to Kailash Chand, a police official who had used a decoy in 2011 to nab her.
How Sonu Punjaban’s Persona Added to Her Legend
Sonu Punjaban hit the headlines soon after she was arrested. She was glamorous, confident and mysterious. Her hair had highlights and she wore fashionable clothes.
The photo of her dressed in a pink cardigan and blue jeans was splashed all over the media. In other interviews much later, she wore a leather jacket, a yellow jumper with a shawl.
On television channels, they showed her face, narrated her crime, called her the “kingpin” on organised sex racket. And although she denied having married other men, the police and the media said she had married four times after the death of Vijay. Except her fifth husband, the rest were killed in various police encounters. “There are photos on her phone with sindoor, and with these men in a husband-wife kind of intimate relation,” Negi said. She got the case in June 2017 and spent six months looking for the victim who had walked into the police station one day and then disappeared subsequently.
The Sole Victim Testimony that Got Sonu Punjaban Arrested
A girl walked into the Najafgarh police station on 9 Feb 2014 and had asked for help to get her documents from a man named Rajpal in Rohtak. She then went on to narrate her story and said she had been kidnapped by Bedwal in 2009 and sold into prostitution after he raped her. She was sold to Sonu Punjaban later and spent more than two months in her “charge”. At the time of her kidnapping, she was 12 years old. When her story was turned into a police complaint, she was 17. A minor.
The girl was taken to her parents’ house in Gandhinagar. But a few months later, she left. Her parents filed a missing persons complaint at the police station. But for three years, she would remain missing.
According to the police, she wasn’t able to adjust. There was stigma she couldn’t bear. And then, there were the alleged threats from the people she had accused. She was experiencing withdrawal from the various drugs she had been administered while she rotated amongst many pimps. In the judgment, one of the drugs is identified as Alprax, an anti-depressant.
“Her sister was about to get married and she didn’t want her presence to affect that,” said DCP Bhisham Singh.
So, she left and went to live with some people in Yamuna Vihar where she worked as a sex worker, as per the police. In 2017, the police were finally able to trace her. She was rehabilitated. She got married, bore a child and is now living with her parents after the man she was married to dumped her because his parents weren’t ready to reconcile with the victim’s past.
The victim was found in November and the police arrested Sonu Punjaban on 25 Dec 2017.
Perpetrator or Victim: Who is Sonu Punjaban?
Be careful, the police officer advised yet again.
“She is a glib talker. She can almost convince you she did no wrong, that she is a victim herself. Don’t glorify her,” the police official said over the phone.
In 2011, I had tried to meet Sonu Punjaban. I had asked her to put my name on the visitor’s list at Tihar Jail. Her list had six people. I wasn’t among them. Phone calls to her brothers remained unanswered.
On the day of the conviction, she swallowed too many painkillers in an attempt to kill herself and landed in a hospital but was stable a few hours later.
“Perhaps to get sympathy of the judge before the quantum of the sentence is announced,” he said.
Twenty-four years is a long time. RM Tufail, the lawyer who fought her case when she was slapped with MCOCA, said they would file for an appeal.
“Nobody knows that the world's oldest professions are begging and prostitution. The morality talk is sickening,” he said. “I am not saying she doesn’t have a bad reputation but the victim disappears and reappears. It is a huge sentence. Quite unheard of.”
While announcing the sentence, Additional Sessions Judge Pritam Singh also imposed a fine of Rs 64,000 on Sonu Punjaban. The court also sentenced another accused, Sandeep Bedwal, to 20 years imprisonment and recommended a compensation of Rs 7 lakh to the victim.
"The modesty of a woman is next to her soul. How a woman can outrage and brutalise the modesty of another woman, who is minor, in such a horrific way. The shameful deeds of convict Sonu Punjaban deprives her of any leniency from the courts. A person, irrespective of gender, who does such horrific and terrible acts, has no right to live in a civilized society and for her best place to live is in the four boundaries of the jail," the order said.
The word pimp has a predatory ring to it. In Punjaban’s case, she had once spoken to the police about a housewife whose husband abused her and didn’t give her any money. Sonu Punjaban had helped the woman by getting her clients so she could earn a living. A woman has a right over her body, she had told the police.
Many like Sonu Punjaban are pitched in battle over terms and notions and perceptions about sex work and are trying to change how they are perceived and policed. The mainstream feminism has often focused on saving women from sex trade and have taken an abolitionist approach. But most of the women engaged in sex trade are short of choices. The trafficking of minors is another matter.
Maybe the conviction of Sonu Punjaban will set a deterrent. That’s a hope.
Or perhaps it satisfies the “collective conscience” of the society that thrives on morals going by the judgment and the perceptions and the conversations.
There is hope. But there’s despair, too.
(Chinki Sinha is a reporter based out of Delhi. She can be reached at @chinkis. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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