Indore Municipal Corporation officials demolish a building owned by absconding businessman-editor Jeetu Soni. (PTI)
Whenever they felt a story was risky, and that was often, a senior editorial member of Indore-based eveninger Sanjha Lokswami would try convey to owner-editor Jeetu Soni that the newspaper could get into trouble.
Jitendra alias Jeetu Soni, says a staff member, would be unruffled, telling them, “Don’t worry, nothing will happen, I know how to handle it. It’s my byline and print line.” The staff member admits they were impressed at the clout and contacts Soni seemed to have.
It all unravelled last week when, in the wake of a series of reports carried by Sanjha Lokswami on the honeytrap case that originated in Indore and is now believed to have links across Madhya Pradesh, police raided and demolished most of the premises owned by Soni, and arrested his son Amit.
An award of Rs 1 lakh has been recommended for the capture of Soni, who is on the run, while Sanjha Lokswami’s registration has been cancelled and its office sealed. So far, more than 30 FIRs have been lodged against Soni and his associates.
The honeytrap case came to light with the arrest of five women and their driver in September, following a complaint by an Indore Municipal Corporation superintendent engineer, Harbhajan Singh, that he was being blackmailed by them with video clips showing him in a compromising position.
There have been no other arrests in the case and no new complainant, though several video and audio clips were reportedly recovered from the accused.
Sanjha Lokswami had carried reports with lurid details naming a former BJP minister, a principal secretary to former chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, and the honeytrap case complainant Harbhajan Singh, now suspended, along with husbands of two of the five women accused in the case. There was promise of more, when the raids happened.
To many, including those not at the receiving end of Soni’s eveninger, the action was long overdue. They accuse Soni, who is his 60s, of being a “blackmailer” who built his empire wielding his eight-page tabloid as a weapon, his journalism resting on sting operations and salacious details mainstream newspapers would shy away from. After an attempt on his life, he was allotted two armed police guards, which have now been withdrawn.
Soni’s journalism career began in 1993, when he bought the morning daily Lokswami from senior Congress leader Mahesh Joshi. The latter had launched the newspaper with the help of around 34,000 subscribers, who contributed Re 1 each as seed money. Just weeks before his assassination in May 1991, former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had inaugurated it. Joshi was forced to sell the paper due to lack of funds.
The acquisition of the daily by Soni was a surprise given his background in the construction business. But he learnt fast, turning the daily into an eveninger, renaming it Sanjha Lokswami, and going after politicians, including Joshi, as well as those considered his adversaries, with his eveninger carrying the tagline ‘Likhit and sachcha dastavez (written and true document)’.
One of Soni’s biggest “newsbreaks” was exposing an Indore-based network of alleged SIMI operatives. He also wrote regularly on drug rackets and land deals. Unlike news publications that survive on advertisements, Sanjha Lokswami rarely got any, and Soni said he didn’t need them.
Still, the eveninger — among nearly a dozen in Indore — seems to have earned Soni enough profits to build an empire including a plush hotel, a hotel-cum-dance bar, a café and a house located on a 21,000 sq ft-plus plot, with Soni’s joint family of 18 buying land adjacent to it. The editor-businessman was often seen in the company of senior police officials and flirted with politics via the Shiv Sena.
While his luck appears to have run out, his ‘contacts’ may have come in handy one last time, helping Soni escape just before the crackdown.
Amit’s wife, who refused to be named, said her husband was innocent and had nothing to do with either the eveninger or the family-owned restaurant-bar My Home, from where police recovered 67 women who allegedly entertained patrons for money.
A relative lamented that police “ransacked everything” and brought down the family’s bungalow Jag Villa, named after Soni’s father Jagjivan, who owned a small jewellery shop. “Police came as if they were looking for a terrorist,” the relative said. “Papaji (Soni) just wanted to expose the truth. What wrong did he commit? He only published what was there.”