ON DECEMBER 5, the Indore Municipal Corporation (IMC) pulled down a plush hotel in the city owned by businessman Jeetu Soni, even as the High Court was hearing a plea by his lawyers seeking more time to respond to the corporation’s showcause notice.
This is just one of his six properties that faced action — four, including the hotel, were demolished on December 5, one on December 9, and another on December 11.
Soni, who owned and edited Sanjha Lokswami — an eveninger in Indore that had carried a series of reports on the alleged ‘honey trap’ case that has rocked the administration in the state — is on the run, along with his family members. So far, over 40 FIRs have been lodged against Soni and his associates, with charges ranging from land grab to extortion and human trafficking.
On December 2, a team of the IMC inspected the premises of Best Western PLUS O2, Soni’s star hotel in South Tukoganj locality of Indore, served a notice for violating building bye-laws, and asked the management to show cause within 48 hours as to why the structure should not be demolished.
With Soni and his family absconding, his lawyers moved the High Court on December 4, seeking more time to respond to the notice. But on December 5, while the matter was still being heard in court, the IMC went ahead with the demolition. His lawyers claimed in court that they had valid documents to justify the construction as legal but needed more time to file the reply. “IMC has started demolition at 6 am without giving us breathing time,’’ they told the court.
The IMC lawyer, however, argued that under Section 307 of the Madhya Pradesh Municipal Corporation Act, 1956, no time limit has been prescribed to submit a reply to a notice and, hence, the corporation was right to start the demolition “in the absence of any reply by the petitioner to the notice’’.
In his order, Justice Vivek Rusia said, “In the considered opinion of this court, 48 hours’ time is not sufficient to give immediate response to the showcause notice. At least seven days time ought to have been given for submitting effective reply.’’
But, by the time the lawyers reached the hotel with a copy of the High Court order, a major part of the hotel had been pulled down, with the hotel guests told to vacate the premises only the previous evening.
The ‘honey trap’ case came to light in September, following a complaint by an IMC superintendent engineer, Harbhajan Singh, who alleged that he was being blackmailed by five women and a man, who had video clips of him in a compromising position. While the five women and the man, along with their driver, were arrested, there has been no new complainant since then.
Soni’s Sanjha Lokswami had carried reports with lurid details naming a former BJP minister, a principal secretary to former chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, and Harbhajan Singh, among others. Soni had threatened to make more revelations in his paper, when the raids happened.
On the night of November 30, the administration cracked down on Soni and his business, with teams of Revenue, Excise, IMC, Police, Food and Women & Child among nine departments that searched his house, hotels and the eveninger’s office in Indore’s Press Complex.
On December 5, the day Soni’s hotel was pulled down, the administration also demolished his 7,800-sq-foot bungalow Jag Villa; Café O2; and the family owned restaurant-bar My Home. On December 9, another bungalow owned by the businessman was demolished. On December 11, the eveninger’s two-storey office built on a 15,000-sq-foot plot and an event management company office located on an adjacent plot, were also razed.
About 40 cases have been lodged against Soni on offences ranging from loot to extortion, blackmailing, forgery and violations of the Arms Act. Amit, one of Soni’s two sons, was arrested and charged under the Information Technology Act and also booked for human trafficking.
“Some of these constructions are 10 or 20 years old. You can’t give a notice one fine day and demolish the properties without following the due procedure of law,’’ said advocate Vishal Baheti, who has represented Soni in cases related to the demolition of his bungalow and hotel. “There is no one in the family to move contempt petitions. The authorities are giving notices after notices. Maybe they want him to surrender.”
“I was ready with a petition to challenge the demolition of the newspaper office but nobody from the family approached me. The police have ensured they don’t reach me,’’ alleged Manohar Dalal, another advocate representing Soni.
Dalal alleged the crackdown by the administration was in retaliation to the exposés by Soni’s newspaper in the ‘honey trap’ case. Before going underground, Soni had submitted a hard disk containing hours of audio and video footage to the High Court through Dalal.