Bhopal: When Harbhajan Singh, an engineer with the Indore Municipal Corporation, filed a complaint at the Palasia police station in Madhya Pradesh 17 September alleging that he was being blackmailed, he was obviously not aware of the scandalous chain of events he was about to trigger.
Singh claimed he was being blackmailed by a woman identified as Arti Dayal, 29, who had asked him to pay Rs 3 crore, failing which video clips she claimed showed his sexual encounters, would be made public.
What tumbled out from the subsequent investigation was a sordid case centred on an NGO whose chief allegedly ensnared politicians and top civil servants, including IPS officers, and filmed furtive sexual encounters for extortion.
A bid was also allegedly made to milk the video clips for plum central government contracts, but whether they succeeded is still under investigation.
Sources privy to the investigation said around six senior politicians, and at least 10 IAS and IPS officers, apart from civil engineers and builders, were lured by the gang over the past few years.
Five women, including suspected mastermind Shweta Swapnil Jain of Bhopal, and one man have been arrested in the case so far. While the lawyers of at least two of the suspects have claimed the case is fabricated, one has alleged torture in police custody.
A plea filed in the Madhya Pradesh High Court, meanwhile, has sought a CBI investigation into the case.
As the probe continues, the lurid details of the case seem to have unleashed turmoil in Madhya Pradesh, with the BJP and the Congress at loggerheads over the damning stories that are tumbling out.
Sex videos go viral
It all started sometime in 2017, when an explicit video of a woman from Sagar district, 39-year-old Shweta Vijay Jain (different from Shweta Swapnil Jain), and her driver went viral. Shweta Vijay Jain served as a member of the Juvenile Justice Board in Sagar from 2006 to 2014.
Soon, there were other videos of a similar nature.
Come 2019, the videos began to feature senior politicians and civil servants.
This February, just before the Lok Sabha elections, an explicit video featuring Shweta Swapnil Jain, 48, and a former BJP leader emerged.
Another such video, which surfaced in August, showed a top-level police officer. Amid suspicions that the videos may all stem from the same racket, the Madhya Pradesh Police started searching for the possible source.
It was Harbhajan Singh’s complaint against Dayal that brought a promising lead.
The interrogation of Dayal and another woman named Monica Yadav revealed an alleged extortion racket run by Shweta Swapnil Jain, who owns an NGO in Bhopal.
More arrests followed as police rounded up Shweta Vijay Jain, Barkha Soni, 34, of Bhopal and their driver Omprakash Kori, 45.
‘Clubs, money, seduction and extortion’
According to the investigation so far, police sources told ThePrint, the first step for the gang allegedly involved getting in touch with civil servants and policemen. Often, the sources alleged, there were multiple meetings that led to an opportunity for a sexual encounter.
Then, a room at a plush club or a hotel was booked. According to sources, Shweta Swapnil Jain was a regular visitor at the prestigious Arera Club in Bhopal, whose president is the state chief secretary. Situated near the Arera hill, it is a recreational and leisure club with over 1,000 members who also include individuals not associated with the government.
According to the sources, the women also allegedly arranged “highway parties” at locations around the Bhopal-Indore four-lane road. They allegedly met top officials at parties in nearby farmhouses and resorts.
Once an atmosphere for intimacy was established, the sources said, the sexual act would be recorded in the “most advanced spy cameras” hidden in cosmetics, furniture or other equipment.
Then blackmail would allegedly follow. The racket, which is believed to have gone on for seven years, began with simple extortion demands for money and contracts for the NGO, including plum projects in the areas of publicity, skill development, training or human resources. Subsequently, a senior police officer said, the women began efforts to get central government contracts for clients.
According to police sources, the five women were allegedly aided in their designs by many temporary recruits from all over the state.
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96 videos recovered
The probe into the case is currently being conducted by a police special investigation team (SIT), constituted by the state government last week. Among their biggest finds so far, sources said, are videos recovered from the laptop of the accused women.
It’s through these videos — 96 in all — police say they were able to identify the haunts where they would take men.
The investigators also found a list maintained by the suspects that purportedly contains names of the men they were blackmailing or were on their target. The list, which was in code, names officers from the departments of urban planning, agriculture, water and fisheries, the sources claimed.
The SIT also sent an email to local residents seeking tipoffs. Sources in the state police said the email ID had received as many as 150 responses that deal specifically with the case.
The leads suggest some reputed jewellers and restaurant owners around the state may have fallen prey to the racket as well.
Most of the seized digital content is currently under forensic analysis, the results of which are likely to take time. Police sources said the volume of data was such that they might be staring at investigation files running up to 6,000 pages.
Possible links to a 2011 sex racket busted in Bhopal is also on the radar of the SIT. That racket saw police find the contact details of several ministers and police officers in the phones of a Delhi-based sex worker Simran and others involved. According to sources, the SIT has discovered links between one of the current suspects and Simran.
Caught ‘on the verge’
The suspects, sources said, had been making attempts to secure a large central government project based in Chhattisgarh for one of their clients when they were caught.
According to the sources, when arrested, one of the women was on the verge of concluding a contract between a factory she owns and a public sector undertaking for the supply of industrial parts.
One of the suspects had allegedly also managed to secure an important export-import deal of the central government for an NRI client, but the plan fell through because of a last-minute glitch, the sources added.
The focus of the investigation, a second officer said, is to recognise the men in the videos and check if any government projects were compromised as a result of the extortion. “Relevant charges under the Prevention of Corruption Act would then be applied,” the officer added.
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BJP, Congress ‘link’
That Shweta Vijay Jain was on the Juvenile Justice Board — whose members are chosen on the recommendation of a panel set up by the state government — during the BJP’s rule has triggered an onslaught from rival Congress and led the party to distance itself from her.
Senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh has alleged that Shweta Vijay Jain held an important post in the MP Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the BJP’s student wing, when state party vice-chief Jitu Jirati was its president.
“When Jitu Jirati was president of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha’s Madhya Pradesh unit, was Shweta Vijay Jain the general secretary of this unit or not?” he told mediapersons in Bhopal earlier this month.
Jirati has dismissed the claim, saying she was not general secretary but a member of the state working committee. “Shweta was one of the 325 members of the yuva morcha’s state working committee during my tenure,” he added.
Another lead being pursued is that a member of the managing committee for Shweta Swapnil Jain’s NGO is the wife of a former state cabinet minister who exerted influence over its functioning.
Meanwhile, one of the suspects, Soni, is married to former Congress member Amit Soni. As reported by ThePrint earlier, the MP Congress Committee has said that Amit Soni was sacked from the party on 15 June 2019 for anti-party activities.
“It’s a matter of concern if any public figure is blackmailed,” said Madhya Pradesh Youth and Sports Affairs Minister Jitu Patwari of the Congress. “The law is doing its work honestly and whosoever is found guilty — whether politician, bureaucrat or any other person — will face action.”
“I believe that the picture should be presented clearly before people,” added state Minister for Cooperatives, Parliamentary and General Administration Department Govind Singh. “The names of all those involved and trapped should be exposed, no matter which party they may belong to or how big a bureaucrat or political leader he may be.”
“Lokraj mein lok laaj bhi hona chahiye (in a democracy, there has to be dignity),” he added.
Leader of opposition in the Madhya Pradesh assembly, Gopal Bhargava of the BJP, said the only solution would be to hand over the probe to the CBI. “Only the CBI should look into this matter,” he added. “Whatever we say will affect the investigation.”
MP Police stands divided
Apart from the political back and forth, the case also seems to have split the state police, with state CID deputy inspector general D. Srinivas’ replacement as SIT chief, with additional director general of police Sanjeev Shami, within 20 hours of his appointment kicking up a storm. Meanwhile, a war of words is underway between two senior police officers of the state.
Director General of Police (DGP) V.K. Singh, the SIT supervisor, told mediapersons Saturday that Special DG (cyber cell) Purshottam Sharma rented out a flat in Ghaziabad without informing the police department, and that this property was used in the sex racket.
The same day, Sharma told the press that Singh should be removed as the supervisor of the SIT. He also wrote an email to the chairman of the MP IPS Association, saying statements like his were tarnishing the image of the police. He also met Chief Secretary S.R. Mohanty to narrate his side of the incident.
MP IPS Association chair R. Yadav has now said that “action within the boundaries of law will be contemplated”.
Asked to complete the investigation as soon as possible, Purshottam, according to sources, has sought more time from Chief Minister Kamal Nath to complete it. The SIT underwent another shuffle Tuesday, and Shami replaced by MP director general of prosecution Rajendra Kumar.
Also read: Women in this photo are not ‘victims of love jihad’. They were caught running ‘sex racket’
Suspects say case shaky
On Tuesday, all six suspects were produced in an Indore court and remanded in judicial custody until 14 October, where they will be interrogated further.
Shweta Vijay Jain’s lawyer Dharmendra Gurjar, who is moving court for bail, told ThePrint that the case was on “extremely shaky ground”.
“Just because some accused named our client, this cannot be treated as evidence. The original FIR [filed on government official Singh’s complaint] does not mention her,” he added. “No one is questioning the officers who slept with the women and helped jeopardise their own government interests.”
Shweta Swapnil Jain’s lawyer Amar Singh Rathore and the advocate for driver Kori say the case against their clients is fabricated.
Tomar said Omprakash had joined the services of Shweta Vijay Jain only two months ago and there was no chance he could be involved in a racket that had allegedly been operating for so long.
The Madhya Pradesh High Court is now scheduled to hear, at an unspecified date, an Indore resident’s plea for a CBI probe into the case. Petitioner Digvijay Singh Bhandari has also requested that Indore Municipal Corporation engineer Harbhajan Singh be booked for rape and under POCSO.
According to him, Singh had admitted to having sex with Dayal while she was a minor.
The HC admitted the petition but has not specified the next date of hearing.
Engineer Singh, meanwhile, was sacked in the wake of his complaint as his conduct was seen to be in violation of the Madhya Pradesh Civil Services Conduct Rules of 1965. According to his suspension order, “Singh’s alleged involvement in the honey trap case is prima facie a sign of moral decadence…”