As rumours grip murder case, her family comes to terms with loss of their ‘brightest’ star

The swiveling office chair is empty, so are the ones kept outside for visitors. A dreamy portrait of Sonali Phogat hangs on one of the walls. Till a few days ago, Sonali had been meeting her supporters and family here in her office, on the ground floor of her house in Sant Nagar — a neighbourhood in Haryana’s Hisar whose narrow lanes may have got too cramped for its most famous occupant.

On August 22, a day after Phogat, a local BJP leader and a former TikTok star, left for Goa, she died after consuming drugs, allegedly administered by personal assistant Sudhir Sangwan and his friend Sukhwinder Singh during a late-night party. Sudhir and Sukhwinder are now in police custody.

A floor above Sonali’s office, at her home that she shared with her teenage daughter, her brother-in-law Aman Punia says Sangwan called Sonali’s brother Vatan on the morning of August 23. “He told Vatan that Sonali had suffered a heart attack during a shoot the previous night and that she was no more. The moment we heard that, we knew he had killed her. I had spoken to Sonali late night on August 22. She was emotional and scared. It seemed like she wanted to say a lot. I sensed something was wrong.”

The second of five siblings, Sonali, 42, grew up in Bhattu Kalan village in Fatehabad, about 60 km from Hisar. It was after her Class 10 that the family moved to Hisar. Even as a young girl, Sonali is known to have been keen on acting/ modelling and attended acting classes in Hisar. In 2006, she started her career as an anchor on Doordarshan, Hisar. “Being on TV and seeing herself on the screen were always a big deal for her. She was the brightest among us,” says Aman.

In 1996-97, Sonali married Sanjay Phogat, a real-estate businessman. The couple moved to Noida, from where Sonali’s political career took flight after a chance meeting with an “activist”. She was inducted into the BJP’s national working committee and rose through the ranks to be in its mahila morcha. “After Sanjay died of a heart attack at their farmhouse in Hisar in December 2016, Sonali shifted back to Hisar,” says Aman, adding that she soon went back to acting.

In 2019, she appeared in the web series The Story of Badmashgarh, directed by Ameet Choudhary. She also played the wife to actor Nawab Shah’s character in Amma, on Zee TV. In 2020, she featured in the reality show Bigg Boss. She also became a TikTok star with more than 1.50 lakh followers.

It was around this time, ahead of the 2019 Assembly polls, that CM Manohar Lal Khattar held a Hisar rally. The local face of the BJP, Sonali was assigned Mangali Point to rally crowds. “We got nearly 7-8,000 people. The CM was so impressed that Sonali was given a BJP ticket from Adampur,” says her younger brother Rinku. Sonali, however, lost to then Congress nominee Kuldeep Bishnoi.

The loss didn’t slow her down politically, and she went on to become vice-president of the BJP’s mahila morcha.

Around 100 km from Sonali’s Hisar house is accused Sudhir Sangwan’s swank three-storeyed house at Suncity, in Rohtak’s Sector 34, where he lived with his wife, three children and father. “I cannot talk about him. The investigation is going on,” says Sangwan’s father Satvir.

A lawyer by training, Sangwan is known to have worked as a contractor/middleman for the government subsidies that farmers got. He also started a poultry farm business but could not sustain it for long.

Sonali’s family members say they first heard of Sangwan around the Raksha Bandhan festival in 2019. “He first met Sonali at a politician’s wedding in Rajasthan, where he apparently befriended her. A few days later, he was found moving around with Sonali. She told us he was her PA. Until then, (Sonali’s brother) Vatan managed all her political affairs, but once he came, Vatan was out of the scene, so were Sonali’s driver, cook and other staff members — all replaced by Sudhir’s men. We had to go through Sudhir even to call her. She trusted him blindly,” says Sonali’s brother-in-law Punia.

Sonali’s family believes she was killed for money. In her 2019 poll affidavit, she had declared assets worth Rs 2.74 crore.

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“Sudhir handled all her finances and must have swindled a lot of her money. When my brother-in-law (Punia) spoke to Sonali hours before she died, she told him that her property documents, ATM cards and all the keys to her home were with Sudhir,” says Sonali’s younger brother Rinku.

Amid the rumours and videos playing in an endless loop on TV, the family says they have been trying their best to shield Sonali’s daughter, a Class 11 student at a residential school 18 km from Hisar. “My mother called the day she was leaving and said she was going for a shoot. She asked me if I was doing well and she told me that she would meet me soon,” says the 16-year-old.

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