Amritsar: On a rainy Saturday in January 2022, Sohna Singh and Mohna Singh hurried to get ready to head out to work as an electrician—there’s no typo here, as we will soon explain—from their room in a charitable society here in Punjab’s bustling holy city.
On the edge of their bed, Sohna bent to tie the shoelace of the right shoe while Mohna wore the left one.
The 19-year-olds are conjoined at the torso and have separate hearts, kidneys, spinal cords and two pairs of arms but share a pair of legs.
As they left the room, headed for a work site a few blocks away, Sohna picked up an umbrella and held it up carefully over their heads so that neither was drenched. They entered one of the buildings, holding a screwdriver and a plier and began opening a switchboard.
With four hands and two minds, the job took less time than it would for you and me.
That is how Sohna and Mohna have coordinated with each other to get their work done every day in their lives.
They are now at the centre of a debate: Should they be regarded as one person or two?
As Punjab voted on 20 February 2020 in assembly elections, Sohna and Mohna voted as individuals, the Election Commission of India (ECI) recognising them as such. However, their employer, an electricity company owned by the government of Punjab, regards them as a single person and remunerates them accordingly.
What’s Common, What’s Not
The twins were born at New Delhi's Sucheta Kriplani Hospital in June 2003. Unable to cope with their conjoined situation, their parents abandoned them when they were two months old. They were adopted and raised by the All India Pingalwara Charitable Society.
“After they were born, they were sent to the All India Institute Of Medical Sciences New Delhi for treatment,” said Jai Singh, an administrator. “Then they were brought to Pingalwara by our team in August 2003.”
Sohna and Mohna do not say their parents abandoned them.
“Our parents were not financially stable, so they requested the doctors if someone could volunteer to raise us,” said Mohna. “Then the All India Pingalwara Charitable Society came forward and took us and has been raising us ever since along with getting us educated and everything.”
Apart from their legs, Sohna and Mohna share a gallbladder, spleen and liver.
After their birth, the doctors refused to separate the twins, saying it was a risky procedure, could be potentially fatal for one and cripple the surviving twin for life.
“The doctors said they could not be separated. Even though they have different hearts and spinal cords, they have a common urinary tract and excretory system,” Jai Singh told Article 14. “Also if they were to be separated, only one of them could have legs. So the doctors said it was impossible to separate them.”
From Passion to Profession
Electrical appliances have always fascinated Sohna and Mohna. They said that since their school days, whenever an electrician came to fix the fan or any other appliance, they would be intrigued.
On several occasions, they would bunk their classes only to watch an electrician at work. “The teachers would scold us, but that never killed our urge to see how electricians work,” said Sohna. “We were very inquisitive.”
After they finished their schooling, the twins developed this interest and enrolled in an electrical studies diploma course.
"Last year, officials of Punjab State Power Corporation Limited (PSPCL) were visiting a training centre where they noticed us and were intrigued by the way we worked,” said Mohna. “They offered us a job.”
However, the PSPCL only recruited Sohna for the job of an electrician. Sohna has been looking after the electrical appliances in the company's supply control room since December 2021 and is paid a monthly salary of Rs 20,000.
Venu Parsad, chief managing director of PSPCL, told Article 14 that they offered the job to one of the twins on “compassionate grounds”.
“We noticed they were good at their work, so we decided to recruit them under the disabled person quota on compassionate grounds,” Parsad said.
In the offer letter, only Sohna’s name is mentioned. However, Prasad said, they were trying to recruit Mohna as well.
Mohna said he was asked to sign an affidavit stating he did not have an objection to not being offered a job or a salary.
“Because the job has been offered to only Sohna, they asked me to write down a no objection letter (NOC), saying I had no objection to only Sohna being recruited,” Mohna said.
“The other one, at the most, can only assist,” said Jai Singh.
Yet, when Sohna goes to work, so must Mohna, and both work together. With four hands, Sohna and Mohna do the work of two employees.
Asked why only Sohna was being paid for the job, Prasad said it was a first-of-its-kind case and that is why they offered the job to only one of the twins, although that would change if they decided to recruit the Mohna.
Conjoined But Independent
While the PSPCL only offered one job and one salary to Sohna and Mohna, the Election Commision in January considered them as separate individuals and granted both of them voting rights.
On 25 January, Punjab's chief electoral officer handed two separate electoral photo identity cards to Sohna and Mohna, who cast their first votes in the Punjab assembly polls scheduled on 20 February.
Sohna and Mohna were not the only conjoined twins to get separate voting rights.
During the 2019 Lok Sabha election, conjoined twin sisters—Sabah and Farah— cast their votes separately in Patna, Bihar, after the Election Commission considered them as separate citizens. Four years before that, during the 2015 Bihar assembly polls, the sisters were only allowed a single vote.
“The twins cannot be denied their individuality on account of the way they are physically. They have different minds, different opinions and choices,” the then district magistrate of Patna was quoted as saying. “Therefore, this time they have been issued separate voter ID cards and they will be allowed to cast their votes by turns.”
Satendra Singh, a disability rights activist based in New Delhi, told Article 14 that if Sohna and Mohna had been issued two different voter IDs, then they should be treated as two different individuals.
“They should be treated as two people for two jobs,” said Satendra Singh. “When it comes to employment, the government does not take into account the efforts of two conjoined individuals, but they only respect one person on papers.”
Senior advocate Sanjoy Ghose said that since this was a compassionate appointment, the rigours of the selection may not apply. “Because a compassionate appointment is at the request of the party, there is a dispensation of normal rules of selection,” he said.
Ghose further said that the Article 23 of the Indian Constitution prohibited “forced labour”.
“But one has to see if that applies in this case or not,” said Ghose. “There are ethical and moral dilemmas involved in this case. It also depends on the restrictions being put on the other twin. For example, if during the work of one twin the other cannot do any other work, then his abilities are restricted.”
A similar situation arose when US-based conjoined twin sisters, Abby and Brittany Hensel, were looking for a job after they graduated in 2012. The twins were hired as elementary school teachers and both were registered in the contract and their salary was split.
‘We Showed The World’
Initially, Sohna said, their caretakers would not encourage them to fiddle with electric appliances, because of the hazards and risks it involved. But as they pursued their passion and studied the subject better, the officials at Pingalwara Society would often seek their help whenever anything needed to be repaired.
“On weekends, we would check the electric transformers and other appliances in our society to fix them,” said Sohna.
The job in Punjab’s electrical department boosted their morale. The twins said they had been passionate about getting a job in the electricity department.
“We wanted to change our passion into our profession,” said Sohna. “We did it and showed it to the world.”
Given their rare condition, Sohna and Mohna must make frequent adjustments to make their lives easier. For instance, Sohna and Mohna place their left and right arms, respectively, on their backs so that it does not hinder them when they are not working.
Though they think separately, their coordination is impeccable.
Without saying a word, everything about them synchronises. If Sohna says a sentence, Mohna picks it halfway and completes it. At times, both the twins speak a perfectly similar sentence with an uncanny similar tone and pitch.
"We don’t fight or argue. If I think of anything, I just tell him and so does he,” said Sohna. “That’s how we get the work done.”
The twins said it was normal for individual people to argue, but “we cannot do that since we are conjoined and we have to be together all the time, so what is the point of fighting”?
"We manage," they said, their words synchronising. “That’s the main thing.”
Besides their love for electric appliances, Sohna and Mohna are fond of singing. They were recently featured in a reality singing TV show where they were invited as guests.
"We have more milestones to achieve,” they said. “Our final goal is to become singers and become big stars.”
The twins said they were inspired by singers like Arijit Singh and Shankar Mahadevan.
With whatever they have achieved and done in their lives, Sohna and Mohna said they feel content. They recalled consulting a US-based doctor once who had predicted they would have a short life span.
“But look at us,” they said. “We are 19 and alive." Sohna and Mohna said they wanted the world to remember them "till the end of time".
"We want the world to remember us,” they said, “As Sohna-Mohna, the conjoined twins."
(Haziq Qadri is an independent journalist whose work focuses on politics, human rights and health. Qadri Inzamam is an independent journalist whose work focuses on politics and human rights.)