The Bandit as Godmother

Santokben - the real godmother

Santokben Jadeja was probably the only true-blue Indian female don. She had blood on her hands, but when she died on March 31 it was her heart that gave way at 62. Her death lacked the drama that her life had been. In the 80s and 90s she terrorised Porbandar in Gujarat to avenge the death of her gangster husband Sarman Munja Jadeja. From extortion, arms peddling and mediating in property disputes, she took to murder. And like many before her who wielded such power, she too got elected to the state assembly where she would walk in with a revolver.

Santokben showed no remorse for her past, justifying it as “compulsion of circumstances, pressure from police, politicians and enemies. What else could one have done in the given circumstances? Why bother about it now, it was all for the family and community?”

Was she a nurturing godmother or an iconic one? While men revel in their notoriety, women fight shy of it. So when the film ‘Godmother’ based on her life was made in 1999, her family had objected because it was damaging to their reputation. The community was angry because she was shown smoking and drinking. An entertainment organisation in Rajkot had earlier refused to participate in the film.

It only revealed the tremendous hold she had. She felt her honesty was being defiled by the cinematic portrayal and her observations were sharp and precise: “It's harmful for me anyway whether they have been faithful to the truth or otherwise. People will shout that I have been glorified and will be jealous about it.”

Shabana Azmi in the film
The filmic portrayal did not infringe on her life as it did the dacoit Phoolan Devi’s, who had to be the spitfire coquette even as a politician. Strangely, she went against the argument that made the Supreme Court lift the ban on ‘Bandit Queen’ by declaring, “It is not a pretty story, there are no syrupy songs around pirouetting trees. It is the sad story of a woman, a village-born female child becoming a dreaded dacoit.”

If such were the sympathies of the judiciary, why then was Phoolan hounded in the Chambal Valley, why was she jailed and reportedly ill-treated there? Or were the courts only interested in the cover version rather than the real thing?

Many miles away in Britain, a theatrical portrayal of ‘Myra and Me’ had caused ideological tremors. The 'heroine' was Myra Hindley who had killed three children in 1966. The mother of one of the kids was appalled that such a despicable person should be transformed into a figure of entertainment.

When Diana Dubois took up the story, she had reasoned: “I found it extremely troubling to write, but perhaps it is our job to go into dark corners. Perhaps it is the job of the arts to look at things that are unpleasant. The play shows that it's a senseless world and senseless things happen to people all the time and we have to be responsible for our actions - we all have to live together. The more I read about her the less I understand about her. The more you find out anything the more confusing it becomes.”

It is probably this enigma that sustains the woman criminal persona beyond its obvious dimensions and what they have done becomes the spur to examine what they did not do and what they could have done.

With the male, the criminal and the private face seem to mesh in the social psyche where the men return with bruises or to cause further terror. Their role is seen as proactive and they have already acquired hero/martyr status. The female thug is viewed as a crustacean where her soft centre is sought to be explored. The idea almost always is of repression and that denial has become revenge.

Santokben would have silenced many pop psychology theories mainly because she chose to stay the course; she did not reform even when she joined politics. In fact, she came in handy for political machinations. It is possible to see her merely as a woman trying to make ends meet or as a widow taking on the legacy of her husband. She managed to retain her position because she did not fall for the feminised image trap where sexuality follows. A Phoolan had to be seen from the narrow perspective of the rape victim’s banshee cry. Could she be anything beyond that? If we compare the two, Phoolan’s life was a surrender in more than the literal sense. She had to be humanised; Santokben, with her kitchen look, did not need to.

'Godmother' tried to make a statement of gender equality, of the iron hand, but the subliminal message was that she pined for velvet gloves. Pictures of Shabana Azmi who essayed the role showed her as someone who could wield a magic wand. Even the most hard-hitting fairytale version can never be honest to reality and its embedded lies.

(c) Farzana Versey


  1. Primary difference between Phoolan and Santokben; their respective castes. Phoolan was truly an abused woman who managed not to be trampled upon and forgotten so easily. Santokben on the other hand, as you can tell from her surname; was a Rajput.

    I have vague memories about all this but as I see it, these erstwhile princely families (landlords, rulers, khatriyas whatever you wanna call them) lost their prestige and wealth through democratization and later socialist programs of Indira. Rival caste groups (esp. Patels and Shahs) dominated the access to political power. So, as I see it Santokben was not only trying to make ends meet but also not be buried into the pages of history.

    I have read somewhere that even Dawood owes his start to a 'madam' in bombay who moved in such higher police/politcal circles that his policeman father could only dream of.

  2. Hitesh:

    Indeed, there is the caste factor. But Phoolan, as I say, decided to play along with a caricature image of herself. Santokben did not. Was it her caste that afforded her that luxury?

    Oh, and she contested on a JD ticket!

    There was a woman in Mumbai who was more like a mother hen to the local gangsters and did have access to quite a few big ones. I am not sure if Dawood owed it to her, because she was closer to Karim Lala and he started off with Haji Mastan.

  3. Hi FV, Santokben's account is indeed interesting... but do you have the account of Sarman Munja? How did he really become an underworld don? What's his story? Santok Ben carried forward a legacy left behind by her husband... but how did he, the mill worker, get into underworld and then politics? very less written about him.

  4. Hi Rahul:

    Indeed, little is known about him, but is there any reason for your interest? That aside, there are more make dons, so a woman in the field will draw more attention.

  5. Hi FV, while going through your blog on Santok Ben, it drew my curiousity and I went on to read more about it on the net... I had also seen the film Godmother long time back... while going through the net I realised that not much is written about the reigns of Munja family before her... and hence the curiosity to know how it all germinated.


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