Santokben, Godmother

She's a soft-spoken, shy, self-effacing mother of four. And the leader of 102 hardcore goons.
Santokben, Godmother

SHE hardly seems the stuff the mafia is made of. No armed men stand guard outside her house at Rajkot, no tough musclemen hang around to give her protection. She doesn't have the commanding voice of a don controlling a gang. Nor does she fit the arrogant, loud-mouthed criminal-politician stereotype of the Hindi movies.

On the contrary, Santokben Sarmanbhai Jadeja could pass off as a quiet, caring, affectionate and warm-hearted mother, or a humble lower middle-class Gujarati housewife. The latest sobriquet, the Godmother -given by a controversial film-doesn't by any yardstick jell with her hesitant and self-effacing persona. But this is the Santokben Jadeja, the mafia queen of Kathiawad. And her name strikes terror in the Porbandar-Rajkot region of Gujarat.

She is known to be 'cruel and cold-blooded , as a local journalist put it. Police records reveal that the former mla from Kutiyana constituency heads the biggest and the most ruthless gang in the area, with 102 hardcore criminals; organises murders and kidnappings to settle scores; and takes cuts for every contract that is made in the port city of Porbandar, the birth place of Mahatma Gandhi. In all, 525 criminal cases are registered against the Santokben gang.

Yet, for journalists on the lookout for sensational stories, meeting Santokben could be a frustrating experience. Unassuming and shy, Santokben, 49, is a woman of very few words, most of them monosyllabic. She avoids eye-contact, looks down smilingly and rubs her palms nervously while talking. Educated barely till the third standard, she speaks and understands only the particular dialect of Gujarati spoken in the Kathiawad region. To questions about her crime life, she has standard answers.

Unlike Rambhi Odedara, the protagonist in the film The Godmother, played by Shabana Azmi, Santokben hardly raises her voice, nor does she indulge in drinking, smoking or frequent outbreaks of dance with her courtiers. She is so camera-shy that it was with great difficulty that she was persuaded to pose for a picture. 'I became an mla without making public speeches or posing for the cameramen, admits the mafia don shyly.

Which is why she is hell-bent on knocking down the producer-director of The Godmother. 'I want the film to be banned. It is based on my life and portrays a bad picture of the Mehar community, she says. Santokben and her supporters plan to engage the film's director Vinay Shukla in a series of court cases so that 'he never gets out of the mess and his film never sees the light of day . More bad news for the filmmakers comes from Vadodara where noted Gujarati writer, Manohar Desai, has filed a case against them saying that the film is based on his novel.

By Shukla's own admission, the film revolves around the Mehar community, but he claims it has nothing to do with Santokben. Counters Deven Desai, Santokben's English-speaking Man Friday: 'Show me one woman who is a Mehar and who fights the taluka panchayat election after her husband's death. The filmmakers think they are smart. They have made a film for Rs 2 crore, but this lady (Santokben) has property worth Rs 300 crore. Let them fight the case. We are going to win .

Clad in an off-white silk sari, the 'Godmother' recalls how circumstances plunged her into the world of politics when her husband Sarmanbhai Munjabhai Jadeja was murdered by fellow gangleader Jivabhai in 1987 following his decision to stand for the post of president of the taluka panchayat. The local buzz is that Santokben never went to the police for help. But instead, took her own revenge.

Santokben, say locals, promised her gangmembers: kill one killer and get Rs 1 lakh. Subsequently, almost all the 14 people involved in Sarmanbhai's murder were systematically liquidated. The ringleader, Jivabhai, was killed when he returned to Porbandar three years after Sarmanbhai's murder. The only one to escape was an influential politician, who begged for mercy and was let off by Santokben on the condition that he would quit politics. The lone survivor now leads the life of a total recluse.

Santokben spread her reign of terror till '96. By then there was no one to challenge her writ. 'None of the persons who killed my husband are alive any longer, says Santokben, a frozen expression on her face.

After the bjp government came to power in 1996, Santokben, charged with murder, was lodged in Ahmedabad jail for 16 months. Her main concern during the months spent in jail, she says, was her four children-who are now all with her. The 26-year-old eldest son Kandhalbhai, himself a tada accused, plays cricket every evening in his courtyard with the other boys of the house. The family avoids talking about the cases as 'it might cause further tension . Clearly, Santokben doesn't want any of her family members to get into trouble. When Outlook tried to speak to her daughter-in-law, Santokben vehemently objected: 'I don't want my family members to enter 'this line'. A person like me is enough .

To the police brass and her detractors, Santokben symbolises the criminal-politician-businessman nexus in Gujarat. Says Nirmala Gotru, the young district SP: 'To maintain their economic superiority the criminals enter politics and all these gangs are an expression of this phenomenon .

And Porbandar is notorious for its gangs which control the port, the transport, the contracts and export business. The entire underworld business is divided between the two dominating communities-the Mehars and the Kharwas. 'However desperately you want to break free of these gangs, you cannot violate their diktat, says a local.

The history of ganglords in Porbandar dates back to the early 1950s when Nanaji Kalidas Mehta, the owner of Maharaja Mills, hired Devu Vaghel, a much-dreaded goon, to break the Communist-run trade union. Santokben's husband Sarmanbhai Munja-then only an upcoming bully-murdered Vaghel. Overnight he became the lord of the Porbandar mafia and entered the liquor and gold smuggling business. The flow of easy money increased his criminal activities. And so also his political ambitions.

In one incident-depicted in great length in The Godmother and subsequently edited by the censor board-Sarmanbhai Munja tied two people with a rope behind his jeep and dragged them 35 km. One died, the other survived as he was dragged on top of the former's dead body.

Ironically, all this occurred in the land where Mahatma Gandhi was born 130 years ago. Several gangsters live a couple of yards away from the Kirti Mandir-the Mahatma's birthplace. Does the Mahatma have any impact on the lives of the people of Porbandar? Says Santokben's supporter Deven Desai: 'We wish he had not been born here. At least the people would have got whisky and beer easily .

These days, as police pressure on the gangs is mounting, the Santokben clan has fingers crossed. Yet, they are sure that this is a temporary phase. 'All those cases are false. Some day the truth will come out. Some day there will be justice, says a grim-looking Santokben softly, her voice resounding with the belief of a dead-honest person.

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