The only woman Chambal dacoit in the past decade and a half, Sadhna Patel was arrested by the Madhya Pradesh Police on November 17 amidst a blaze of attention. Descriptions like “Aatank ka paryay (terror incarnate)”, “khoonkhar (ferocious)”, “dasyu sundari (bandit queen)” were bandied about as police paraded the dimunitive 22-year-old before cameras.
A fortnight later, police say Patel is one of the quietest inmates in Satna Jail. And contrary to the reputation built around her, she may have never even fired a gun at anyone.
Patel was arrested from the dense Kadiyan jungles in Satna district. Many dacoits are known to operate in the Uttar Pradesh-Madhya Pradesh border area, committing crimes in one state and skipping over to the other to avoid arrest. Police claimed to have recovered a .315 bore rifle and some cartridges from Patel, apart from a sling bag carrying daily essentials.
Chambal last had a woman dacoit more than 15 years ago. Rani, an allegedly “trigger-happy” accomplice of dacoit Santa Khairwar, was killed in an encounter along with him in February 2003.
Sadhna Patel was born in Chitrakoot district of Uttar Pradesh, 50-60 km from Satna. The barely 5-ft girl, the eldest of three siblings, was nicknamed “belani (rolling pin)” due to her short stature.
Police say Patel’s aunt had links with the powerful Chunnilal Patel gang, introducing her to the world of dacoits. There are other known dacoits in the area belonging to Patel’s Kurmi caste, including Sunder Patel, Thokia Patel and Dadua Patel.
At the age of 17, Patel, who studied up to Class 8, was married off by her family. The relationship though ended in six months when she reportedly started living with another person. Around this time, she started disappearing from home for long intervals. A few years ago, Patel’s father was found dead in the jungles.
O P Singh, who is in charge of Majhgawan Police Station, where a case of loot is registered against Patel, says, “After her family refused to take her back, Patel joined the Naval Dhobi gang in 2015. When he surrendered in February 2018, she took over the gang. She would target contractors or people involved in collecting tendu leaves.”
Dhobi is believed to have surrendered fearing an encounter by the Uttar Pradesh Police.
In August 2018, Patel came to public attention when her gang was accused of abducting Chhotelal Sen of Paldev under Nayagaon Police Station in Madhya Pradesh. After his release, the 35-year-old gave a vivid account of his time in captivity, particularly of the “ruthless” Patel, claiming she had chopped off his fingers.
Nayagaon Police Station in-charge Yogendra Singh Jayshoors admits some of the stories about Patel may be apocryphal. “Not sure if fingers were chopped off but she definitely used the butt of her rifle to crush Sen’s fingers,” he says. The abduction itself was an embarrassment for the gang as it had to let go of Sen without ransom after realising his family was broke.
Around a year ago, Patel went underground. Police believe she moved to Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to avoid arrest. Over the next few months, the Madhya Pradesh Police rounded up her gang members one by one, including alleged sharpshooters Rinku Shivhare and Deepak Shivhare.
In mid-September, dacoit Babuli Kol and his accomplice, Lavlesh, were killed in an encounter. Officials believe this might have scared Patel into surrender. One of the largest dacoit gangs operational in the area, Babuli Kol and his men had more than 110 cases, of murder, extortion, kidnapping and loot, registered against them, in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
A police officer says Kol also invited Patel to join his gang, but she refused. By the time she surrendered, she was left with one-two accomplices, and officials were surprised at how tamely she gave up.
Patel has half-a-dozen cases registered against her — all in Madhya Pradesh. These include crimes like extortion and kidnapping. Satna Superintendent of Police Riyaz Iqbal says four cases of kidnapping and loot are registered in Satna district.
Additional SP Gautam Solanki says Patel may not have been as dreaded as made out to be earlier, but that she was involved with local gangs.
Majhgawan Police Station’s O P Singh says Patel had told them she took to crime to take revenge against her first husband for “abandoning” her and to avenge the “murder” of her father. However, police believe her father’s death was most likely a case of electrocution.
The typical dacoit aura of revenge and thwarted love is now being chipped away by tales of Patel’s “ordinariness”. Superintendent and Jailer of Satna Jail Narendra Pratap Singh and R K Choure, respectively, underline that “she behaves like any other undertrial”, “despite what the press may have printed”.
Having met Patel in custody, an official says what struck him most was, “Kitni masoom lagti hai (how innocent she looks)”.