In a line that could be out of a movie, Tillu Tajpuriya told his mama (maternal uncle), “Mera muqaddar ab yahi hai; ab nahi nikal sakta isse (This is my destiny now; I can’t get out of it).” Devendra Singh had tried speaking to the gangster a few months before he was sent to jail in 2016 in a carjacking case, in an attempt to convince him to leave the path of crime.
Tajpuriya, whose real name was Sunil Balyan, leader of Delhi’s Tillu gang, was stabbed to death on the morning of May 2, allegedly by four members of the rival Gogi gang inside a high-security ward of Tihar prison. He was a prime accused in the infamous Rohini court shoot-out of September 2021, where two men gunned down Tajpuriya’s arch rival Jitender Mann alias Gogi, the then leader of the Gogi gang.
At 6.10 a.m., four accused cut through grilles, fashioned weapons out of these, and climbed down from the first floor using bedsheets. They then hit and stabbed Tajpuriya more than 100 times, which was captured by CCTV cameras.
The Gogi gang had been looking for opportunities to avenge their boss’s death since 2021, say senior officers from Delhi Police’s Special Cell, a counterterrorism unit. “Now, it’s the Tillu gang’s turn to seek revenge. It’s a turn-by-turn game which does not stop,” says one officer.
“Since Gogi’s murder, a team of Special Cell officers along with the local police started to accompany gangsters to their hearings and medical check-ups. This made it difficult for them to strike outside,” the officer adds. “It was easier to catch him alone in the prison,” he says, adding that a killing inside the jail has two possible benefits for any gang: the increase of fear and dominance inside and outside the jail, and the ransom amount for extortion shooting up.
“Barely anybody gets convicted for a crime inside a jail. In my 30-year-old career, I don’t remember seeing a conviction for an inside-prison crime,” he says, adding that a major reason is that “the prison administration doesn’t want loopholes or involvement of officials to be seen”.
Away from the bloody mess of the crime is Tajpuriya’s father, Jagpal Balyan, in Tajpur Kalan village, on the outskirts of Delhi, who recently retired as a head clerk from the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. He says there is no fight left in him. The middle-class family has members that work regular government jobs.
His older brother is a driver in the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC), and younger sister is married and lives in a village near the Tikri border. “His mother met him 20-25 days ago, but I hadn’t seen him in years,” Mr. Jagpal Balyan says.
Mr. Singh says the family had tried many times to persuade Tajpuriya to quit the criminal world and get married. “His parents thought once he had the responsibility of a family, he would leave crime. They even ‘saw’ some girls, but he refused to get married,” he says. “Parents want their children to become good people, but there is only so much they can do,” he adds, philosophically. “His mother used to cry over her son’s deeds whenever she visited our home in Haryana.”
Tajpuriya was under trial in 14 cases of murder, attempt to murder, extortion, and other criminal activities, in Delhi and Haryana, as per his criminal dossier. He had been sentenced to life imprisonment in two cases.
From wrestler to gangster
Friends and family recall how he dropped out of Rajender Lakra Model School in nearby Bakhtawar Pur village after Class X to pursue a career in wrestling. A friend, who wished to remain anonymous, says that he had reached the State level, practising at the village akhara (wrestling institute) and at Chhatrasal Stadium. “He aspired to go to the national level,” he says. But then things took a bloody turn.
The two now-dead gangsters of Outer North Delhi — close to the Haryana border where most gangs originate — had entered the world of crime and become rivals in 2010 during the student union elections at Delhi University’s Swami Shraddhanand College, Alipur, where they had supported different candidates.
While some police officers say the two were good friends in school, Tajpuriya’s friend debunks this. He says the police and media have “confused Sunil Balyan with Sunil Mann. Sunil Mann and Gogi used to be friends and partners in crime. After they had a fallout, Sunil Mann shook hands with Tajpuriya and has been in Tihar for 8-10 years in the Deepak Bhardwaj (Bahujan Samaj Party leader) murder case,” he adds.
Tajpuriya’s friend says that the rivalry escalated in 2013 after the Gogi gang murdered their friend, Raju Tajpur, for having a relationship with a woman from Alipur, Gogi’s village, about 8 km from Tajpur Kalan. “Ye sirf moonchh ki ladai hai (This is only a fight of masculinity).”
Recalling the events of 2013, a senior officer of Delhi Police’s Special Cell says that to “tease” the Gogi gang, which objected to the relationship, Tajpuriya’s friend drove around with a sticker on his car which read, “Gogi ka jija (Gogi’s sister’s husband)”. Irked over the “insult”, the Gogi gang killed Raju and drew first blood in the now decade-long war.
To seek revenge for his friend’s death, Tajpuriya gunned down a friend of Gogi’s, Arun ‘Commando’, in 2015. “The bloodbath hasn’t stopped ever since,” the officer said, adding that more than 40 people from both sides have died so far.
Bloodbath since the ’90s
In a week when gangsters have been in the news — Anil Dujana was killed in Uttar Pradesh, Goldy Brar was put on Canada’s most-wanted list, and Kapil Sangwan’s gang members were nabbed — Tajpuriya’s murder has shifted the focus to Delhi’s short but bloody history with organised crime. According to police officers, the National Capital Region (NCR) has witnessed turf wars between various gangs since the early 1990s.
In the fight to dominate criminal activities from extortion to illegal liquor trading and murder, they have killed gang members, family, and innocent citizens caught in the crossfire, the police say. Businessmen, builders, and bookies have all been at their mercy, because money is a medium for gangs to grow their influence and fear.
A senior Crime Branch officer says that one of the oldest and fiercest gang rivalries in the city was between the gangs of Krishan Pahalwan and Anoop-Balraj from the early 1990s to early 2000s. The two gangs operated and fought over dominance in Dwarka and Najafgarh areas and their rivalry has claimed over 50 lives.
“All regions have their own gangs. The rivalry begins when there are more than one in a region. They ally with gangs of other regions in the city, but they cannot take those areas over,” he says. It’s the reason many like Tajpuriya are named after their village.
Most gangs have now sided with larger inter-State syndicates. “The enemy of your enemy is your friend: they work on this principle,” he adds. Two prominent syndicates, as per officers, are led by dreaded gangster Lawrence Bishnoi of Punjab who has now taken the Gogi gang under his wing, and Neeraj Bawana of the national capital who has Tillu’s troops.
The alliance is only valid as long as each one’s interests are served. “There’s no ideological allegiance here. It’s all to grow power and network, and more importantly for survival,” he says.
One of the major interests of the syndicates, says the senior officer of the Special Cell, is that the gangs from States like Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan want to enter Delhi-NCR, while Delhi’s gangs want to spread their network outward.
Young and restless
What pushes people like Tajpuriya into a life of crime when it wasn’t a “family business” is “shauq or fame ki bhookh (passion or the hunger to get famous),” says the Crime Branch officer.
He explains that several teenagers between 14 and 16 years living on Delhi’s periphery idolise the gang leaders of their regions. “It’s like a race among youth to get fame and power. Everybody wants to become a bhai (don) there,” he says, adding that fighting begins to be the norm, and it becomes easier for gangsters to get “work” done by minor boys as they get bail easily.
“By extorting money or killing someone at a young age, the boys also make a name for themselves in the criminal world,” he adds.
In Tajpuriya’s village, many young men in their late teens and early 20s describe him as a “bada bhai (big brother)”. On the day that he died, several men gathered at his house saying “we have lost our brother today”.
But gangs and their members are also respected by villagers, because they are seen as people who protect them. Some described Tajpuriya as a “well-behaved boy who never troubled anyone in the village”. “People here never cared about what business he was into as he always respected villagers and stood with them,” says a DTC employee from Tajpur Kalan village.
The Special Cell officer says that while the police have been constantly cracking down on gangsters and other criminals, it was “a failure of the jail administration” that gangs are able to operate from inside. He throws up suggestions: to shift dreaded criminals to other States where they may not have “connections”, have separate wards to keep gangs apart, and look at the prison system closely. “Transferring some officials won’t change anything,” he says.
Meanwhile, a Tajpuriya gang member, who recently came out of Tihar jail on bail, says “there will be revenge very soon at a grand level”, though he doesn’t give any other details. The Crime Branch officer is also expecting a retaliation and hinted at the beginning of a fresh bloodbath in the Capital.
Another Special Cell officer, however, believes that it will take some time for the Tillu gang to recover from the blow and organise under one person. “After Tajpuriya, they don’t have a leader of his calibre. Tajpuriya’s close aide Deepak Pakasma can take over, but he is currently on the run. It is also likely that the gang will merge with Neeraj Bawana to seek revenge,” he adds.
The Tajpuriya gang member says that either Bawana or Naveen Bali, from allied gangs, are likely to take over the group. “But Tillu bhai will remain our leader forever,” he says.