Rajan, a spent force...

Chhota Rajan’s career as an underworld kingpin is one of curious twists and ironic turns. Now, without a gang to call his own and fearful for his life, he returns to India seeking 'refuge' in prison.

November 01, 2015 01:56 am | Updated November 17, 2021 04:39 am IST

A file photo of Chhota Rajan.

A file photo of Chhota Rajan.

A Mumbai Police officer, a legend already for his work and swagger, recently pulled out his leather-bound diary. He turned the now-yellowing pages to share an update on what had happened to the city’s underworld in the wake of the 1993 serial blasts. On two pages, he had written Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan’s names, respectively. Under each were several other names, many of them easily recognisable as major business success stories of Mumbai in recent years. Others are dead.

It has been almost two decades since the IPS officer was part of Mumbai’s police force that determinedly went about >cracking down on the underworld , especially the Dawood Ibrahim gang after it orchestrated the Mumbai blasts. “It was not just about criminals, it was also about big money, politics and business rivalries,” he recalled, as he showed me his diary, narrating the metamorphosis of small-time criminals into global dons and financial powerhouses.

The officer and his team had collected the long list of names, from fields such as construction, films, aviation and hotels, after exhaustive interrogation of a few underworld sharpshooters in the aftermath of the blasts. Each of those businessmen was identified as part of one gang or the other, and had been marked out by rival gangs to be killed. In the fading pages of his leather diary, the many dead and forgotten lined up with many of Mumbai’s who’s who of today. The only category missing was politicians.

“We were scrambling to contain the violence,” he said of the early and mid-1990s when Bombay was reborn as Mumbai, a time when even gangsters enjoyed official patronage based on their religious affiliation. Because of their allegiance to a particular gang, the businessmen had become marked men on the other’s checklist. Many of them, such as Takiyuddin Wahid, founder of East-West Airlines, were actually killed over the next several months as an unprecedented wave of bloodshed followed in an already scarred city. Police and intelligence agencies also played an active — and often very partisan — role.

Scripting a large part of that bloody internecine war was a school dropout from Tilak Nagar in Chembur, an eastern suburb of Mumbai. His gang became a major source of information, and it often carried out the killings. Until the 1993 blasts, Chhota Rajan had lived in the shadows of his glamorous and ruthless boss, Dawood Ibrahim, and had appeared content to climb the ladder in the biggest criminal gang in India’s history. It is still not clear exactly when, but some time in the early 1990s he began to drift away from Dawood.

By the time of the 1993 serial blasts, the separation was complete. Rajan loudly protested against Dawood’s role in “anti-national” activities. He threatened revenge against those who attacked India. From a petty criminal, Rajan morphed into a Hindu don, and ended up being treated with kid gloves by a security establishment desperate, and even communally charged, after the bombings.

The Shiv Sena admired him. For someone wanted by Mumbai Police for murders and other criminal offences, it was a great leg-up, and an ironic twist in a life that would hold many more. A neo-Buddhist had come to be celebrated as a Hindu don.

Irony would hang heavy if Rajan returns to Mumbai after his arrest in Bali. He would be returning to his homeland without a gang left to call his own. His associates are long gone, either killed by rivals or executed by a paranoid Rajan himself. He is, by all evidence, now a spent force. But his return, which looks likely, carries without any doubt a telling story of his lingering influence in the Indian security establishment.

The serial blasts of Mumbai in 1993, orchestrated by Tiger Memon and Dawood Ibrahim to extract revenge for the communal riots that had targeted Muslims in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition, flagged a new phase for the Indian security establishment, especially Mumbai Police. Already reeling in the communally charged atmosphere, the bomb blasts signalled a new challenge, a trans-national terror syndicate that enjoyed state patronage from Pakistan.

While breakthroughs in the bomb blasts case came soon enough, getting a grip on the financial tentacles, foot soldiers and big dons of the criminal underworld was a formidable task. Dawood’s gang members had already been running their show from Dubai for years now. All its key operatives, including Rajan, had been in Dubai since the late 1980s. With the blasts, key members of the Dawood gang shifted to Pakistan.

Source of information

Details are still not very clear, but many say that Rajan not only protested against Dawood’s involvement in the bombings, but also reached out to the Indian security establishment. Some sources also claim that Rajan was getting deeply insecure in the D Company because other members such as Chhota Shakeel had rallied against him. According to old-timers in the security establishment, Rajan’s associates such as O.P. Singh, Vicky Malhotra and Farid Tanasha acted as his crucial links to Mumbai Police, the Intelligence Bureau and even the Research and Analysis Wing.

The fact is Chhota Rajan’s gang emerged as a key source of information on Dawood Ibrahim, Tiger Memon and the ISI. The information would frequently be accurate, helping Rajan establish his reliability and importance with the security agencies. He would also prove his commitment to the national cause by targeting several Dawood gang members involved in the 1993 blasts. Among those victims were Phillu Khan, Saleem Kurla, Majid Khan and Mohammad Jindran.

The killings were not one-sided, for Dawood was no walkover. The two gangs fought around the world. Officials estimate that over 100 murders took place in the Rajan-Dawood gang wars, mostly in Mumbai but also in places such as Nepal, UAE and Thailand. Hoteliers, film producers, builders, sharpshooters, all fell to bullets. If Bollywood producer Mukesh Duggal was killed for being close to Rajan, Thakiyuddin Wahid was killed for being close to Dawood. If builder O.P. Kukreja was killed for being a friend of Rajan, Dawood’s sharpshooter Sunil Sawant was killed in broad daylight.

It was clear >Rajan was not acting as a reckless don , but enjoyed official patronage. His utility to the security establishment came out clearly in Nepal in June 1998, when Mirza Dilshad Beg, a prominent politician and a former minister, was killed one evening as he was walking to the house of one of his wives. Beg was also Dawood’s gang leader in Nepal, and had established a strong base for the criminal gang’s operations, including gun running and drug smuggling. Indian agencies had for long been troubled by Beg’s influence in Nepal, and Rajan carried out the execution. Speculation was rife in among informed circles that Rajan had acted on behalf of Indian agencies.

A link exposed

Rajan’s links to the security establishment was mostly in the realm of speculation, as is the case with most such issues. However, in July 2005 the much speculated link came out in the open, to the embarrassment of all concerned. A Mumbai Police team intercepted a car in New Delhi in which Ajit Doval, who had then just retired as director of the Intelligence Bureau and is now National Security Advisor to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was travelling with Rajan’s key aides, Vicky Malhotra and Farid Tanasha. Immediate speculation was that Doval was working with the Rajan gang to target Dawood when he came to Dubai for his daughter’s wedding. A police inspector of Mumbai Police, who was reportedly linked to the Dawood gang, had managed to disrupt the Doval plan.

The embarrassment on a Delhi road was an exception. Rajan’s real role in targeting the Dawood gang, with tacit support from the security establishment, was usually not visible. But it always left a bloody trail. “We cannot draw moral lines while taking on a criminal like Dawood. We would take the assistance of anyone, our enemy’s enemy is a friend, isn’t it?” asks one former intelligence chief. “Of course, some of us went overboard,” he goes on to admit about the relationship between Rajan and Indian security agencies.

A Mumbai Police officer says that his force always had officers who were aligned with the rival gangs: “Now you can say it was all necessary to carry out operations because we had to source reliable information. But how far can you go is the question.”

Shahid Azmi’s Murder

That Rajan’s relationship with the security establishment was more than as just a source was clear to many who warily watched the links. And sometimes it spilled out in the open, like when lawyer Shahid Azmi was killed on February 11, 2010. Arrested at the age of 14 for alleged involvement in Mumbai riots of 1992, he had by then become a leading advocate for Muslims held — many of them framed — for their supposed role in terror attacks. His work made him a powerful voice against unprofessionalism of the police and intelligence agencies. When he was gunned down, at point blank range, at his office by Rajan’s men, the question that obviously arose was: were they helping officials cover up their alleged biases and unprofessional investigations?

Today Rajan is a spent force, a man without a gang, and scared for his life. “He has been on the run for a long time,” says a senior intelligence officer. “The safest place for him would be an Indian jail.” Many in the establishment do not rule out the possibility of Rajan’s surrender in Bali being part of a deal that key members of the establishment were aware of.

Most of Rajan’s key aides are dead, or have deserted him and formed their own gangs. His investments in real estate and other business in Mumbai, controlled mostly through his wife, are intact, say police officials.

The decimation of Rajan’s gang in recent years can be attributed to three reasons. One, technical capabilities of the police and intelligence, and even rivals, made it very difficult to operate a gang in Mumbai by telephone. Two, ever since journalist Jyotirmoy Dey was killed by the Rajan gang in June 2011, Mumbai Police cracked down on them, and were especially successful in choking their financial flow. Three, many seasoned police officers in Mumbai came to acknowledge that Rajan is as much a criminal as Dawood is, and stopped extending courtesies to the Hindu don. All though this, the Dawood gang maintained a relentless pursuit of Rajan, and it’s easy to see why the patriotic don became a progressively more scared man.

Various futures

In an Indian jail, Rajan could look forward to a new life. One that liberates him from the paranoid fear of Dawood. Like his former colleague, Abu Salem, who was extradited to India from Portugal in 2005 >, Rajan could do the rounds of courts and stay in the safety of a jail. Or, like another colleague, Arun Gawli, he could work at exploiting the loopholes in the Indian legal system and come out a free man, and probably launch himself into politics and business.

Or, like yet another of his former colleagues, O.P. Singh, one day Rajan could meet his ultimate fate in the jail itself. Whatever the outcome, the story of India’s first 'patriotic' don is far from over.

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