Prize catch

Print edition : November 27, 2015

Chotta Rajan being escorted by plainclothesmen for questioning in Bali, Indonesia, on October 29. Photo: Firdia Lisnawati/AP

The veteran trade union leader Datta Samant wth mill workers during his election campaign in Mumbai South Central constituency in 1996. Samant was gunned down in 1997 by contract killers allegedly working for Chhota Rajan. Photo: PTI/THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The senior journalist Jyotirmoy Dey seen in a handout picture released by Mid-Day on June 11, 2011. Dey too was shot dead by killers allegedly working for Chhota Rajan. Photo: AFP

Dawood Ibrahim.

The intelligence apparatus hopes the arrest of Chhota Rajan will lead to information that helps bring Dawood Ibrahim to book, but many people feel that a breakthrough may be unlikely.

Indian investigating agencies have finally landed a big fish. Chhota Rajan, a notorious criminal and one of the biggest dons of Mumbai’s underworld, has been arrested in Indonesia and brought back to the country to be tried for a staggering 68 crimes. It is another issue that the agencies could have landed this catch much earlier.

The arrest of Rajendra Sadashiv Nikalje, better known as Chhota Rajan, will help crack several high-profile cases, police sources said. These include the murders of the trade union leader Datta Samant and the journalist Jyotirmoy Dey and a host of others and a number of extortion cases. The authorities, particularly the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.), are also hoping the gangster will reveal much-needed information on his arch-enemy and an even more dangerous criminal, Dawood Ibrahim. “This is questionable,” said a retired police officer who was closely involved in Rajan’s cases. “In all these years, Rajan has done little to lead them to Ibrahim. I don’t know how much use he will be. It might be too late. However, you never know, there may be a breakthrough.”

Chhota Rajan was taken into custody on October 26 when he landed at the picturesque island of Bali in Indonesia. According to police sources, he was travelling under the name of Mohan Kumar and flew in from Australia, where he had reportedly been living for several years. He was apparently travelling to renew his Australian visa.

On the basis of an Interpol tip-off and a “red corner” notice from the Canberra police about the possibility of a notorious criminal on the run, the Indonesian police nabbed Chhota Rajan at Bali airport. They handed him over to the Indian authorities after the identification and verification procedures were completed. Media reports said he gave himself up willingly. For a gangster who has worn the most-wanted tag for more than 20 years, the arrest was strangely anticlimactic, a police officer said.

The Home Ministry, despite denying knowledge of his whereabouts, was reportedly aware that Chhota Rajan was operating out of South-East Asia. The gangster is believed to have been in touch with Indian intelligence agencies post-1993, joining hands with them in the effort to nab Ibrahim, who is wanted for his involvement in orchestrating the 1993 serial bomb blasts in Mumbai.

The Indian authorities had a chance to extradite Chhota Rajan in 2000 when he was found in a hospital in Bangkok recovering from a bid on his life. However, they botched up the extradition.

Interestingly, while India and Australia have an extradition treaty, Chhota Rajan was allowed to leave Australia and land in Indonesia, which has a treaty with India that has not yet been ratified. Informed sources said the Australian police could not arrest him on a “red corner” notice but that the Indonesian law allowed it.

According to the sources, Ajit Kumar Doval, National Security Adviser and former head of the I.B., worked relentlessly on Chhota Rajan’s arrest. There are strong indications that the Home Ministry is determined to capture Ibrahim, and Chhota Rajan’s arrest is believed to be integral to this plan.

The entire plan centres on proving that Ibrahim is in Pakistan under the protection of that country’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Doval has been on this case ever since his I.B. days; in 2008 he attempted to corner Ibrahim at his daughter’s marriage to the son of the Pakistani cricketer Javed Miandad in Dubai. It turned into a clumsy operation as the Mumbai Police, unaware of the I.B.’s plans, arrested two of Chhota Rajan’s sharpshooters, Vicky Malhotra and Farid Tanasha, at the Mumbai airport just as they were leaving for Dubai. The I.B. was using the duo to target Ibrahim. There are also reports that Chhota Rajan is suffering from kidney disease and will reveal information on Ibrahim in exchange for medical treatment.

The police said Chhota Rajan would be tried in 68 criminal cases, including 28 cases of extortion; 12 cases under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA), 1999; 12 cases under the Arms Act; and cases under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), 1987, and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), 2002.

There are charges of brutal murder that he may find difficult to plead innocent to as several were public shootouts that are talked about in the city even today.

The most highly publicised killings that had Chhota Rajan’s imprint and for which he will be charged are those of Datta Samant and Jyotirmoy Dey. Samant, a trade union leader who was responsible for starting the textile mill workers’ strike, was gunned down in 1997 by contract killers allegedly working for Chhota Rajan. The senior crime reporter Dey was shot dead at point-blank range in 2011. Evidence points towards Chhota Rajan’s hand in the killing. It is not clear whether there was an attempt to kill Iqbal Kaskar (Ibrahim’s brother), or if it was a message for Ibrahim, but Arif Bael, Kaskar’s driver, was shot at the gate of Kaskar’s building.

Informed sources said there were over three decades of investigative material on Chhota Rajan. In his case it is no longer whether he is guilty but really how much he will reveal on Ibrahim and key cases that require closure.

History of Mumbai crime

Chhota Rajan’s story traces the history of crime in Mumbai. It was in the 1970s that Mumbai’s underworld really became powerful. The infamous Karim Lala was at the time the self-declared mob boss. He was followed by the legendary and flamboyant Haji Mastan, who ruled through most of the 1980s. Both were largely involved in smuggling, extortion, black marketing, drug trafficking, gambling and prostitution. After their death, the rules of the underworld dramatically changed.

In the late 1980s, Varadaraja Mudaliar, who virtually ran sections of the city as his personal fiefdom, transformed Mumbai’s underworld into a ruthless and vengeful body. His reign along with the growing gangster Dawood Ibrahim saw killings in broad daylight on the streets of Mumbai, knives and countrymade guns being replaced by automatic weapons and, more importantly, the underworld spreading its tentacles into business houses, the film industry, politics and the administration. The reported nexus between the mafia, the police and politicians allowed the underworld to thrive.

City chroniclers said that at that time the underworld was an attractive profession for the very poor. They earned a reasonable amount and families were looked after. Therefore, there was no dearth of foot soldiers for the underworld gangs.

Enter Chhota Rajan

Chhota Rajan entered the picture under the aegis of a don called Bada Rajan, who was a reasonably big gangster. Nikalje came from a lower-middle-class family that lived in Chembur, an eastern suburb of Mumbai. The story goes that Nikalje, tired of a life in poverty, met Bada Rajan and began doing some odd jobs for him, which included selling tickets in black outside a small theatre.

A territorial battle with another small don, Yashwant Jadhav, led Bada Rajan to seek Mudaliar’s help and the latter used his clout to chase Jadhav out.

Jadhav approached Abdul Kunju, a rival of Mudaliar, who in a brazen attack shot Bada Rajan dead in full view of the public in Mumbai’s Esplanade Court in 1982.

Apparently, Nikalje said he would avenge his mentor’s death and pursued Kunju with single-minded vengeance. Eventually, his henchmen found Kunju at a cricket match and killed him at point-blank range.

It was this incident and the brand of operation which was typical of Bada Rajan that earned Nikalje his stripes and his moniker, Chhota Rajan. The killing caught the attention of Ibrahim, who offered Chhota Rajan a place in his famous D Company underworld enterprise.

By this time, Ibrahim had wrested complete control of the underworld by killing Karim Lala’s nephews.

When Ibrahim fled from India in 1984, it was Chhota Rajan who led D Company as Ibrahim’s lieutenant-in-command.

Eventually, by the early 1990s even Chhota Rajan had to flee—it is said by this time he was falling out with Ibrahim as Chhota Shakeel, another Ibrahim aide, had become more prominent within the gang.

The already fragile relationship was finally broken after the 1993 serial blasts. Ibrahim, along with Tiger Memon, orchestrated the terror attack without keeping Chhota Rajan in the loop.

Chhota Rajan used this as an excuse to separate from Ibrahim. In fact, he went on the rampage and killed about eight people from D Company who were part of the terror conspiracy. This earned him the title “The Patriotic Don.”

Chhota Rajan’s separation from Ibrahim saw one of the bloodiest episodes of Mumbai’s underworld. Rival gang members and businessmen who did not comply or owed allegiance to another gang were killed publicly.

One example was the gruesome shooting of Sunit Khatau, a well-known mill owner, at a traffic junction in South Mumbai’s Mahalakshmi area.

The 1990s also saw the rise of dons such as Amar Naik, Ashwin Naik, Arun Gawli, Ravi Pujari and Hemant Pujari. The intense rivalry and continuous killings eventually led the Mumbai Police to crack down on sharpshooters and gang leaders. They were hunted and killed by encounter specialists, and this finally broke the underworld.

Unofficial reports say the dons promised to maintain boundaries and stop the incessant violence if the police backed off.

Chhota Rajan’s arrest has definitely brought back memories of some very dark days the city faced. The danger is that there must be several who want him dead.