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Gangsta’ Rap

The L i f e & t i m e s o f C H H O T A R A J A N

The picture is not morphed. In the early eighties when Mumbai was still untouched by colours of religion and a young Dawood Ibrahim was the undisputed king of the underworld, his most trusted lieutenant was Chhota Rajan aka Rajan Nikalje.
Like most boys lured by the quick buck that crime offers, Rajan started life in a lower middle class chawl. Growing up in Tilak Nagar, Chembur, a suburb in central Mumbai, Rajan teamed with a namesake, Rajan Nair, to black-market film tickets at Sahkar Cinema, next to his house. This was in the early seventies. From ticket touts to petty crime, the two men built a reputation of sorts, extending their clout from Chembur to Ghatkopar, east, and soon had to clash with Yashwant Jadhav, a local matka king of Ghatkopar, west.

After many midnight skirmishes fought with soda water bottles and tubelights, they decided to seek the help of Vardarajan Mudaliar alias Varda Bhai of Matunga. The troika of Vardarajan, Haji Mastan and Karim Lala controlled the smuggling operations in Mumbai. Together they put the fear of death in Jadhav. Desperate, he then sought the help of a certain Abdul Qunju.

By this time, Rajan had become very close to the don Bada Rajan. Realising that his bete noire’s clout emanated from this patronage, Qunju, in a daring operation, got Bada Rajan eliminated in the premises of South Mumbai’s Esplanade court in 1982. Rajan was shattered at losing his mentor and vowed retribution.
Qunju was a cricket aficionado and often managed a good-sized crowd to come and watch him play. That was Rajan’s cue.

During one such match as Qunju was in full flow, well into his 50s, that Rajan stuck. As Qunju hit a boundary, three innocuous-looking boys dressed in T-shirts and sneakers entered the arena on the pretext of retrieving the ball. They walked up to Qunju with the ball, whipped out their guns and shot him dead at point blank range. Their names were Sanjay Raggad, Sadhu Shetty and Rajan Nikalje. The killing catapulted Nikalje into the big league and he was formally anointed Chhota Rajan.

THE reigning dons like Dawood Ibrahim, Arun Gawli, Alamzeb, Vardarajan and Karim Lala immediately sat up and took note of this daring youngster. Since Rama Naik, Bada Rajan and Dawood Ibrahim were known to each other, Dawood asked him to join the D-Company. Rajan accepted. Once in the gang, it didn’t take him long to learn the ropes. He was next heard of when Karim Lala’s nephew Samad Khan was killed an incident that created waves in Bombay in those days.
Khan had a girlfriend called Shilpa Jhaveri who lived in South Mumbai. On October 4, 1982, when he stepped out of the lift of her building, Rajan, Dawood and another colleague Anil Parab, pumped 26 bullets into him. After this incident Rajan rose in Dawood’s esteem and became one of his closest associates.

In 1984 when Dawood fled to Dubai, he handed over the reigns of his operations in Mumbai to Rajan who got to work consolidating Dawood’s business interest, not only in Mumbai but also across Nepal, Sri Lanka and in European cities like London and Amsterdam. Eventually, even Rajan had to flee from Mumbai and joined Dawood in Dubai. Once in Dubai, they both formed a formidable pair till the late eighties.

But in the mafia, alliances are like shifting sands. Dawood realised that he needed to clip Chhota Rajan’s wings. That’s when another Chhota, Shakeel, stepped into the picture. Rajan was marginalised. Though for long he kept his sense of unease to himself. Over the next few months Dawood started promoting Shakeel aggressively and completely sidelined Rajan who quietly started recruiting boys in preparation for setting up his own outfit.

He targetted boys who were known for daredevilry paid for their legal expenses, for their monthly expenses and their jail expenses as well in case they got caught. At one point of time Dawood openly chided him for adding flab to the gang but Rajan kept quiet.

Until the late eighties, gold smuggling was still considered to be the major source of revenue for the underworld. Dawood had struck a deal with Bhai Thakur, who held sway over the Vasai-Virar region off Mumbai, while his clout extended right until Bassein belt. Thakur began offloading Dawood’s gold at his landing spots in Vasai-Virar belt, while Rajan’s favoured spots like Trombay, Mahul and Kacchar Patti (behind Deonar Dumping ground) were given a go-by. Thus Rajan despite killing the maximum number of people at the behest of Dawood had very little share in the booty.

Yet Rajan remained loyal to Dawood to the extent that he even dared the Shiv Sena chief, Bal Thackeray. In his speeches, Thackeray had lambasted the police for taking stringent action against Arun Gawli. Thackeray had referred to Gawli and Amar Naik gang as amchi muley — ‘our boys’. Rajan had challenged Thackeray in an open letter which was carried on the front page of a city tabloid: ‘‘There is no communal division in the D-gang and there shall never be one,’’he wrote. It is a different story that later Rajan had no qualms in expressing his profound reverence for Thackeray.

THE split came after the enmity between Chhota Shakeel and Rajan finally spilled in the open. On one occasion fellow gang members Sunil Sawant alias Sautya and Guru Satam had a spat. Rajan supported Satam, while Shakeel supported Sautya. Later when Rajan escaped from Dubai, Sautya became the first casualty of the split. Rajan organised the trap for Sautya and Shakeel. Shakeel did not turn up though, Sautya was shot and his throat slit by Rajan’s henchmen.

Subsequently, Rajan killed some other members of the Dawood/Shakeel gang. His most recent killing was that of a former health minister of Nepal, Mirza Dilshad Beg. After winning from the platform of Rashtriya Prajatantra Party from Kapilavastu constituency in south-west Kathmandu, Mirza allegedly became Dawood’s mole. Mirza used to provide shelters to Dawood aides in his Krishna Nagar mansion. But by eliminating Beg, in one swift stroke, Rajan destroyed Dawood’s base in Kathmandu.

However, Rajan knew that he and Dawood would be clubbed as gangsters and dismissed as one if he didn’t play his card cleverly. Fortunately for him, Ayodhya happened, the bomb blasts and the riots helped him in playing the communal card cleverly. He began to project himself as a ‘patriotic don’ and billed his rivalry against Dawood as a fight against a ‘traitor don’. The deshbhakt vs the deshdrohi.

To prove his point further, Rajan systematically began targetting the blasts accused. Harboured in a ship off the coast of Malaysia he ordered the killing of blasts accused Ayub Patel in March 1998. Patel who was shot at in Oshiwara survived the attempt. In April 1998, Salim Kurla was gunned down in a nursing home at Andheri. Shaikh Shabbir was shot dead in a case of mistaken identity. The bullets were meant for Salim Tonk in May 1998, while Mohammed Jindran, another accused, was killed in June 1998.

MUMBAI’S underworld has one unwritten rule, ‘Offence is the best form of defence’. Once Rajan recovers fully, sources say he will probably gather his lieutenants and muster all his strength and cunningness to hit back at his arch-rival. While Shakeel himself will no doubt intensify his efforts to finish off Rajan and his empire.
The first step for both men will be to change their operational bases. Rajan may shift from Malaysia or at least from Kuala Lumpur to some other undisclosed Malaysian city. Similarly, Shakeel will shift his base within Karachi to some other spot.

But one thing is sure, the next salvo is not too long off.

Tracing Rohit Verma’s career in crime: from his beginnings as a petty robber to his promotion as Chhota Rajan’s deputy

Like politics, the mafia attracts strange bedfellows. Take the case of Rohit Verma, an undergraduate and a petty thief, who turned into a merciless killing machine. One of the few in the Chhota Rajan group to turn into a contract killer and win his boss’ confidence, Verma was quite the original smooth operator, planning well and killing ruthlessly.

For the Mumbai police, he was the phantom who left a hammer like a sinister trademark at the site of the kill. Verma’s graduation from thief to killer happened in November 1995, when he orchestrated the murder of East West Airlines Managing Director Thakiyuddin Wahid, at the behest of Chhota Rajan. Flinging his hammer at Wahid’s passing car with deadly precision, Verma then caught him in a spray of bullets, even as the driver lost control. Later, the Mumbai crime branch and the local police were amazed to find a hammer at the scene of crime. It was an unconventional weapon, not known to be favoured by sharpshooters. After Wahid, Verma was involved in seven or eight killings as part of Chhota Rajan’s gang. Eventually, the hammer gave way for the long-barrelled .45 pistol.

Verma’s descent into crime began when he was 24 — a college graduate looking for a fast buck. The first thing that struck him was robbery, perhaps because he’d grown up in Mumbai’s affluent Santa Cruz area, gawking at moneyed Gujjus. Slowly, Verma, who loved reading pulp fiction, spread his dragnet to other affluent areas like Khar, Juhu and Andheri.

By then, the police stations in the Zone-VII region of Mumbai had woken up to the existence of a smart robber called Rohit Verma, who used a hammer in most of his operations. The Khar police arrested him twice and he was also imprisoned for a couple of years. But it was an encounter with Sunil Madgaonkar, alias Matya — Chhota Rajan’s top-rung lieutenant — during Verma’s second stint at the Arthur Road jail in 1995 that changed the course of his life. He was 29 then. Matya, who was the caretaker of the don’s imprisoned foot soldiers, found the right measure of grit and gumption in Verma and made him an offer, which he accepted. Till he was killed by Chhota Shakeel’s men in Bangkok last week at the age of 34, Verma — who grew up a middle-class boy — flirted everyday with high-profile crime.

Matya arranged for Verma’s bail and soon he was out. Other than the East West chief, Verma’s victims include Prakash Sinhasane, an aide of rival gangster Sharad Shetty, and Dev Narayan Ghosh, the owner of the Royal Security group in Mumbai. Ghosh was killed for his refusal to pay extortion money to Rajan. However, Verma catapulted into the big league after the killing of Mohan Kotian in Bangalore in 1998.

Kotian, a Rajan aide, had decided to shift loyalties to Dawood Ibrahim, and was trying to convince Verma to change sides too. Verma heard Kotian’s arguments quietly, then whipped out his favourite pistol and emptied it on Kotian. Among the Mumbai mafiosi, Verma’s modus operandi was often discussed. The sensational killing of Mirza Dilshad Beg in Kathmandu in 1998 was his brainchild. Beg was Dawood Ibrahim’s man in Nepal. Baig’s killing (he was ambushed in a lonely spot) was executed with a panache that the Mumbai underworld is rarely credited with.

IS it a case of one foreign hand too many, or, if sources are to be believed, was the Pakistani ISI and some multinational corporates operating in Southeast Asia, instrumental in the attack on Chhota Rajan in Bangkok last week?
‘‘The deduction is simple,’’ said a senior Intelligence officer. ‘‘Most of the intelligence on Rajan’s movement is believed to have been acquired from satellite tracking and passed on to the ISI, who shared it with Chhota Shakeel and his men.’’ The sophisticated weapons that were used in the attack too were procured from Pukhet by Bangkok-based Chavalit Arunkait and handed over to key-shooters Munna Zingada and Rashid Malbari, he added.
The motive was as old as the hills: greed.

The Rs 4,000 crore garnered through extortion and illicit business operations in South Asia has for many years been divided between Dawood Ibrahim, Chhota Shakeel and Chhota Rajan. Part of the income was divided among four other splinter gangs.

Rajan’s elimination would mean a whopping sum of money accruing to Dawood and Shakeel and could also lead to their stranglehold over the existing drug cartel operating from Afghanistan to Bangkok, including countries like Pakistan, India, Burma, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Thailand. Estimates have varied over the years, but the drug trade which is routed through Mumbai could well be in the region of Rs 2,000 crores.

Rajan is believed to have been providing protection to some of the drug syndicates operating in and around Mumbai for which he is getting about 20 per cent of the profits. The Dawood/Shakeel combine on the other hand, have consolidated their position at the airport and hold high stakes in the narcotic trade, sources pointed out.

The more than Rs 1,000 crore Hindi film industry is the other area of common interest for all three. According to an estimate, the underworld corners about 15 per cent of the profit generated annually. For year now, the Dubai-based gangsters had a stranglehold on Bollywood but in the last couple of years, Rajan was trying to make inroads as a financier-producer and his lieutenant Rohit Verma was trying to extort large sums from successful producers, actors. Likewise piracy of films and music is also another cash cow for the gangsters. Rs 300 crore-odd is generated by pirating CDs and cassettes of latest Bollywood films in Pakistan alone.

The other interest of the two gangs could be the Rs 1,000 crore diamond trade in the city. In the last few years, Bangkok and Hong Kong have emerged as major export centres and also cities where the Mumbai underworld has been trying to expand operations.

The other plausible reason for the attack on Rajan is believed to be a fallout of the killing of Mirza Dilshad Baig by Rajan-shooter at Kathmandu in Nepal last year. Baig was considered close to Pakistan and helped ISI built a strong base in the Himalayan Kingdom. Sources in the underworld disclosed that Baig was killed by Rajan’s henchman Rohit Verma and three others at the behest of an Indian agent. Verma later escaped to Bangkok after the operation. Baig’s assassination had virtually crippled ISI activities at the Himalayan kingdom since early 1998 and they were looking for an opportunity for getting back at Rajan.


(The writer’s an editor at e-india. com and is at present working on a book on the Bombay bomb blasts)


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