Not for anything is Rajendra Sadashiv Nikhalje, better known as Chhota Rajan, known to be the most oily and commanding gangsters to emerge out of Mumbai's underworld. He does it again—Houdini-like—this time by hoodwinking the Thai police, which had been keeping him in custody in the Samitivej Hospital since September, and making good his escape.
As usual, there are various theories doing the rounds on his great escape. One such theory sees the invisible hand of the Indian intelligence agencies at work. Lending it credence is the fact that Rajan's men have served as informers and ferreted out information on Dawood and his men.
Top officials in intelligence agencies, however, tell Outlook that they are unaware of Rajan's whereabouts. "For all you know, he could be in West Asia, but we are not in contact," says one official. He also dismisses the charge that Rajan was being patronised by the agencies. "He is wanted for 17-odd murders, 12 of which are related to accused in the bomb blasts case," says a cbi official.
The agencies also deny the accusation that Rajan was "allowed" to escape and that they did precious little to secure his extradition from Thailand. "We went through all the formalities carefully and could have secured his deportation," says an official. As an illustration, they cite the case of Anees Ibrahim, brother of Dawood, who was arrested by the Bahrain police on January 8, 1996, after the Interpol issued red-corner notices. When a cbi team landed in Bahrain on January 23, they indeed met Anees in custody and more efforts were mounted to transport him back to India.
"Then we found that a false complaint of embezzlement had been registered against Anees by one Sheikh Al Ghazni from Sharjah," says an official. Anees was promptly sent to Sharjah. Al Ghazni, it was later discovered, was Dawood's local partner in Dubai. "How come there was no uproar at that time?" asks one intelligence official. In their reckoning, some interested groups working for the D Company are behind the clamour.
That our intelligence agencies have had some "working relation" with Rajan was evident in June 1998 when Mirza Dilshad Beg, a Nepal MP and former minister, was shot in Kathmandu's bylanes. Beg played host to Dawood's hitmen and almost single-handedly made Nepal a safe haven for the don and the isi who were exporting terror to India. Besides his proximity to Dawood, Beg had also developed underground contacts in Babloo Srivastava and the Memon brothers, the accused in the Mumbai blasts.
While the dossier against Beg's nefarious activities was getting heavier, efforts were on by the Indian government to seek Rajan's extradition. A cbi team had in fact got his papers readied in Lucknow. It was then that Rajan masterminded the attack against Beg. At that time, even the Nepalese authorities accused the Indian government of assisting in Beg's killing. "The Nepal government's charge may not be true but the raw was in all probability aware of the plan," admits an intelligence official. In an interview soon after the assassination, Rajan had claimed that he gave orders for Beg's elimination as "he was harming my country by assisting the isi".
Since then, the blood-letting on both sides has stepped up. Rajan's key men—Sanjay Regard, Diwakar and Bondhe—were gunned down by Sunil Sawant alias Sautya in Nepal. On hearing this, Rajan reportedly flew into a rage at his base in Malaysia and ordered Sautya's killing. "Sautya was shot outside the Hyatt Regency in Dubai in broad daylight," reveals a police official.The bloodbath has continued in Mumbai, Nepal, Kathmandu and Dubai. "Rajan has also managed to hit important targets like Piloo Khan in Bangkok and builder Om Prakash Kukreja in Mumbai," says a police officer in Mumbai.
As for Rajan, he is believed to have left Thailand via Aranyapathet (a town on the eastern border) and by sea to Cambodia, using fake travel documents. Intelligence agencies maintain he'll lie low for a while. "He'll be regrouping and then plotting out his next moves for revenge," says an Intelligence Bureau (IB) official. Senior raw and IB officials feel Rajan would be in hiding for a while before returning to his bases, either in Malaysia or in Australia.
The whole truth about Rajan's dramatic getaway—whether by bribing officers with 25 million baht or by stealing away into the night from the fourth floor using knotted sheets—may never be known, but its fallout, say both police as well as underworld sources, will soon be felt in Mumbai. "It might not happen immediately as both camps are still keeping a watch and closely studying the other's movements," says a crime branch official. Avers an underworld source in Mumbai: "They (the D Company) killed his close associate Rohit Verma and nearly put him out of action. Knowing him, he's bound to strike."
The enmity between the two ganglords—Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan—is legion. It dates back to the time when the serial blasts ripped through Mumbai and the two parted ways subsequently. Ever since, killings and retaliation have become a way life with the two formidable groups.
The first time Dawood realised that Rajan, in whom he had earlier reposed complete faith, was turning a gaddar (traitor) was soon after March 1993. "Rajan duped the D Company to the tune of Rs 400 crore by informing the authorities of a consignment containing gold," says a customs official in Mumbai. The consignment was being handled by Dawood's aide Tyeb—who had been bought over by Rajan—and the don, then in Dubai, suspected someone in his inner circle of playing mole. He soon found out that reward for the tip-off—20 per cent of the gold—had gone to Tyeb's wife. "Within weeks, Dawood's hitmen pumped four bullets into him near Jail Road in south Mumbai," says an intelligence official. In retaliation, Rajan killed five of Dawood‘s men. It marked the beginning of the bloody wars.
The communal divide has served their cause well. Dawood, referred to as India's Enemy No. 1, has deep links with Pakistan's isi. This has helped him expand his trade in gun-running, narcotics, explosives and contract killings from Karachi. "He has the right amount of clout and political insurance," says an intelligence official. Rajan, on the other hand, is bitterly against anyone who is anti-India. That includes Dawood and his associate Chhota Shakeel, making Rajan the Indian intelligence agencies' ideal counter to Dawood. According to a cbi official involved in the serial blasts investigation, "he acts like an Indian shehanshah, systematically bumping off all Dawood's associates involved in the bomb blasts." He has already made at least eight attempts to eliminate Dawood, between February 1997 and December 1998—all of which failed because of the finely-tuned spy network Dawood has. And since December last year, Dawood and his men have been tracking Rajan's movements. Though spotted in Melbourne, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok on several occasions, Rajan has managed to escape, sometimes just in the nick of time. It wasn't easy pinning him down in Bangkok after Chhota Shakeel's men found that Rajan's aide Rohit Verma had set up a business in ceramics.The September 14 attempt could have proved lucky for Dawood but his target escaped, hurt.And by no means will this be last of the attempts. The legacy of shootouts will dog the script for some more time. It was started by Rajan in 1993. But who will end it?