Gangster Chhota Rajan, arrested in Bali on Monday and who is likely to be extradited to India, was not one to forgive or forget easily.
Mumbai’s foremost crime writer S Hussain Zaidi recalls the time when Rajan was almost killed in an attack by his rival Chhota Shakeel, and how Rajan extracted revenge across continents.
Chhota Rajan was incarcerated in his hospital bed. His abdomen was heavily bandaged, and a saline drip was connected to a vein in his arm. The oxygen mask had been removed after the doctors found that he could breathe normally. His gaze was fixed on the ceiling; despite his body being immobile and confined to the hospital bed, his mind was racing.
It had been a couple of weeks since the near fatal attack on his life at his residence, Charan Court, in Sukhumvit Soi, Bangkok. The date, September 15, 2000, was etched in his memory. It was the day he was reborn. Four men had stormed into his supposedly secure flat and sprayed bullets at him indiscriminately. The eight men, two of whom were Thai nationals, were dressed in jet black suits and leather jackets. They were carrying a large cake and had pushed past the Thai security guard after knocking him down.
Rajan’s aide, Rohit Verma, answered the doorbell – and froze with fear. Even for a man who had snuffed out several lives in one decade with his trademark hammer and a long–barrelled .45 pistol, staring at death at such a close and striking range must have been terrifying. But he didn’t have time to register anything else, as a volley of bullets almost threw him across the room with their force. Verma’s wife Sangeeta, standing nearby, was also injured in the firing. Rajan, who was in the bedroom, lost no time in figuring out the reason for the commotion. He locked himself in the room while men fired at the latch lock, trying to break the door open. They didn’t succeed but a stray bullet managed to penetrate the door at last, and pierced Rajan’s abdomen.
Rajan realised that if he remained holed up in the room, he would be a sitting duck. Sooner or later, the assailants would break down the door and liquidate him. He took a calculated risk and jumped out the window of the first floor. He landed hard on his feet, fracturing his ankle and, bleeding and injured, he dove behind some bushes and hid himself.
The shooters eventually managed to break down the door but did not find Rajan. There were bloodstains in the room and on the window, which led them to believe that he had escaped, but by then, enough shots had been fired to draw the attention of the Thai police. The assailants gave up the search and escaped.
This attack on Rajan was part of the ongoing tussle with Dawood Ibrahim, initiated by Chhota Shakeel. They had parted ways seven years ago, but the friends-turned-foes were still after each other’s blood.
Rajan could not get over the fact that Shakeel’s men had managed to trace him to Bangkok, zero in on Rohit’s home and breach the security so easily. It was divine decree that he had survived, despite coming so close to death. Now he wanted revenge. He wanted to kill Dawood, Shakeel and whoever had squealed on his whereabouts.
Rajan called his most trusted aide, Santosh Shetty, to the hospital.
‘I want him dead,’ he told him.
Santosh was one of the smartest minds in Mumbai’s gangland. Well-built, handsome and fluent in English, Santosh could have been mistaken for the head honcho of a blue-chip company, if not a film star. But here he was, playing Man Friday to Rajan. He had been associated with Rajan for more than a decade now, and had major connections in Dubai. There were several cases of drugs, extortion and complicity in major crimes pending against him.
At the time of the attack, Santosh’s priority was to extricate Rajan from the clutches of the Thai and Indian police. As Rajan was severely wounded and immobile, this was quite an arduous task.
However, Rajan was insistent on setting the wheels of vengeance in motion at once, before he left the hospital. He wanted his enemies to know that he was capable of taking revenge even if he was not hundred per cent fit.
‘We will locate him,’ Santosh assured Rajan. He found out that barely half a dozen people knew about Rajan’s location -- and this core group included himself and Rajan’s family. The only other person was Rajan’s Mumbai-based hotelier friend, Vinod Shetty, who owned Paris Bar in Goregaon, in partnership with Satish Hegde.
But Santosh did not want to punish Shetty merely on suspicion. Santosh himself belonged to the Bunt community of Shettys, and he knew that community network extended far and wide -- any false move could prove counter-productive. He first had to establish Shetty’s treason. After quietly working on the man’s circle of friends and connections, Santosh stumbled onto some shocking information.
The hotelier had shifted loyalties from Rajan to his friend Sharad (Anna) Shetty in Dubai. Santosh could not discover what Vinod got in return for selling out Rajan to Sharad Anna, who had been harbouring a grudge against Rajan for more than a decade now. Sharad had in turn passed on the information to Shakeel in Pakistan, who moved in for the kill and organised the attack.
Rajan was enraged at this betrayal by his old friend whom he had trusted implicitly. He could barely stand because of his abdominal injury, but he was so angry that he actually got up from his bed and ordered a hit on Vinod Shetty.
Ironically, the man who was to lure Vinod was also a Shetty. Right from the beginning, the Shettys of Mumbai, who ran restaurants and beer bars where women danced through the night, had been close to Chota Rajan. Fakira Shetty had been with Rajan for more than a decade. He had started his career as a dacoit and was famous for looting unheard of amounts from bank vans with the help of his friend D K Rao.
Jaggu Fakira Shetty telephoned Vinod and told him that Rajan had called and given him instructions about transferring funds to a particular account and also about handing over cash to some people in Mumbai. Could they meet at a safe place outside Mumbai? They decided to rendezvous at a beer bar in Panvel.
Vinod had absolutely no clue that he had been exposed. He continued to believe that he was in the good books of Rajan, and he thought he should continue to do his bidding for some time longer -- until Shakeel got lucky the next time.
On November 2, 2000, barely a month and a half after the attempt on Rajan’s life, Vinod Shetty, along with his partner Satish Hegde and a business associate, Shankar Iyer, left for Panvel. They were driven by Shaikh Shakeel. Vinod and his friends met Fakira Shetty and his two friends at Titan bar in Panvel. They all got drunk to the gills. Then Fakira got into his car and asked Vinod to follow him. Vinod did as he was told, a little anxious, but keen to not antagonise Rajan’s messenger.
Fakira reached an intersection near Uran-Panvel Road and halted his car near Chinchpada village. Vinod was becoming increasingly nervous. He refused to step out of his car alone. His partner Hegde then walked with him to the spot where Fakira was standing with his back towards them. As they came closer, Fakira turned and opened fire. Hegde leapt for safety and dived into a gutter, while Vinod was riddled with bullets.
Shankar Iyer and Vinod’s driver were also shot dead. Their bodies were later recovered by the Kalamboli police from an isolated spot. Hegde survived to tell the tale, hiding in the chaos, but the police failed to arrest the shooters for years after the incident.
The triple murder shocked the mafia, but they were quick to see Rajan’s hand in the killings.
Rajan now wanted to kill Sharad Shetty. But Santosh managed to convince him that killing someone in Dubai was a far more complex task than in Mumbai. And first Rajan needed to get out of the clutches of the Thai and Indian police.
The Mumbai police wanted to get Rajan extradited to Mumbai for his involvement in the Panvel triple murder. But Rajan decided to pay heed to Santosh’s advice: escape from Bangkok.
On November 24, Rajan was found missing from his hospital bed. Two ropes, along with mountaineering accessories, were found hanging from the window. Who had helped Rajan escape? Was the rope simply a ruse? The Thai police felt that it would have been virtually impossible for an injured and overweight Rajan to climb down the ropes, even with professional help.
Several years after the incident, after Santosh Shetty had been extradited from Thailand, he revealed the details of Rajan’s escpae and his role in it.
In his statement to the crime branch, which he also discussed with the media later, he said that the Thai military had aided Rajan’s escape from Bangkok. Santosh and his aide, Bharat Nepali, got the Thai police team and the hospital watchman sozzled and, for good measure, also spiked their drinks with sedatives. Then came the master stroke. They managed to get Rajan into a military vehicle with some army officers in it. The military personnel then transported Rajan to the Cambodian border. From the Cambodian border, Rajan was airlifted in a chopper by a governor of Cambodia, who took him to a safe hideout in Siem Reap. His connections in high places had certainly paid off.
After the initial furore in the media had subsided, Rajan flew to the Iranian capital with a new identity. In Teheran, Santosh got the don a caretaker who happened to be a Muslim widow.
One room in the flat they shared was occupied by Bunty Pandey, Bharat Nepali and Santosh and the other was left to Rajan and the nurse. The women nursed Rajan and took care of him and somewhere along the way, he fell in love with her. Santosh claimed in his statement that she had become pregnant and delivered a boy. (Rajan is said to have gifted a flat to the woman some time later.)
When Rajan was well again, he decided to take on the mastermind behind his attempted murder: Sharad Shetty.
After his split from Dawood, Rajan had tried to woo Shetty to his side. He had a good hold in the cricket-betting syndicates and he felt he could bolster his fortunes with Shetty on his side. But Sharad Shetty, also known as Sharad Anna, had never liked Rajan. Whenever Rajan made overtures to him to join the gang, Sharad snubbed him, and as soon as an opportunity came to help eliminate Rajan, he had acted. Rajan was, however, mystified by the attempt on his life. There was no direct enmity between them, just cold vibes. But now that Shetty had came close to killing him, he was not to be spared.
Rajan, along with Santosh, managed to send four of his men to Dubai and ensured that they got weapons. The four shooters were Karan Singh, Manoj Kotian, Vimal Kumar and a Nepali called Amar Bam.
They conducted a methodical recce of Sharad Shetty’s movements and trailed him for a week. Shetty was an astute businessman. He had been with Dawood Ibrahim in Dubai for several years and had invested wisely in a chain of hotels and restaurants, including the Rami group of hotels. He was often spotted lounging in the elite India Club in Oud Metha.
The team of stalkers found that Shetty was most vulnerable while he was at this posh club. Manoj Kotian was from Bangalore and could speak Kannada, so he became the one to meet and befriend Shetty casually in the club, posing as an Indian businessman.
On January 19, 2003, when Shetty emerged from the club, chatting with Kotian, two men opened fire at him. Shetty collapsed on the ground. The shooters then fired at his head at point-blank range. According to the Dubai Shurta, 20 bullets were fired; Shetty was declared dead on the spot.
Lt General Dahi Khalfan was reminded of the killing of Sautya in 1995. He tracked down the shooters with a vengeance. It took the Dubai police five days to arrest them, just as they were planning to board a ship back to India.
Khalfan wanted everyone involved to pay, regardless of their role in the crime. Within nine months, all four had been executed by the UAE authorities.
Shetty was dead, and Rajan was satisfied. He now felt heavily indebted to Santosh, and opened his coffers to him, offering to help him in any business venture.
Excerpted from Byculla to Bangkok, Mumbai’s Maharashtrian Mobsters by S Hussain Zaidi, published by HarperCollins Publishers India.