Uncompromising, ambitious and viciously calculating are some of the qualities that made 55-year-old Rajendra Sadashiv Nikhalje, also known as Chhota Rajan, the boss of a notorious underworld gang that emerged in the early 1990s and became famous as ‘Nana company’.
Rajan – who was born to a lower middle class family and grew up in a suburban chawl in Chembur – began by commiting petty crimes along with his mentor, Rajan Nair who also goes by the name Bada Rajan.
His mentor then initiated him into black marketing cinema tickets outside a cinema theatre in the chawl, which brought Chotta Rajan in conflict with a well-known gambler named Yashwant Jadhav.
Jadhav hired thugs to drive chhota Rajan and Rajan Nair out of his territory, pushing them to approach dreaded underworld gangster Vardarajan Mudaliar. The move helped them seize a great deal of Jadhav’s territory.
Jadhav in turn approached well-know gangster Abdul Qunju to counter Mudaliar’s threat. Qunju arranged a brazen ambush in 1982 in which Bada Rajan was killed, forcing chhota Rajan to retreated into the shadows and waiting silently to strike back.
In 1985, Qunju was killed in one of the most audacious attacks in Mumbai’s underworld history. Rajan calmly walked up to Qunju during a cricket match and shot him from a close range.
The brazen manner of the murder saw Dawood Ibrahim offering him a place in his gang. Rajan accepted the offer and became a key lieutenant of Dawood after he helped kill Samad Khan, the fiery nephew of former underworld don Karim Lala.
After Dawood left the country in 1984, chhota Rajan was given charge of running the gang in Mumbai. Later, even he moved to Dubai and remotely operated the gang.
But as Shakeel Ahmed Babu, also known as chhota Shakeel, gained prominence in D-Company, chhota Rajan took a back seat. He plotted to branch out of D-Company systematically, and used the 1993 blasts as the platform to do so.
Rajan’s separation from Dawood saw one of the bloodiest episodes of Mumbai’s underworld where members of rival gangs or businessmen who owed allegiance to either of the gangs were hunted down on the busy streets of Mumbai.
In September 2000, chhota Shakeel carefully engineered a plan to eliminate Rajan in Bangkok, and almost succeeded. The attack planned in a hotel room in Bangkok saw his right hand man Rohit Verma being killed. Rajan escaped with three bullets.
After that, Rajan was on the back foot, until he engineered a shootout outside Dawood’s brother Iqbal Kaskar house in Mumbai’s Pakmodia Street in 2011. Rajan was believed to be operating from South-East Asian countries, and is believed to have been helping Indian intelligence agencies.