He is Tihar’s latest Bhai but he remained off-limits — resting through the day in his spartan solitary cell and occasionally escorted out for meals and visits to the jail dispensary after all his fellow prisoners were locked away in their barracks.
Until October 25, the day he was arrested in Bali, even the hardened criminals in India’s largest prison would have prayed not to cross paths with Rajendra Sadashiv Nikalje alias Chhota Rajan.
But when a posse of armed guards hustled the 55-year-old gangster through the corridors of Jail No. 2 to his cell after dusk on Thursday, everybody wanted a piece of him. “Bhai, bhai,” they shouted from behind the grills that held them back.
Everybody wanted to meet him, talk to him. Jail officials were no exception. “He did not look frightening. He looked like an old man from south India. Everyone wanted to see his face,” said a prison official.
The last time Tihar was abuzz with similar curiosity was during Indian Mujahideen chief Yaseen Bhatkal’s first night at the prison. “This jail has always had celebrity prisoners like Bhatkal and Charles Sobhraj,” the official said.
A head warden who was to leave for his friend’s wedding in the afternoon told his colleagues he stayed back just to have a glimpse of Rajan in person, having watched TV images of the fugitive Mumbai underworld don in an orange prison jumpsuit after his arrest.
As Friday dawned, Rajan’s first full day of his 14-day judicial stay in Tihar was uneventful, or rather kept so. “Because he is a high-risk prisoner, he was taken out for his meals only after the other prisoners were locked in. I heard that when Rajan was being escorted, other prisoners shouted ‘bhai, bhai’ repeatedly. He did not respond,” a senior official said.
Rajan met the jail superintendent and sought permission to meet his wife and sisters. Also, he was spotted twice at the jail infirmary, giving wind to speculation that he might have turned in after 27 years on the run because both his kidneys have failed.
Other than the perfunctory excursions, he remained cooped up in the cell, tucked under some extra bed sheets that he had requested the previous night to keep himself warm in nippy Delhi.
Bhai was the buzzword in the rest of Tihar’s nine jails too. In Jail 3, a wall separates Rajan from one his alleged sharpshooters, 30-year-old Mohammed Yusuf. For the past two weeks, he has been surfing news channels to see the man who he knew only by his voice.
During his heyday, as right-hand man of Dawood Ibrahim as well as an independent don, Rajan apparently used a network of hitmen who he never met but assigned deadly tasks over the phone.
For whatever reasons, Yusuf wants to meet the don now. “There are many Yusufs lodged here who want to meet the man, for whom they are serving time here. We have to ensure that they do not get near and harm him,” said an official.