Little did the residents of Tilak Nagar, a Chembur neighbourhood that came up to provide affordable housing for industrial workers, know that a small ‘daru ka adda’ (liquor bar) would spur a fierce rivalry between two groups of local goons in the 1970s, and eventually lead to the rise of one of the biggest names in Mumbai’s underworld — Rajendra Sadashiv Nikhalje alias Chhota Rajan.
Old timers in Tilak Nagar, recalling the sequence of events that led to the rise of Rajan, say it all started with a man called Sanjeeva Devadiga who ran a country-made liquor shop near the then famous Sahakar cinema.
“During those days, Sahakar cinema was very popular with the residents of Ghatkopar and Chembur. And Devadiga who was known as ‘Daruwala’ in the area brought in men to sell tickets in black,” said a 65-year-old local, who has long been witness to the murky dealing of the underworld. Devadiga’s foray into black-marketing sparked a rivalry with a local mobster Bada Rajan, who acted as mentor to Chhota Rajan.
Devadiga’s men while selling tickets in black used to keep a few for themselves that would be in the midst of a group of women. They would then harass the women during the shows. Bada Rajan, who had married a Maharashtrian from Tilak Nagar, opposed this and this led to friction between him and Devadiga.
“Devadiga was very well entrenched and had a good network. If we wrote a letter against him, he used to come to know by evening,” the local veteran said. Fights ensued between the two groups with liberal use of iron rods, hockey sticks, knives, tube-lights and sodawater bottles. Among Bada Rajan’s boys was Chhota Rajan.
“Enmity between the boys from Tilak Nagar and Devadiga reached a peak when one of the boys from the colony was murdered near Sahakar cinema,” said the resident. The fights continued and in 1975, eight youth from Tilak Nagar were booked under the controversial Maintenance of Internal Security Act (Misa), among them Chhota Rajan.
“The boys went to jail for two years and came back hardened criminals after they came in contact with the underworld. Slowly, the selling of tickets in black was taken over by Bada Rajan’s men,” he said.
In 1983, Bada Rajan was shot dead by Chandrashekar Safalika, hired by his rival Abdul Kunju, in a daring attack outside the Esplanade court. Safalika was dressed as a navy cadet when he shot Rajan, killing him instantly. “It was Bada Rajan’s murder that rattled Chhota Rajan. It was during this period that he started to move in and out of Tilak Nagar frequently. He then got involved with Dawood,” the local said.
Rajan, a resident of building No 6 at Tilak Nagar, married Sujata who resided at building No 5. “They tied the knot in Dubai,” he said. After that the veteran has hardly heard of Rajan in the locality. Rajan’s sisters and extended family still live in the buildings in the Tilak Nagar locality but are reluctant to talk to the media.
But Tilak Nagar, which was developed by the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) for industrial workers with 112 three-storeyed buildings each with 36 180-square-foot flats, has undergone a major transformation.
As realty prices in the neighbouring areas of Ghatkopar and Chembur went through the roof, attention turned to Tilak Nagar. There was intense rivalry among builders to bag redevelopment projects in Tilak Nagar.
“The old buildings have given way to towers; a new crowd has now come to reside in Tilak Nagar. In fact, population has increased three-fold in the past two decades,” said an old resident of Tilak Nagar.
The real-estate boom also brought in several brokers who decided to set up shop in the locality.
“We know that they [Rajan’s men] will not harm us,” said a broker adding, “There is no problem for the new residents who are coming to stay here from outside.” In fact, an organizer of a Ganpati mandal, which is said to have Rajan’s patronage, claimed they have told volunteers going out to collect varangi (donation) not to coerce anyone to pay. He claimed that often the watchmen in the new towering housing societies do not even let them in.