Held: mobster who is feared across Asia

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The Independent Online

One of Bombay's most feared gangsters has been arrested in the Thai capital, Bangkok, on charges of passport fraud. The arrest, on Friday, came three weeks after the gangster, whose nom de guerre is Chhota Rajan, narrowly escaped death when half a dozen assailants burst into the flat in Bangkok where he was staying and sprayed the place with automatic gunfire.

One of Bombay's most feared gangsters has been arrested in the Thai capital, Bangkok, on charges of passport fraud. The arrest, on Friday, came three weeks after the gangster, whose nom de guerre is Chhota Rajan, narrowly escaped death when half a dozen assailants burst into the flat in Bangkok where he was staying and sprayed the place with automatic gunfire.

Earlier this week it was reported that the hoodlum, believed to be behind numerous murders in India, had been set free by the Thai authorities, after the Indian police showed no interest in his being returned to his native land. But by the week's end, a three-man Bombay police team had turned up in Bangkok to confirm that the passport on which the gangster entered Thailand was fake, whereupon Thai police began the legal process likely to culminate in Chhota Rajan, real name Vijay Kadam, being deported to Bombay.

Indian newspapers yesterday speculated that the apparent foot dragging by the Bombay police may be connected with the fact that Rajan, a Hindu, has been given the backing of Bal Thackeray, the leader of the extreme Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party and for many years the most powerful figure in Bombay politics. However heinous his crimes, it is suggested, the Indians may be unwilling to prosecute a man who is so well connected.

The Indian Express editorialised yesterday: "It is scandalous how the [Indian central government] has been dragging its heels for almost three weeks over Chhota Rajan's extradition. Here is a heaven-sent opportunity to catch him and the government is letting him slip through its fingers. It needs to be demonstrated that no one is above the law."

Just one week earlier, the 41-year-old Rajan had been lugged into the Bangkok courtroom strapped to a stretcher, hooked up to a glucose drip and cordoned by heavily armed police. He nearly died on 15 September when half a dozen elegantly dressed hitmen burst into the flat in downtown Bangkok where he was holed up and opened fire. Rajan's host, an Indian jeweller called Rohit Verma, allegedly his right-hand man, died in the attack, and Verma's wife and small daughter were injured. Badly wounded, Rajan escaped by rolling off the first-floor flat's balcony and crawling into bushes.

He could tell the court little about the attack. It happened so fast, he was reported as saying, that he did not see any of the attackers clearly.

Rajan's arrest will have repercussions both in Bombay and in various Gulf and Asian cities including Dubai, Karachi and Kuala Lumpur, where his tentacles have reached.

Rajan had begun his life of crime touting film tickets on the black market for the cinema next to his home in Chembur, a suburb of Bombay. He expanded into other petty crime, and when a hoodlum called Abdul Qunjun humiliated his chief, he took revenge in a manner calculated to draw attention in India.

Qunjun was a cricket-lover and a good batsman. In one match he was in full flow, well into his half century, when three youths retrieved the ball from the boundary. They sauntered on to the pitch with the ball, then pulled out guns and shot Qunjun dead at the crease. The city's top gangster could hardly ignore such evidence of pluck and enterprise, and Rajan was quickly adopted by Dawood Ibrahim, a suave, mustachioed thug, then as now the most feared man in Bombay. When police activity forced Ibrahim to shift his base to Dubai in 1984, Rajan minded the shop back in Bombay: controlling gold smuggling, the biggest gangland money spinner until the late Eighties, then shifting to supari (extortion) from businessmen. Drug running, film financing, and hafta (protection) were the other most dependable sources of income. Killings were frequent and casual.

But the great watershed in India's recent history, the demolition by Hindu nationalist fanatics of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya in 1991, proved to be a turning point for the gangsters too.

Ibrahim is Muslim, and Rajan, Hindu. Bombay has traditionally been a secular city, where the communal divide matters little, particularly among the murdering classes. But in the aftermath of the demolition of Ayodhya, communal riots tore Bombay's religious fabric apart, with the city's large Muslim community becoming the main victims. Subsequently in 1993 a series of bombs went off in the city, causing many deaths. Ibrahim was blamed in the Indian media for having caused them, at the behest of Pakistan's military intelligence.

Rajan, whose alliance with Ibrahim had been falling apart for other reasons, played the Hindu card. He portrayed himself as an Indian patriot, snuggling up to Bal Thackeray.

Rajan and Ibrahim became deadly enemies, each bent on eliminating the other. In the process, Ibrahim shifted from Dubai to Karachi, reinforcing the "anti-national" tag, while Rajan hopped from Kuala Lumpur to Australia and then, when security there was intensified in the run-up to the Olympics, to Thailand.

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