After successfully evading arrest for 20 years, underworld don Chhota Rajan was finally arrested by Indonesian police in Bali on Monday. The 55-year-old gangster had been marked as a wanted man by Interpol back in 1995 for carrying out at least 17 murders.

The arrest was made at the Bali airport after the Indonesian authorities received a tip-off from police in Australia, where Rajan had been hiding for several years.

For India, this arrest is a major breakthrough. Along with underworld dons like Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Shakeel, Rajan has been one of the most dreaded gangsters in Mumbai with an equally dramatic story of rising to power.

Rajendra Sadashiv Nikalje, son of a Mumbai mill worker, could have been just an ordinary middle-class Maharashtrian if he hadn’t chosen a life of crime. He began his wayward career with petty crimes like selling black movie tickets and assisting Rajan Nair, a thief, bootlegger and local gang leader in Chembur.

When Nair – popularly known as Bada Rajan – was murdered in 1983, Nikalje took over the gang and assumed the title of Chhota Rajan. His gang developed connections with Arun Gawli, another smuggler and underworld don in Mumbai, as well as Dawood Ibrahim, the notorious head of crime syndicate D-Company.

Through the 1980s, Rajan progressed to become Dawood Ibrahim’s key aide in his gold smuggling operations. When Dawood escaped to Dubai to evade arrest, Rajan took charge of his Mumbai affairs, till he was forced to flee to the Gulf himself.

Rajan and Dawood

In 1989, Rajan attended Dawood’s brother’s wedding in Dubai, but their closeness didn’t last long. The 1993 Mumbai serial bomb blasts, which were masterminded by D-Company and left 257 people dead, caused a permanent rift between Rajan and his mentor. Rajan was already a wanted criminal, but he now began to position himself as a “patriotic don” who did not support Dawood’s communal attack on Mumbai.

Through the '90s, as Rajan formed his own criminal syndicate, the conflict between the two former aides reached a peak as scores of their gang members killed each other in shootouts. Rajan also allegedly began passing on information on Dawood and his role in the 1993 blasts to Indian intelligence agencies.

Almost killed

In 2000, Dawood’s aides Sharad Shetty and Chhota Shakeel managed to track Rajan to his hideout in Bangkok. Shakeel’s attempt to kill Rajan was dramatic, but unsuccessful – Rajan managed to get away. In 2011, Rajan’s former aide Santosh Shetty claimed, in his statements to the Mumbai police, that the don managed to escape Bangkok in a military vehicle arranged by a Thai businessman. From Thailand, Rajan allegedly fled to Cambodia and then to Tehran.

By 2003, Rajan’s men avenged the Bangkok attack by killing Sharad Shetty in a public shootout at a club in Dubai. More than a decade later, the war between the two gangs had not abated. Early this year, Rajan allegedly foiled another plan by Chhota Shakeel to have him killed. Shakeel’s men managed to trace his location to Australia, but once again, Rajan pulled off an escape before an attempt was made on his life.

J Dey murder

In 2011, Rajan was also one of the ten people named as an accused in the chargesheet of the J Dey murder case, in which senior Mumbai crime journalist Jyotirmoy Dey was shot dead in broad daylight by sharpshooters on a motorbike. Dey had been reporting Rajan’s alleged role as the mastermind behind an attack on Dawood Ibrahim’s brother in Mumbai.

Rajan, however, has denied any role in the Dey’s murder.