New book on 12 men who defined Mumbai's underworld

Nov 12, 2017, 20:10 IST | Team SMD

Rajan [chotta], as part of his 'patriotic' vendetta against Dawood [Ibrahim], had taken to killing D-gang members who were part of the 1993 bomb blasts, and [DK] Rao, who had already gained Rajan's trust by this time, was tasked with these missions. After adding several scalps to his belt, Rao was on that day on his way to kill two more men. One of them was Shaikh Mohammed Ehtesham, charged with being part of the team that received the arms and ammunition in Raigad, while the other, Baba Moosa Chauhan, was charged with delivering AK-56 automatic rifles to the residence of actor Sanjay Dutt. Both had been convicted and were sentenced to ten years of rigourous imprisonment, and, having challenged the conviction in a higher court, were on their way to attend a hearing, which was when Rao planned to strike.

DK Rao
DK Rao

Unknown to Rao and his team, another man as feared as himself was on his way to intercept him: senior inspector with the Mumbai police Crime Branch, Ambadas Pote, known for his fiercely loyal approach to his job and daring encounters. Now retired, Pote remains one of the go-to persons for all things underworld and can recall any story about the Dawood or Rajan gangs at the mere mention of a keyword.

Having learned about Rao's plan, Pote was on that day speeding to stop the gangster before he shed any more blood in the city. The face-off occurred on Sayani Road near Khed Gully: the Maruti Gypsy carrying Pote and his team came face-to-face with the Maruti Esteem bearing Rao and his hit squad. A deadly exchange of fire ensued that sent everyone running helter-skelter, ducking for cover and screaming for their lives. The Esteem was pierced by scores of bullets and, in a matter of minutes, its insides were stained with blood.

Guns trained, Pote and his team advanced on the Esteem even as it sunk down on its punctured tyres. The police team pulled open its doors and began dragging out the occupants. The first ones were Raja Gore and Vipin Khanderao, who were dead. Next came Ramesh Pujari, Jairam Shetty and Rao himself, who, unknown to the cops, were semi-conscious but alive. All the five men were dumped into the back of a police van that had reached the spot.

S. Hussain Zaidi
S. Hussain Zaidi

Allegedly, as the van started, Shetty cried out in pain, 'Amma!' Without a word, the policemen turned around and fired several more rounds at the mass of bodies slumped in the back. Shetty and Pujari jerked with the impact of the rounds hitting their bodies and died on the spot, but Rao, who was hidden under both of them, escaped the second volley of bullets. The van reached KEM Hospital in Parel and drove around to the back where the morgue was. As per procedure, the policemen were taking what they believed to be five dead bodies for postmortem so that the reports could be attached to the inevitable paperwork that followed such encounters. To their utter shock - some of the policemen actually thought they were seeing a ghost - Rao crawled out from under his friends' bodies, bleeding from several bullet wounds and screaming that he was alive. 'Mee jivant aahe, Doctor mala vachwa, help, help.'

The police squad was too stunned to react for the first few seconds. Then all hell broke loose. Other civilians at the morgue started running away in fear, the medical attendants who had come forward to take charge of the bodies stood in confused silence and the policemen went for their guns. Shouting abuses and threats at the top of their voices, they made Rao come out of the van with his hands raised, after which they turned him over to the doctors. Any thought of shooting him down inside the van itself was quickly discarded for a simple reason: there were too many eyewitnesses.

The desperate pleas of a bleeding, supposedly dying man moved the team of medical professionals present in the ward. They galvanized into action to save the man. The doctors and paramedics presumed that the police team that had carted him there considered his life as precious. Doctors who operated on Rao would later tell the police that he had been hit by no less than nineteen bullets and had still lived to tell the tale. The next few months led to the spawning of a lot of speculation as to how Rao had survived the assault. Some said that he was able to hold his breath and play dead as he knew yoga. Others said that he used the dead bodies of his friends to shield himself. Yet others said he was just plain lucky. But from that day onwards, his miraculous escape from the jaws of death became the only thing that people would talk about every time his name was mentioned for a
long time.

Pulling heaven knows what strings, Rao, who was in Arthur Road central jail after his return from the dead, got himself transferred to the Nashik jail. The murder, which went down in police files as one of the most brutal ones ever recorded, took place on a Sunday afternoon. [O P] Singh was playing cricket with some other inmates, and in the middle of the match, he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned to see a fellow inmate standing behind him.

'OP, zara side mein aa na,' the man said, asking Singh to come aside. He led Singh to a corner of the prison yard, where Rao, along with thirteen others, was waiting for him. Before Singh could realize what was happening, the group pounced on him, raining blows and kicks on him from all sides till he could barely move. When Singh, who himself was tall and solidly built, had stopped thrashing about, the group parted and Rao coolly walked forward.

Wordlessly, he walked around a cowering Singh, knelt down and cradled Singh's head in his hands and slipped a jute rope around it. A severely-beaten but still conscious Singh clawed at the rope around his neck and the hands holding them but Rao held fast, staring expressionlessly into his prey's terrified eyes till he had stopped struggling. Rao's henchmen watched in horrified awe as he drained the life out of Singh, straightened up casually, turned around and walked away. After another few seconds of staring fascinatedly at the dead man before them, the others walked away too. A subsequent inquiry by the prisons department revealed that Rao had bribed several prisons officials so that he could get thirteen members of the Rajan gang transferred to Nashik jail to help him with the murder.

(Excerpted with permission from The Dirty Dozen: Hitmen of the Mumbai Underworld by Gabriel Khan, edited by S. Hussain Zaidi, published by Westland Publications Limited)

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