It was the late 1980s, and three men in their 20s — brothers Anoop and Balraj from Mitraon and Krishan Pehalwan from Dichaon Kalan — stood together at Najafgarh’s Bhagwat Swaroop Akhara, ready to wrestle.
The real fight didn’t play out that day, but rather over the next few decades, as the three men allegedly went on to become key players in gang wars that threw the two villages, barely 35 km from Delhi, into chaos.
For years, residents of Mitraon and Dichaon Kalan, Jat-dominated villages just 2 km apart in Najafgarh, have borne the brunt of the bloody gang wars. But the fight for supremacy, villagers, police and gangsters say, did not start over land or money but a family feud, allegedly sparked by the murder of Pehalwan’s uncle in 1992. The killing started a chain reaction, which has so far left 50 people dead in both villages, and about 100 outside — most recently the 74-year-old father of gangster Manjeet Mahal, who was gunned down outside his home in Mitraon.
Unlike the cramped colonies of the capital, Mitraon has wide roads, spacious homes, and plenty of greenery. ‘Property dealer’ is a popular profession, as is farming on ancestral land. But since the average land owned by each family has decreased “from 10 acres to 1.5 acres” over the last decade, villagers say farming is not lucrative enough.
Najafgarh MLA Kailash Gahlot also hails from here. A retired teacher in his early 80s, Inder Gahlot says a majority of residents here are Gahlots, whose ancestors came from Bharatpur, Rajasthan, in 1949. Well aware of the notoriety the village has gained, Inder recalls a particular incident from 1989.
He says a person from Mitraon had bought land in Jhajjar district’s Dulina village. But when he went to take possession, he was stopped by locals, angering some residents of Mitraon. “The land was grabbed and it became a matter of pride. More than 10 people, armed with sticks, went to Dulina for a fight,” says Inder, adding that one man from Dulina was murdered, and most of the accused served a jail term.
One of them was wrestler Anoop, who went on to become a dreaded gangster. The incident, Inder says, served as a precursor for many crimes in the future.
Three years later, another gangster emerged from Mitraon. In 1992, Anoop’s younger brother Balraj, then 22, took admission in a BA (Pass) course in Delhi’s Sri Aurobindo College. A friend who used to study with him at the time says Balraj “changed the college dynamic”.
“He was ragged and humiliated. The next day, he informed Anoop, and took a knife used to cut grass, to intimidate the boy who had ragged him. But the knife pierced the boy’s chest, killing him. Balraj was arrested,” says the friend, who did not wish to be named.
In jail, Balraj met a gangster who was a rival of Pehalwan’s uncle. Once he got out, Balraj allegedly murdered him. “That murder changed everything for the village; it started the gang wars,” Balraj’s classmate says.
Anoop, meanwhile, got embroiled in several cases of extortion and murder, including of eyewitnesses in his cases.
By 1998, the gang war was at its peak, and had claimed several lives, including Balraj’s. In what appeared to be retaliation, Pehalwan’s younger brother Kuldeep was shot dead 1999, allegedly by Anoop’s gang. Then, in 2003, Anoop was shot dead — in broad daylight at a court complex in Rohtak.
Skip to 2015, when another of Pehalwan’s younger brothers, Bharat Singh, the Najafgarh MLA at the time, was killed by a gang led by Udaiveer Singh of Dichaon Kalan. According to police, Pehalwan and Udaiveer had an enmity over land, which had led to the killings of Udaiveer’s father and brother in 2007.
Police said that after killing Bharat, Udaiveer took shelter in Mitraon with help from Anoop’s associate, Manjeet Mahal. Udaiveer was arrested in April 2015, and Mahal on December 8, 2016. About a month later, on January 20, 2017, Mahal’s father Shrikrishan was gunned down by unidentified assailants outside his home.
Shrikrishan’s killing, which has again brought the two Najafgarh villages in focus, appears to be the handiwork of Naveen Khati and Ravinder Bholu, whose gang has been fighting Mahal’s to establish dominance in Mitraon, police said.
“Both villages are considered sensitive due to a history of gunfights. We keep a tab on every suspicious activity. Except for the families affected by the feud, the general law and order situation in both villages is under control due to good policing,” says JCP (southwestern range) Dependra Pathak. He added that some gangsters have reformed themselves and now lead normal lives.
Once a gangster, Manta has been witness to — and part of — the carnage. Sitting in Mitraon with some other “reformed gangsters”, Manta now spends his days playing cards and smoking a hukkah.
Manta, who was in jail between 1998 and 2003 in connection with a murder, says he found it hard to reconcile with the fact that he was part of such a crime. “I was very young at the time. I got carried away by the muscle power and joined a gang… But I have two children now and I have sent them to study away from this village,” he says. He recalls how, in 1995, about 65 people from the village were lodged in jails in murder or attempt to murder cases.
Even today, he says, there are at least 25 people from Mitraon in Tihar and other jails near Haryana — all because of a fight that started between two families. “They consider it a fight for self-respect,” he says.
According to Manta, lack of education and insufficient job opportunities prompt youths to join gangs even today.
He uses an example of a friend, a farmer, to explain this. “Over six months, on four acres of land, his input is Rs 40,000 and the earning around Rs 1 lakh. So, after six months of hard work, he makes Rs 10,000 a month. How can anyone live on this?” he asks. Plus, the water level in the village has plummeted and the water is salty, which makes farming harder, he says. As opposed to this, joining a gang can fetch substantially more, not to mention the “power” that comes with it, Manta says.
Manta’s friend, a college professor who teaches in Rohtak University, sits nearby — an example of what moving away from the village can accomplish. He left Mitraon for Meerut in 1999, and got an engineering degree. “There is no boys’ college in Mitraon; the nearest ones, Shivaji College or Rajdhani College, are 30 km away,” he says.
“Boys nowadays see cars, big bungalows and want quick money… During the early 90s, people used to go to akharas to channel their energy. Now that doesn’t excite them, so they go to gyms. The government needs to provide a push to divert the youth’s attention,” he says.
The onus is also on police to act promptly, he says. “If they would have acted in time, some murders could have been prevented,” he says.
A 20-year-old student who travels to Shivaji College every day intervenes, saying that parents ought to “keep a check on their children”.
“Despite the odds, there are some people from here who have joined the armed forces or the Delhi Police,” he says.
At the entrance of Dichaon Kalan, the office of slain Najafgarh MLA and Pehalwan’s brother Bharat Singh is buzzing with people. The office is now used by Pehalwan and his wife — counsellors of Najafgarh’s ward numbers 138 and 139, respectively.
It’s the same office where Bharat was once attacked.
Around half a kilometre away, Pehalwan’s four-storey home is nothing short of a fortress. One of his security men stands on the roof, keeping an eye on anyone entering the house. Another, stationed at the main gate, doesn’t let anyone pass without verification. Pehalwan’s personal security officer (PSO) also stands guard at the entrance.
Wearing jeans and T-shirt, a bespectacled Pehalwan sits in his drawing room. “Chacha ko maar diya, bus wahin se sab shuru ho gaya. Lekin ab sab khatam ho gaya hai, sorted hai (They killed my uncle; that’s when it started. But everything is sorted now),” he says.
Pehalwan, booked in 27 cases, including murder, in Delhi-NCR, first ran for the municipal polls in 2009 as an independent candidate. He has never been convicted.
A wrestler by profession, he recalls going to the Swagat Swaroop Akhara in the 80s, and later training at Chandgi Ram Akhara at Delhi’s Majnu ka Tila. But he stopped once his uncle was murdered. Despite seeing several deaths in his family, he says he does not want to start another “bloodbath” — despite what he calls “provocations” from the other side, like occasional firing outside his house.
He is critical of the establishment, especially over the attacks on his brothers. “I wrote 99 applications to the police and the government, but nobody listened. Now I am provided a PSO,” he says.
Pehalwan says people unnecessarily link him to anything untoward that happens in Mitraon. “I got to know that Mahal’s father had been murdered two hours after the incident, but people still tried to connect me to it,” he says.
He says his brother Bharat did a lot for Dichaon Kalan, and he is continuing his legacy. Among the notable things he has done, he says, is regularising payment of contractual safai karamcharis.
As for the enmity between his village and Mitraon, Pehalwan is emphatic that there isn’t any.