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The Rise of the Indian Mafia and Bollywood

By Gary K. Busch

One of the least well-known of the international criminal organisations is the Indian Mafia. It is not only centred on India but has spread across the globe. Among other areas of influence, it has thrived through its engagement with the Indian entertainment industry, better known as “Bollywood”. It has come into prominence recently for its ties with the radical Islamist groups which have been threatening Indian security and which have become a matter of concern to international intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

The transition between the traditionalist Indian Mafia criminal organisations and the current Indian Mafia groups emerged from the war in the late 1990s of the modernisers with the long-established Indian gangs which had dominated organized crime in India. This struggle was very similar to the earlier conflict in the U.S. between the Moustache Petes and modernisers in the Castellammarese War from 1928-1931.

There were organized gangs of ‘thugs’ in India for years (the term ‘thug’ is an Indian word) A ‘thug’ was a member of an organization of robbers and assassins; devotees of the goddess Kali. The Thugs waylaid and strangled their victims, usually travellers, in a ritually prescribed manner. They were suppressed by the British in the 1830s. This violent aspect of Indian criminality was only a small branch of the tree of crime. Most of Indian crime consisted of supplying goods, credit and services which were unavailable or outlawed by the various governmental organisations; kidnapping and ransoming rich Indians; and ‘shylocking’ among the rural and urban poor to whom the ‘zamindars’ (tax collectors and landowners) had shown little mercy or credit. Some of the bandits (better known as ‘dacoiti’) like Man Singh became legends in their lifetime due to their Robin-hood image of giving stolen money to the poor.

When India became independent many of the states which were formed were ‘dry’ states; alcohol was banned.  This Indian Prohibition resulted, as it did in the U.S., in a windfall of profits for the criminal communities. This illicit sale of alcohol has continued during the succeeding prohibitions both nationally and regionally.

India remains a major transit point for heroin from the Golden Triangle (Shan states) and Golden Crescent (IranAfghanistan and Pakistan) en route to Europe. India is also the world's largest legal grower of opium, and experts estimate that 5–10% of the legal opium is converted into illegal heroin and an additional 8–10% is consumed in high quantities as concentrated liquid. The pharmaceutical industry is also responsible for a lot of illegal production of mandrax, much of which is smuggled into South Africa. Diamond smuggling via South Africa is also a major criminal activity. In addition, a lot of money laundering takes place within the country and with the Middle East mostly through the use of the traditional hawala system. The traditional illegal import of 10-tola bars of gold from the Gulf into India is a business which has gone on for centuries.

There are several centres of organized crime in India, based primarily on cities. Perhaps the most important crime centre is Mumbai. After independence, due to prohibition policies adopted by the Government of Maharashtra, boot-legging or trade in illicit liquor, became a lucrative business for the criminal gangs. The first to rise to prominence in the bootlegging business was Varada Rajan Mudaliar, popularly known as Vardha bhai, who was a Mumbai based ethnic Hindu who started as a porter at VT Railway Station, took to thievery at the Bombay Docks and graduated to boot-legging in the 1960s. He acquired considerable wealth through this activity and became so influential that he used to hold ‘durbars’ in his areas of influence, to settle disputes.

Another prominent Mumbai gangster was Karim Lala, who commanded south and central Mumbai and majority of smuggling and illegal construction financing.  Karim Lala and his family members' groups operated in the Mumbai docks; they were often called the Pathan mafia or Afghan mafia, because the majority of the members of these crime syndicate's members were ethnic Pashtuns from Afghanistan's Kunar province. They were especially involved in hashish trafficking, protection rackets, extortion, illegal gambling, gold smuggling and contract killing and held a firm stranglehold over parts of Mumbai's underworld. Lala controlled bootlegging and gambling in the city in 1940 and was the undisputed king of the trade till 1985. Similarly, Haji Mastan and Yusuf Patel started off as small-time criminals and later took to smuggling gold and silver: They made a lot of money and invested it in legitimate business, mainly construction and real estate.

One of the most famous of the Karim Lala gang was Haji Mastan who became the first celebrity mobster in Mumbai, expanding his clout in the film industry by giving money to directors and studios for film production. As Masan’s influence in Bollywood grew, he began to produce films himself.

These Mafia leaders found that the traditional forms of criminality were no longer the best routes to fortune and power as India began to open up into an entrepreneurial giant. Their place as leaders of the criminal underworld were challenged by younger and more aggressive criminals. After a decade of violence, the new leadership took over and moved away from the criminal pursuits of their former leaders and began to adapt to India’s new capitalist opportunities, using their cash to finance otherwise unfinanceable deals.

There are now four major criminal families operating in Mumbai. The largest and most powerful family is the D-Company. This is the name given to the organized crime group controlled by Dawood Ibrahim. The D-Company is not a stereotypical organized crime cartel in the strict sense of the word, but rather a collusion of criminal and Islamic terrorist groups based around Dawood Ibrahim's personal control and leadership; a control exercised by many brutal assassinations of his competitors. In addition to his international trade in narcotics, smuggling and quasi-legitimate businesses. He spends most of his time in Dubai which has frequently refused to extradite him. He was early in realising the opportunities a developing India presented. He used his funds to invest in legitimate and almost-legitimate businesses. Financing illegal construction projects earned him high revenues and providing finance for the Indian moving picture industry earned him even more.

Many of these businesses are run by his brothers. His brother Anees Ibrahim looks after smuggling, drugs and contract killings. Noora looks after film financing and extortion from film personalities. Iqbal, a low-profile person, looks after his legitimate business activities including share markets in Hong Kong and jewellery and gold businesses. His gang consists of about 4,000 to 5,000 men. 50% of the members are from Bombay and the neighbouring districts. 25% come from Uttar Pradesh, In addition. contract killing, film financing, drug trafficking, smuggling computer parts and illicit trade in arms and ammunitions make up the major areas of endeavour.

They have been supplying arms both to criminals and terrorists. Dawood Ibrahim has invested heavily in projects like the Diwan Shopping Centre in      Mumbai and is also said to have financial stakes in the Diamond Rock Hotel in Mumbai. Noora runs Suhail Travel in Mumbai. Dawood reportedly has huge financial stakes in the East West Airlines. [i]

Unfortunately, Dawood mixed crime with politics. After the 1993 Bombay bombings, which Ibrahim allegedly organized and financed with Tiger Memon, both became India's most wanted men. According to the United States Department of Treasury, Ibrahim had ties with Osama bin Laden.[ii] As a consequence, the United States declared Ibrahim a "Specially Designated Global Terrorist" in 2003 and pursued the matter before the United Nations in an attempt to freeze his assets around the world and crack down on his operations. Indian and Russian intelligence agencies have pointed out Ibrahim's possible involvement in several other terror attacks, including the 2008 Mumbai attacks, as per Interpol. In 2010, a US Congressional report claimed that "D-company has a 'strategic alliance' with Pakistan's ISI". Ever since he took to hiding, his location has been frequently traced to Karachi, Pakistan, a claim which Pakistani authorities have denied.[iii]

A second gang in Mumbai is the Arun Gawli gang is based at Dagdi Chawl in Byculla, Mumbai. He started his criminal activities there and used his chambers there for keeping kidnapped persons, torturing them, extorting money from them and murdering them. He has been arrested several times for criminal activities and detained for long periods awaiting trial. However, he could not be convicted in most of the cases as witnesses were too intimidated to testify. He came out of jail and started his own political party, Akil Bhartiya Sena with a great deal of support among the slum dwellers but was then convicted of the murder of Shiv Sena leader Kamalakar Jamsandekar in August 2012 and is back in jail. The organisation continues but is fighting D Company for turf.

The third group of organized criminals is the Amar Naik Gang This gang originated sometime in 1980 and was collecting protection money from the vegetable vendors in Dadar area of Mumbai. When the leader of this gang (Ram Bhat) was sentenced to imprisonment in a robbery case, Amar Naik took over the reins of the gang. Its main business was the collection of ‘haftas’ (kickbacks) from the vegetable vendors, hawkers, bootleggers and smugglers. This earned him good money. This gang had several violent skirmishes with the Arum Gawil gang, not only outside jail but even within the jail premises where gangsters of both the gangs were lodged, resulting in several killings. When Amar Naik was killed the mantle of leadership fell on the shoulders of his younger brother.

The fourth group of Mumbai criminals are organized in the Chota Rajan Gang.  Chota Rajan started his criminal career in the Dawood gang but after the 1993 bombing he fell out with Dawood and formed his own gang. This gang is mainly concerned with the trade in illegal drugs. After several attempts on his life by Dawood’s men he now operates the gang from the Gulf.

There are hundreds of smaller criminal gangs across the vast territory of India and in its major cities like Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Mangalore, and Calcutta. Goa is one of the major hubs of the international drug trade where the Indian Mafia have joined up with Russian, Israeli and Nigerian criminal groups involved in the trade.

While there have always been smaller and more disorganized criminal groups in the Punjab in recent years the Punjabi Mafia has expanded its activities to Canada, especially British Columbia and Ontario where they have engaged in drug trafficking, weapon trafficking, robbery, contract killing, fraud, money laundering, counterfeiting, extortion, illegal gambling, murder and prostitution. The Indo-Canadian Mafia are a major source of heroin supply in Canada and have established strong links with the Mexican cartels. Indo-Canadian gangs are the third major homegrown organized crime problems in Canada. They have replicated their gang structures back in the Punjab and have largely re-organized criminal activities in the region in India. The first major Indo-Canadian crime boss was Bindy Johal, although many and more powerful crime characters followed. The Indo-Canadian group has been characterised by high levels of violence and murder. Indo-Canadian gang violence is still high; from 2006 to 2014, 34 Indo Canadians had been murdered by gang violence making up for 21.3% of gang deaths in B.C[iv]

What is the most interesting aspect of the development of organized criminal gangs in India is the open ties between the Indian Mafia and the Bollywood film industry. This was largely the result of a misguided government policy. The link between Bollywood and Indian organized crime is as old as India itself: Mumbai’s original mafia don, Haji Mastan, produced films starring his mistress to promote her fledgling cinematic career. The film industry’s intimate relationship with the Indian underworld is considered one of the country’s worst kept secrets whose origins can be traced to a government regulation that rendered the cinema industry ineligible for legitimate forms of financing. Film producers, directors and actors were forced to find alternate revenue streams to make their movies, often from suspicious sources with strong links to criminal organizations.

While the law was amended in 2000 to allow the film industry to qualify for bank credit, the underworld’s influence within Indian cinema had already become deeply entrenched and pervasive. In many instances, filmmakers and celebrities were forced to accept underworld financing whether they wanted to or not. Eminent Indian film director Mahesh Bhatt once observed that “there's hardly anybody in the film industry who has…not been contacted by the mafia.”[v]

The cosy relationship between the Indian mafia and the film industry appears to be symbiotic on the surface. Indian film stars openly flaunt their organized crime connections, and Bollywood’s A-list celebrities routinely attend lavish, well-publicized mafia parties around the world. At the same time, however, these links have proven deadly for the industry’s most notable members. While India’s most powerful underworld bosses like Dawood Ibrahim and Abu Salem will celebrate with Bollywood’s most distinguished members one day, they will extort them the next.

Extorting Bollywood’s cinema elite is among the most profitable activities for the underworld. Organized crime groups ruthlessly target and even kill some of the industry’s most prominent directors, producers and even film stars who refuse to make the exorbitant extortion payments.[vi] Moreover there are several key figures in the industry who have been jailed for assisting the Indian Mafia in extracting extortion payments.

Many international investigators and anti-crime specialists are disappointed in the seeming inability of the Indian governments to take effective action against the Indian Mafia or to force the divorce of their links to Bollywood. They suggest that among the investments of the Mafia are the expenditures of organized crime in supporting India’s major political parties on the national and regional levels.


[i] Madan Lal Sharma, ORGANIZED CRIME IN INDIA: PROBLEMS & PERSPECTIVES 9/2000

[ii] "U.S. slaps sanctions against Chhota Shakeel, Tiger Memon". The Hindu. Chennai, India. 2012-05-16.

[iv] "Canada gang wars have a Punjab connection". sunday-guardian.com. Retrieved 2 August 2015

[v] Ronak D. Desai ,  Bollywood's Affair With The Indian Mafia, Forbes 3/316

[vi] ibid

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