A massive controversy erupted after firebrand Shiv Sena leader, Sanjay Raut, revealed that the former Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, used to visit Mumbai to meet the underworld don Karim Lala. After the Congress expressed its displeasure, the motormouth was quick to issue a clarification but the clarification did not help his cause at all. Karim Lala was one of the most infamous characters in modern Mumbai and revealed the dark underbelly of the culture of crime that flourished in the city.
Karim Lala was born in 1911 in the Kunar province of Afghanistan and migrated to India sometime in the 1930s. He was a Pathan of Pashtun descent. For more than two decades, between the 1960s to early 1980s, he would be regarded as one of the three “mafia dons of Mumbai”. While Mastan Mirza aka Haji Mastan is often touted as the first don of Mumbai, in reality, it is a lot more probable that it is Karim Lala who was the first.
Karim Lala was the leader of the dreaded ‘Pathan Gang’ and enjoyed a great reputation within his community. His legacy is one of organized crime where he was involved in extortion, illicit liquor business, illegal gambling, forced evictions from property, kidnapping, contract killing, distribution of narcotics and fake currency rackets. On the foundation of his organized crime, he had also developed legitimate businesses and used a combination of the two to create and maintain a consequential sphere of influence.
Bollywood superstars and politicians used to frequent his den and work hard to ensure that they remained in his good books. There was one particular occasion when he helped out the Bollywood superstar Helen. An acquaintance of Helen had fled with her money and was refusing to return it. In despair, the actress approached the Don through Dilip Kumar, another Bollywood legend. Karim Lala intervened in the matter and ensured that the money was returned to her.
The don’s relationship with other dons of Mumbai was cooperative at times and violent on other occasions, depending upon circumstances. In the early seventies, after a spate of violence that adversely impacted their ‘dhandha’, the three dons of Mumbai, Karim Lala, Haji Mastan and Varadarajan Mudaliar came together and formed a pact. They divided Mumbai into three parts and continued to operate their businesses ‘in peace’ within their respective regions.
Karim Lala did not share such a ‘cordial’ relationship with Dawood. In 1980, his bid to mediate peace between his nephew, Samad Khan, and his rivals, Saabir Ibrahim Kaskar and Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar did not come to fruition. There was also one occasion in which Dawood was severely thrashed by Karim Lala after it was discovered that Dawood was running a smuggling racket in his area. The latter somehow managed to make an escape and run for his life.
However, not too long after, Dawood again started the smuggling racket following which it was decided that he ought to be taught a lesson. Consequently, members of the ‘Pathan Gang’ murdered Dawood’s brother Saabir in 1981. It initiated a blood feud and five years later, Lala’s brother Rahim Khan was murdered by Dawood in 1986.
He was born as Abdul Karim Sher Khan but took decided to call himself Karim Lala not too long after he took the plunge into the world of gambling. The book, ‘Dongri to Dubai’, authored by S. Hussain Zaidi, says, “He started off by establishing a gambling den — euphemistically known as a ‘social club’—on the street he lived in. The club was frequented by all kinds of people—paupers and those with deep pockets; those who could afford to lose money and those who struggled to survive; daily wage labourers and middle-class men.”
The book stated further, “Heavy losers borrowed money from Khan or his men to buy groceries or other necessities. When Khan noticed that this was becoming a trend, he decided to put an end to it by asking the borrowers to pay him interest on the 10th of every month for the borrowed sum. This discouraged some but others remained undaunted. Khan noticed that his cash box swelled on the tenth of every month and encouraged by this, he decided to become a moneylender or Lala. Thus, Karim Khan came to be known as Karim ‘Lala’.”
The book continued, “Over a period of time, Karim Lala’s gambling den became a hotspot for crime. Violence, brawls, and mugging became routine. This brought him into contact with the local police and subsequently with Crime Branch officials. But Karim Lala managed to bribe his way out of legal entanglements. Slowly and gradually he began to grow in stature and clout. Some began to refer to him in grander terms as Karim Dada. Following their tribal tradition the Pathans, who had begun to crowd around Karim Lala, looked up to him as their leader. In return, he would bail them out of tricky situations, from time to time involving himself in their concerns.”
Karim Lala began as a small-time goon who was hired by local businessmen and money lenders to recover money from debtors and other small-time jobs. Soon, he turned to gambling and from then on, one step led to another, and he gradually built an empire of organized crime. The most distressing part about the entire affair was the extent of influence he held over politicians and the entertainment industry.
It also revealed that his record of crimes had no impact on his reputation within his community. By Sanjay Raut’s own words, “A lot of people would come to meet Karim Lala, especially politicians. Raut, who has been a journalist himself, seems to have scratched a raw nerve of Congress by stating the former PM’s alleged links with the underworld don. The claim that the dons used to decide Mumbai’s police commissioner may as well be another unpleasant skeleton in the closet that the Congress doesn’t want to be opened. Karim Lala ultimately passed away at the age of 90 in 2002 in Mumbai.