Mafia Raj
The Rule of Bosses in South Asia
Lucia Michelutti, Ashraf Hoque, Nicolas Martin, David Picherit, Paul Rollier, Arild E. Ruud, and Clarinda Still




I don’t want to be a product of my environment.

I want my environment to be a product of me.

—Frank Costello, The Departed, 20061

THIS CHAPTER maps out the backdrops against which the stories of “the Rookie,” “the Bluffer,” “the Henchman,” “the Adjudicators,” “Lady Dabang,” “the Godfather,” and “the Legend” unfold. We provide the reader with a comparative panoramic view of the current sociopolitical and economic scenarios that animate bosses’ actions and preview how such broader dynamics will be enriched in the ethnographic chapters. Importantly, we show that such backdrops are not static, pregiven environments but are dialectically created by bosses’ themselves. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh offer particularly useful points of comparison for understanding the economic and political transformations that are creating opportunities for bosses’ careers to thrive.2 These three countries share a British colonial past and its historical, cultural, and political legacy; their criminal laws still follow British legal tradition, and all three countries inherited a first-past-the-post electoral system. The British Raj was divided into India and Pakistan in 1947, and in 1971 Bangladesh was created out of East Pakistan. Despite many historical links, the political environment of the three countries diverged notably in the postcolonial era with the emergence of democracy in India, intermittent “authoritarianism” in Pakistan, and what has been termed “confrontational democracy” in Bangladesh.3 Nevertheless, such different trajectories have produced all manifestations of the modern figure of the boss.

While singling out historical and cultural specificities, our collaborative work points to a number of parallels across these three countries and beyond. Scholarly work on South Asia usually tends to be centered on India or focused on specific in-country issues. The result is that common regional practices and the effects of more globalized trends often remain unexamined.4 Yet we know that the global economy and later forms of capitalism are reshaping the relationships between markets and the state, and between democracy and individual citizens. The protagonists of this book are figures of these uncertain and dynamic times. We show that they live in worlds characterized by both extreme scarcity and excessive opulence. Their habitats are marked by political agonism, on the one hand, and unaccountable state institutions, on the other. Intense scrambles for resources are animated by violent forms of entrepreneurialism and cultures of criminality. The workings and the social consequences of such predatory regimes have hardly been documented to date.5

In the following sections we outline the nature of Mafia Raj political economies in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh; their volatility and uncertainty; the extreme competitive and polarized nature of bosses’ politics in the three countries; the role of political party machines in shaping varieties of “worlds in between”; and the cultures of impunity that allow bosses to operate “above the law.” Eventually, we map how bosses create the backdrops to their actions and shape available opportunities. In many ways the bosses of this book are “itinerant,” a term coined by Deleuze and Guattari, as their performances need to be tailored and adapted to “the continuous variations of variables” in their respective localities.6 This requires agile and flexible chains of command that are capable of taking the opportunities created by the market and democracy.


The bosses discussed in this book operate in environments where change has been occurring at a mind-boggling pace over the past two decades. Their lives are part of wider transnational spheres and the global economy. They live in emerging urban megaregions that are growing up around cities such as New Delhi, Agra, Chandigarh, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Dhaka, and Lahore. They live in what is often referred to as mofussil, or “Middle” India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan: the South Asia of small-town and peri-urban villages. These are settings where the divide between village and town, rural and urban, is no longer discernible. Over the past few decades, the informal economy in these regions has become increasingly interspersed with globally linked opportunities for making money. New transport infrastructures and expanding labor and land markets have reshaped local spaces and temporalities. These are zones where some of the world’s most chaotic and polluted cities are located.7 According to the 2017 figures, fifteen of the twenty most polluted places on the globe are in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, an indication of the abrupt and haphazard way in which new economies are taking root in the subcontinent.8 Notably, they reflect their short-term ethos and extractive nature.

Predatory forms of capitalism are coupled with a delegitimation of state institutions and poor service delivery. The Fragile States Index 2015, which ranks countries from most to least fragile, ranked Pakistan number 13; Bangladesh, number 32; and India, number 69.9 Despite scoring much higher than its neighbors, India was among the ten most deteriorated countries in 2015. Its apparent decline in this regard continues a trend that has lasted a decade.10 India is, as we are often reminded, both the largest and one of the most robust parliamentary democracies in the world. However, with regard to service delivery and a whole range of other social indicators—child nutrition and mortality, maternal health, immunization, life expectancy, sanitation, literacy, standard of schooling—its performance has been widely judged as dismal and as significantly worse than that of many other countries with lower per capita income.>11 Likewise, when reviewing the Failed State Index’s criterion “provision of public services,” India does little better than Pakistan (7.9) and Bangladesh (8.1).12

However, while poverty persists and inequality is expanding, Middle South Asia is also home to an increasing number of people with spectacular amounts of money.13 Pockets of extreme wealth are increasingly found in expanses of poverty and neglect. It should be highlighted that these are times when fortunes are made (and unmade) in one generation. In our settings, there are people who weigh their money rather than count it. Rumors about trucks carrying black money or the hijacking of such vehicles by criminals (or the police) are recurrent in our fieldsites. “Estimated at 40% of GDP ten years ago and growing, India’s black economy is not marginal or confined to socially excluded people; it is central and involves prominent and socially powerful people too.”14 In Bangladesh, according to a 2011 Bangladesh government Ministry of Finance report, depending on your chosen method of calculation, the estimated underground economy is between 45 percent and 80 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP).15 Similarly, in Pakistan there is no consensus among economists, and estimates range between 30 percent and 90 percent.16 Estimates are difficult, as formal, informal, and black economies crisscross each other,17 and it is precisely the regulations that abstractly delimit the boundaries of such economies that are exploited and manipulated to make a profit in Mafia Raj. Consider the case of sand mining, for example. Sand is considered a minor mineral under Indian law, and its extraction is governed by state rather than national laws. State governments have the power to make rules to prevent illegal mining and regulate the transportation and storage of sand.18 They also have the power to make this form of mining legal, and if they do so, as many environmental activists are pressing for, the “sand mafia” would no longer be profitable.19 To understand the political economy of bossism, one needs to look precisely at these “business relations” and partnerships that connect politicians, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, and the police.20 Such a complex network is often simplified when violent entrepreneurs are elected.

Informal Enterprises or Mafias?

Across South Asia there is a wealth of literature on fixers, brokers, and their vernacular cultures of entrepreneurship, some of which are linked in interesting ways to neoliberal discourses. In the 2000s the Indian government also began to use the term jugad (the indigenous “art of making do”) as a means of advertising a type of homegrown spirit of ingenuity in India.21 What remains deliberately hidden from view is that these often glorified neoliberal informal jobs require enforcement and participation in organized power syndicates and groups to operate. The case studies in this book show that there is a continuum between informal enterprise and what local people refer to as “mafias.” The studies unravel everyday planning, tricks, risks, and showing off, as well as how they are tailored, amplified, and temporalized by the local interplay of the economy, force, electoral politics, and the law.22 This takes the idea of the bricoleur and the art of making do to an entirely new level, a level not considered in any detail in the literature on entrepreneurs in South Asia yet widely explored in the work on violent cultures of entrepreneurship in Italy, Russia, and Southeast Asia. This is jugad but on a different scale, in a different sphere, and with different consequences, often as serious as life or death. We find Pine’s study of the Camorra in Naples instructive for the South Asian case: “The art of making do is a speculative performance, the staging of a better life. Enacting it requires creative tactics for seizing opportunities and negotiating risks. Excessive speculation, however, can lead to violent determinations: the ad hoc art of making do has the potential to transmogrify into organized crime.”23 Our portrayals show how the art of making do can be transformed into the art of bossing. This is not an innocent art of finding a way around or getting by, but rather it is carving a path toward bossism as a mode of economic and political governance.24

As mentioned previously, privatization is fueling muscular economics and with it varieties of Mafia Raj. It is not a coincidence that the most iconic Mafia Raj in North India—Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Andhra Pradesh—are also the regions that provide local political bosses with some of the greatest economic opportunities through land seizures, mining, industrial contracting, the construction industry, and racketeering.25 In Bangladesh during the democratic era, neoliberal economic policies that had been put in place during the martial period by General Ziaur Rahman, founder of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), were accelerated. The democratic era witnessed a rise in the gross national product (GNP) as a result of neoliberal policies, especially from the mid-2000s onward, with an average annual growth rate of 6 percent. This period also coincides with the rise of muscle or “confrontational” politics between the two major political parties and their bonded clients vying for resources and patronage. In the case of Pakistan, decreasing returns in the industrial sector over the past few years, rather than economic liberalization, have led to massive investments in the real estate economy. This has been accompanied by a stark increase in land-grabbing operations (qabza), a lucrative activity that often sees the collusion of criminal bosses, bureaucrats, and elected politicians in the form of “qabza groups.” The country’s military has also become a key actor in these illegal forms of capital accumulation and in shaping localized systems of Mafia Raj.26 Thus in many parts of the subcontinent, a twenty-first-century version of the American El Dorado is taking place: a desi (indigenous) Gold Rush.27 The new gold is land, sand, stones, and other extractive materials.28 Violence and collusion with the state are crucial for furthering the accumulation agendas of this type of venture capitalism.29 Conversely, these new enterprises provide both black and legal money to finance political campaigns and thus create or consolidate criminal political formations.30 It is this particular connection between profit and political influence that engenders criminality in politics and fuels political competition.31

Mafia Raj Recurrent Businesses

Such dynamics are exemplified by many of the bosses’ business career trajectories presented in the following chapters. Across our fieldsites, it is often real estate and forms of predatory property accumulation that create the most profitable opportunities for violent political entrepreneurs: what Schneider and Schneider have called “mafia capitalism.”32 Land and property transactions are opening up new career paths that require the capacity to handle coercion, manage extralegal activities, and above all, play the game of politics.33 In each of our settings, the so-called endless city spills into rural areas, making land prices skyrocket. This sprawl is increasingly happening in the subcontinent as real estate developers promote the image of a world-class lifestyle outside the traditional city. Many parts of the region are witnessing an unprecedented boom in agricultural land prices. The combination of stagnating agricultural income and rising consumerism means that people who were previously engaged in agriculture are increasingly becoming involved in a variety of other businesses and starting to think of themselves as enterprising subjects, as Gooptu describes them.34 The rise of investment in land development is not a specifically South Asian phenomenon; it is seen worldwide.35 The state-assisted scramble for land has been theorized by Harvey (2003, 2006) as “accumulation by dispossession.” In South Asia, the stories of the Mumbai or Karachi mafias in the 1990s epitomize this trend.36 Today violent land grabbing is also directly or indirectly shaping the careers of all the figures of bossism that we encounter in this book. In provincial North India, smalltime developers are starting to become serious property moguls and are sending their children to train in business schools in the United States. The story of Paritala Ravi illustrates such a trajectory. “Lady Dabang” also started her career as a land grabber and often describes herself as a “property dealer.” She is now a billionaire who controls the local “land mafia,” owns property across the country, and runs in state elections. Lahore’s bosses are active in qabza groups, informal partnerships specializing in the illegal appropriation of properties. In the Indian Punjab real estate investments are again the basis of criminal political careers of bosses. The career of the Bangladeshi godfather gained momentum when he successfully managed to expropriate the decaying inner-city area and transform it into a building site.

Besides real estate development, the typical violent extractive industries in which bosses are usually involved include mining sand, quarrying granite, and quarrying limestone for cement. They are also involved in the transportation business; hotel and restaurants; regulation of labor markets; commercialization of drugs; loan sharking, fraud, financial crimes, and extortion (collection of protection money [goonda tax/hafta/chandabaazi] or kidnapping). Protection, extortion, and enforcement are particularly attractive avenues because, as Letizia Paoli argues, they do not require high initial investments, they carry low management costs, and they are relatively low-risk investments, particularly where state protection is unreliable or inadequate.37 Moreover, in today’s world one does not even need real fighting abilities or any particular preparation: “No training, just balls,” said an aspiring shooter in Lahore, or “You just need a pistol, courage, and to get involved in the bhumi [land] mafia.” Our informants often pointed out that there was a growing demand for enforcers because the ballooning black economy requires tight governance by extralegal entities and has therefore given rise to a proliferation of private protection industries. Collecting debts or delayed payments is one of the services that enforcers often offer. The fear of losing property or of being cheated (typical features of uncertain political economies) further contributes to a sense of insecurity and the need for bosses to act as enforcers, protectors, and adjudicators.

In this context, businesses such as extortion become appealing career paths for working-class youth whose manual and industrial work has been economically and socially devalued by economic liberalization. According to Gooptu, economic liberalization produced a young generation focused on making money quickly, and extortion brings immediate rewards.38 But it is not only the industry of extortion that provides quick short-term returns. Young unemployed men are increasingly becoming engaged in scams involving government programs, as epitomized by “the Bluffer.”


1. The Departed is an American crime-thriller movie directed by Martin Scorsese.

2. “South Asia” is a term with undefined boundaries. It also includes Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan, and sometimes the Maldives and Afghanistan. Here we use it as a shorthand reference to Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.

3. These are by no means steadfast categories. In the 1990s, for instance, formally democratic India unleashed military and paramilitary repression on recalcitrant regions on an even larger scale than authoritarian Pakistan (Jalal 1995: 199).

4. For an analysis of such trends, see Harper and Amrith (2012).

5. For India, see, for example, Searle (2013, 2014); De Neve (2015).

6. Deleuze and Guattari (1988: 95).

7. Staff Reporter, “The Ten Most Polluted Cities in the World,” International Business Times, January 23, 2017,

8. For an analysis of this development for India, see, for example, Harriss-White (2003); for Pakistan, see Gayer (2014); for Bangladesh, see Lewis (2011) and Gardner (2012).

9. See Fragile States Index 2015, Fund for Peace, 2015,

10. For a qualitative study of the persistence of poverty in India and a discussion of such trends, see Gooptu and Parry (2014).

11. We updated figures presented by John Harriss (2010). See also Kumar (2002) and Dreze and Sen (2013: chap. 1) for a discussion on India’s social development compared to that in the rest of South Asia; and Pritchett (2009) on the Indian “flailing” state.

12. India has a score of 7.5, where 10 would mean nonfunctional.

13. For a critical overview and explorations of the underbelly of the Indian boom, see works by Banerjee and Piketty (2005, 2011); Bandyopadhyay (2011, 2012); Corbridge and Shah (2013) and Bear (2011, 2015).

14. Harriss-White (2010: 152).

15. These figures were also used by the finance minister A. M. A. Muhith in one of his speeches. See Staff Correspondent, “Black Money on the Rise: Muhith,”, April 8, 2016,

16. According to S. A. Zaidi (2014: 112), Pakistan’s underground/black economy is estimated to be more than the real economy (no figure provided). Its size adds to the huge problem of taxation in the country: about 1 percent of the population pays income tax. According to Shahid Zia, a Pakistani economic expert, estimates of the size of the informal economy range between 30 percent and more than 90 percent of GDP. See Nasir Jamal, “Is Informal Economy Shrinking?,” Dawn, June 2, 2014,

17. For discussion on the overlaps between different economies, see Roy (1996); Harriss-White (2010).

18. For a recent exploration of the “sand mafia,” see Rege (2016).

19. As Hill writes, the “criminalization of goods and services that some politicians or voters deem immoral or harmful but that others consider desirable may be counterproductive”; excluding legal entrepreneurs, it “generates even greater revenues to the criminal world” (2006: 15–16).

20. Besides the informal and sometimes illegal nature of these relations, their opacity poses certain limits to ethnographic inquiry. We therefore acknowledge that many of the transactions and business partnerships that our protagonists engage in may have escaped our attention. We further explore the operations of local mafias in a forthcoming volume edited by Barbara Harriss-White and Michelutti, preliminary titled “The Wild East? Criminal Political Economies across South Asia.”

21. More generally, jugad is perceived as a resourceful way of getting by, as a virtuous practice or as a corrupted one (Jeffrey, Jeffrey, and Jeffrey 2008b: 5; Jeffrey and Young 2012; and Jauregui 2014). Jeffrey, Jeffrey, and Jeffrey have shown that young unemployed Indian men live in a highly competitive world in which source, force, and the need to improvise become paramount concerns.

22. On the use of jugad in politics, see Ruud (2003).

23. Pine (2012: 10), see also Pardo (1996, 2000) on “the art of making do” and legitimacy in Naples.

24. For a discussion on the thresholds between large-scale organized crime, micro level organized crime, and the informal economy, see also Van Schendel and Abraham (2005).

25. For India, see, for example, Sanchez (2015).

26. The disproportionate size of the military in the country’s economy is now well documented. Its profit-making activities are akin to that of a Mafia Raj insofar as it is oriented toward the interests of a particular group (retired and serving army personnel and their civilian clients) at the expense of the general public. In the name of national interest, the armed forces have repeatedly used coercive methods against civilian authorities and owners to acquire resources, such as land, for personal private benefit. Much of these profit-making activities are carried out by the armed forces’ “welfare foundations,” which are some of the largest conglomerates in the country. Their activities include insurance, banking, educational institutions, gas extraction, cement production, and agro-industries (see Blom 2011: 31–32; Siddiqa 2007: 198–99).

27. Prabhat Sharan, “The New Mafia Raj,” Deccan Herald, accessed October 3, 2015,

28. For an examination of a variety of extractive industries across South Asia, see Harriss-White and Michelutti (forthcoming).

29. Levien (2011); Springer (2013).

30. For the relation between black money and election campaigns, see Vaishnav (2011); Kapur and Vaishnav (2013); and Sukhtankar (2012).

31. Concerning this connection in Bangladesh, see Adnan (2013); in India, Suud (2014); in Pakistan, McCartney (2015).

32. See Schneider and Schneider, who have recently conceptualized “the mafia as a normal facet of capitalism, no more outside its political economy than the other capitalisms to which we add such qualifiers such as ‘merchant,’ ‘industrial,’ finance,’ ‘proto,’ or ‘crony’” (2011: 3).

33. See Whitehead (2008) for discussion about this phenomenon in Mumbai.

34. Gooptu (2007).

35. Harvey (2005). Harvey famously argued that later forms of capitalism are centered on speculative real estate investments. Today, because of underconsumption, capital is no longer invested in productive assets. In the contemporary world more is produced than what people are ready to consume. It follows that investments in productive assets are no longer profitable, and huge amounts of money are being funneled into real estate. On property relations in the age of neoliberalism, see also Hann (2007).

36. For Mumbai, see, for example, Weinstein (2008); for Karachi, Gayer (2014); for India, Nilsen and Oskarsson (2016). For examples of “mafia capitalism” in Japan, see Hill (2006); in post–Soviet Russia, Varese (2001); and in Hong Kong, Chu (2000).

37. Paoli (2003: 165); on racketeering as a legitimate industry, see also Reuter (1987).

38. Gooptu (2007).