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




ON A WINTER’S NIGHT in 2010, Lahore’s most notorious don was ambushed in the parking lot outside Lahore’s airport and shot six times. Tipu Truckonwala, “the truck owner,” had just returned from Dubai where, fearing for their lives, he had relocated his wife and children. His three bodyguards and two drivers died immediately, and Tipu passed away two days later in the hospital, surrounded by local politicians and his armed strongmen. Markets closed for the day, and his funeral procession drew thousands of Lahoris who paid their respect to the underworld don. His death brought an end to the twenty-year feud between his family and another Kashmiri clan, the Butts of Gowalmandi, a feud that had claimed the lives of dozens since the murder of Tipu’s father in 1994. Armed with Kalashnikovs and riding motorbikes, the warring gunmen targeted their victims on the streets or outside courts and hospitals. Alternatively, the family elders had their rivals killed in staged police encounters through the intercession of corrupt police officers. Besides real estate and truck transportation, Tipu’s family was allegedly involved in smuggling, car theft, narcotics, extortion, gambling, begging rings, and arms trafficking and had contacts with the highest echelons of the state. At the same time, just like his rivals, Tipu ran an unofficial dera (den) at his truck depot, where he would receive plaintiffs from all over town: families seeking mediation in land disputes; policemen eager for a rapid transfer; mothers seeking the release of their sons from police custody; poor residents begging him to have the local administration repair a water pipe in the neighborhood. In the popular imagination, Tipu and his rivals are the quintessential Lahori dons, part of the city’s “top ten”: dreaded yet sometimes admired figures at the interstice between competing formal and informal codes of law and sovereignty.

The romantic, mythical, and phantasmagorical dimensions of the outlaw have long been recognized as central to the power enjoyed by Robin Hood–type gangsters who are often portrayed as figures of popular resistance à la Eric Hobsbawm.1 Occasionally in India, these extraordinary individuals are also transformed into “hero gods,” such as Veerappan the notorious South Indian sandalwood and ivory smuggler. On October 18, 2004, Veerappan was killed by the police in a gun battle. He had been a fugitive for twenty years and was allegedly responsible for the deaths of 180 policemen and state officials and the kidnapping of politicians and movie stars; he was the epitome of the feared charismatic gangster. Supported by a tribal population and local nationalist political parties, the “jungle cat” came to be revered as a demigod; worshipped in religious rituals; and immortalized in TV serials, movies, novels, comic books, and songs. Today, he even has global marketing power, as witnessed by the “deep, dangerous and intoxicating Smuggler’s Soul” perfume (created by Lush, a global biocosmetic company) that bears his image on the label.2 The allure of Veerappan and Tipu is not an exception in South Asia, where strongmen are all too often feared and loved and are an integral part of political landscapes.

Overall, insofar as these outlaws overlap with the state, they often resemble not so much Hobsbawm’s social bandits but rather what scholars of strongmen and mafias have characterized as “violent entrepreneurs,” defined loosely as individuals who use private (and state) force as means of social control and economic accumulation.3 Throughout this book we use the term “boss” to refer to these mafia-esque characters.4 These are ultimately individuals “who make themselves respected.”5 By asserting personal mastery and living on the fringe of “normal structures,” they often also come to possess quasi-magical powers and charismatic authority.6 Today, boss myths are often spread through contemporary media and movies. These are worlds where it is difficult to distinguish between art and life: they no longer imitate each other but appear to have merged. Here “film stars cross over from their fantasy world into politics to emerge as powerful figures guiding the destiny of millions.”7 To capture this complex reality, this book provides an anthropological framework to examine the workings of bosses in action in seven locations in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Our approach is explicitly ethnographic and grounded in lived experiences.8 We situate “the figure of the boss” analytically, and through that concept we theorize what we call “the art of bossing.”9 We argue that such an “art” form is a potent relational mode of power and economic accumulation symptomatic of the current age. Understanding the micro level dynamics of “the rule of bosses” nuances our knowledge of power and authority in South Asia, the broader anthropological study of criminal-political formations, and the lure of the strongman in other parts of the world.


Historically, power and leadership across South Asia have been associated with the use of coercion and brute force, with kings portrayed as valiantly ruthless sword-bearing rulers.10 After independence, Nehru was appalled to find that politicians in Congress in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh had, in his own words, “violated every single one of the 511 paragraphs in the criminal code.”11 As discussed by Hansen and Stepputat, “The incompleteness, tentativeness, and fragmented nature of colonial states and the excessive forms of violence they frequently visited on their subject populations have structured postcolonial states in profound ways.”12 The legacy of a fragmented society and the practices of indirect rule under the British Raj are reflected in a myriad of de facto sovereigns.13 Today, “muscular” styles remain a persistent feature of South Asian political economic landscapes and electoral democracies.

In India, 34 percent of current elected Members of Parliament (MPs) are said to have criminal histories.14 In Pakistan, the international focus on religious extremism and state militarization has diverted attention from the fact that many acts of terror (kidnapping, bombing, murder, and threats) are often connected to struggles between local political interests in a nation where politicians commonly manage their constituencies like personal fiefdoms.15 In Bangladesh, while the clampdown on crime and corruption during the 2007–8 emergency regime was aimed at creating a cleaner political environment, over the past few years extralegal political activities have reportedly been on the rise and are often instigated by actors within the ruling party.16 Public concern with the “criminalization of politics” in the region goes far beyond anxieties about endemic nepotism or the mismanagement of public funds. Many criminal politicians are accused not just of embezzlement but also of burglary, kidnapping, and murder. The observed political and economic landscapes, then, appear not only as corrupt but also as highly violent spheres.17

In this environment, gangster politicians have increasingly become popular models of authority and public conduct, not only for politicians but also for businessmen and ambitious youth. In addition, the myth of the boss contributes to inspiring and legitimizing numerous real-life strongmen who coexist, overlap, and compete to control resources and people.18 Referred to by the terms goonda, dabang, mastan, badmash, “mafia don,” or “godfather,” these individuals are an integral part of everyday social, political, and economic life in the region. Today, their power and authority are played out against a backdrop of rapid economic growth and an increasing scramble for economic resources. Alongside the manipulation of later forms of capitalism, competitive electoral politics (and their rising costs) are the pillars of the construction of decentralized fiefdoms headed by powerful bosses.19 Systematic corruption, violence, and accumulation of wealth lie at the heart of bosses’ systems of governance, popularly known in the region as “Mafia Raj,” “Goonda Raj” or “Mastangiri,” that is, mafia or criminal rule. These systems, which use force to accelerate the path toward power and wealth, share similarities with the Caciques and Caudillos of Latin America, the Mafiosi in Italy, urban political machines in the United States, and today’s gangster politicians and mafia-like systems in Brazil, Bulgaria, Indonesia, Jamaica, Nigeria, the Philippines, Russia, Thailand, and Turkey.20


“Mafia” has now become an indigenous South Asian term and a folk concept.21 In South Asia, the Italian words mafia or mafioso are increasingly used not only by the media but also in everyday vernacular conversation. In its South Asian usage, the term refers to organized crime in general. More often than not, however, it is employed to refer to business enterprises that seek to monopolize particular trades through extralegal and violent means, and crucially to refer to political protection (e.g., alcohol mafia, water mafia, coal mafia, land mafia). It is this intertwining of crime, business, and politics that is popularly referred to as mafia or Mafia Raj.22 The latter term first gained currency in India, together with the hypothesis of a “criminalization of politics,” following the disclosure in 1993 of a government report detailing the reach of a growing nexus between politicians, the bureaucracy, and mafia organizations in the country. According to the report, these organizations had acquired enough political patronage and “muscle and money power” to “operate with impunity” and to run “a parallel government, pushing the state apparatus into irrelevance.” “Even the members of the judicial system,” the report reads, “have not escaped the embrace of the mafia.”23 In reality, there is no such thing as a singular and well-defined mafia. Instead, there are varieties of mafia-like systems that have their own characteristics and whose morphology greatly differs from the prototypical and cinematographic Sicilian Cosa Nostra. Such a mythical mafia does not in fact exist in Italy either. Currently on trial in a major scandal involving crime syndicates in the government of the city of Rome, the Italian boss Massimo Carmierati theorized contemporary amorphous and variegated mafia systems as the “world in between.” In a tapped phone conversation with his henchman, he explains: “It is all about the ‘world in between’ theory, mate. You see, up above us are the living and below us are the dead and then there is us, in the middle . . . and that’s a world in between where everybody and everything can meet.”24

These in-between worlds are not the mafia represented in the romanticized image of Don Corleone but rather are amorphous configurations of bosses able to expand their range of action, not just with weapons but mainly through political influence and economic investments. These systems do not have rigid vertical and hierarchical structures; their boundaries and memberships are shifting and volatile and are thus difficult to characterize as discrete organizations. “The world in between” is the zipper between legality and illegality. It is the world where “the upper world,” made up of white-collar workers, business, and institutions, and the “world below,” composed of varieties of criminal bosses and musclemen, meet and produce “proto-mafia” systems of governance rather than traditional organized criminal organizations.


Despite increased public concern about a growing overlap between the criminal, the political, and the economic spheres, the South Asian world in between remains underresearched. Mafia Raj, whose modus operandi is so vividly described in fiction, movies, TV, press, and social media, remains mostly absent in academia. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are rarely the focus of international literature on organized crime, mafias, and gangs.25 In the region, historians and social anthropologists have commonly focused on studying colonial notions of “thuggery,” “the dacoit,” and “the criminal tribe/caste.” These studies have widely explored the conditions under which a distinctly modern notion of crime took shape in colonial South Asia.26 Yet the contemporary mafia-like boss and, more generally, the daily management and spectacle of criminal (political) sovereignty have not received equal scrutiny. Thus, the analysis of “power among the powerful” is missing from the growing literature on the anthropology of statehood, democracy, and local political economies.27

To address this gap, this book examines the everyday workings of bosses’ realpolitik across seven sites in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. We ask, How do bosses command and aspire to command? What exactly do they do? What are the contexts in which they operate? These may be straightforward questions, but they have rarely been asked and never systematically studied in this way. In the following pages, readers have the opportunity to meet bosses at different stages of their careers and with different degrees of influence and personal power. Our focus is on “Middle” India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, on small and mofussil (provincial) towns often neglected by anthropologists specializing in South Asia, who instead tend to focus on metro-cities or villages.28 We seek to illustrate bosses’ struggle for personal sovereignty and their recurrent cinematographic self-legitimizing mythologies, as well as how these fearless and beloved figures transgress and/or reinforce social norms; how they display masculine prowess through murder, rape, beatings, and racketeering; how they make money through legitimate and illegitimate businesses; how they collaborate with (or avoid) the police; how they use caste, lineage, brotherhood, and class to acquire capital and to fight elections; how they bluff their strength; how they create intimate bonds with followers, subjects, and citizens; and how they are obeyed, tolerated, or rejected.

Our gallery of portrayals include “the Legend,” a gangster Robin Hood–turned–regional hero in South India; “the Rookie,” an emerging political mastan (enforcer) with a muscular and artistic background in peri-urban Bangladesh; “Lady Dabang,” a mistress-cum-estate developer–turned–small-town political boss in provincial North India; “the Henchman,” a low-caste party boss who through muscle and theatrics is challenging caste hierarchies and seeking a dignified life for himself and his family; “the Adjudicators,” a constellation of small-time influential bosses who run a private dera and seek to administer justice in their respective neighborhoods and markets in a Pakistani city; “the Bluffer,” a self-appointed boss who through bluff and mimicry captures popular fantasies of power and bossism in the Indian Punjab; and “the Godfather,” a Machiavellian elected don in a provincial town in Bangladesh. Except for “the Bluffer” all the characters have extensive criminal records; they are accused of murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, racketeering, fraud, money laundering, or a combination of these.

Thus, our intimate portrayals document “real people doing real things,”29 which cumulatively help us map the art of bossing. Robert Dahl pointed out in a seminal article that “in the English language power is an awkward word, for unlike ‘influence’ and ‘control’ it has no convenient verb form.”30 By using the term “bossing,” we wish to capture the processual nature of “doing power” and the manners in which, as Richard Sennett suggested, “authority can become a process, a making, breaking, a remaking of meanings. It can be visible and legible.”31 More specifically, we conceptualize “the art of bossing” as the performance of personal sovereignty.32 This art form refers to the violent, criminal, business, and “democratic” tactics and strategies that some men (seldom women) deploy to control people and resources to pursue a better life for themselves, their families, and, at times, their communities. Enacting personal sovereignty requires a capacity for violence and for making money, repeated acts of give and take, figurations and mythologies. We show how these ingredients are put together, joined, mixed, and packaged and how such an art brings political-economic authority into existence. Importantly, we document the uncontrollable nature of such processes and the perpetual instability of bosses’ power. Bossing requires the constant juggling of legitimacy and illegitimacy and demands an ability to thrive financially in opaque Mafia Raj worlds, where rules are suspended and moral uncertainty reigns.33 In this volatile environment “the will to boss” needs to be performed, invented, and bluffed on a daily basis. These are worlds where even representations are animated figures. Acting like a boss and behaving like a boss are sometimes the same thing, and other times not. Either way, performances contribute to creating material and tangible chains of command, predation, and control over resources and, perhaps more important, over people’s lives.

This grounded approach to the art of bossing allows us to depart from an abstract Foucauldian analysis of sovereign power and modern government.34 By putting flesh and blood on abstract name tags (the godfather, the dabang, the mastan, the badmash) and grounding the available statistics and discourses on crime in real-life processes, this book seeks to shift attention away from power as it occurs in discourses and institutions toward power as it is held by people in particular contexts. Ultimately, our case studies illustrate that power is not principally dispersed or diffused but can be highly concentrated, possessed, and wielded. They illustrate that individuals can be active agents of power, not just their point of application and/or effect, and, importantly, that their sources of “boss authority” have multiple and uncontrollable origins. Bossing does not have a unique ontology. We start by analytically situating the figure of the boss and outline how such a tool allows us to conceptualize the art of bossing against the backdrops of a variety of Mafia Raj, each with its own political economies and aesthetic figurative power.


1. On social banditry, see the debate between Hobsbawm (1969); Blok (1972); and Wagner (2007). On criminal heroes, see Kooistra (1989); Rediker (2004). On the Robin Hood principle, see Seal (2009).

2. See Lush, accessed April 11, 2018,

3. Blok (1974); Sidel (1999a: 71–72); Volkov (2002).

4. The term “boss” derives from the old Dutch and old High German bass and basa (aunt, uncle, and kinsman). It entered American English in the early nineteenth century and was initially employed to avoid the term “master,” which was historically associated with slavery. Thus, originally a term of respect used to address an older relative, it began to be employed to refer to a person in charge who was not a master type but rather a paternalistic father figure. The term was simultaneously adopted to refer to mob-mafia-like bosses and/or party machine bosses.

5. Blok (1974: 38).

6. On the power of liminal/threshold figures, see Turner (1969) and Douglas (1966); on magicians, see Mauss and Hubert (1993: 19); on diviners, see Kapferer (1998); on danger and charisma, see Worsley (1968).

7. S. Ahmed (1992: 289).

8. We are inspired by Hansen and Stepputat (2005, 2006), who advocated an ethnographic practice approach to the study of de facto sovereignties, such as informal structures of illegal networks, strongmen, insurgents, and vigilante groups but, importantly, also the tentative forms of authority that are produced by market forces, ongoing processes of privatization, and crony capitalism.

9. We build on recent work by Barker, Harms, and Lindquist (2014: 1–18) on the concept of the figure; and on the work of Pine (2012) on the figure of the personal sovereign in Naples.

10. On the figure of the “bandit king,” see Shulman (1986); Kasturi (2013).

11. Brass (2006: 4).

12. Hansen and Stepputat (2006: 304).

13. See also Comaroff and Comaroff on “palimpsest of sovereignties” (2006: 9).

14. The Association for Democratic Reform (ADR) and National Election Watch have created a unique database of affidavits submitted by candidates contesting state and national elections since 2002, illustrating the presence of politicians with criminal records in Indian politics (see “Assembly Elections 2018,” ADR, accessed February 12, 2018, We are not assuming that the rise in proportion of politicians with a criminal record necessarily signifies a rise in the criminalization of politics. The growing number of criminal cases registered against bosses is also indicative of a marked judicialization of conflicts. However, these statistics also often hide much darker realities. In a prototypical Mafia Raj, no one even gets a chance to lodge a First Information Report (FIR) against a boss because of his or her ability to subvert police process and the judiciary. Hence, the most powerful bosses are often not taken into account in these statistics.

15. See, for example, Martin (2009, 2015a).

16. See, for example, BRAC (2006); Ruud (2010).

17. See Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (2008: 31).

18. For explorations of the growing nexus between crime, politics, and the economy in South Asia, see Brass (1997); Hansen (2001, 2005); Jaffrelot (2002); Harriss-White (2003); Manor (2007); Gooptu (2007); Michelutti (2008); Witsoe (2009); Jeffrey (2010); Vaishnav (2011); Berenschot (2011); Gill (2013); Gayer (2014); Ruud (2014); Kumar (2014); Sanchez (2015).

19. Competition in the context of clientelistic politics of shadow states creates conditions for extralegal economic and muscle resources, making the rise of criminal politicians more prevalent where political contestation is highly competitive (Brass 1997; Wilkinson 2004; Lieven 2011; Ruud 2011). On the concept of “the shadow state,” see Harriss-White (2003); on the rent-seeking economy, see Bardhan (1984, 1988) and Khan and Jomo (2001).

20. For anthropological insights into crime, bossism, and mafias, see Kane and Parnell (2003); in Africa, see Bayart, Ellis, and Hibou (1999), Standing (2003), Roitman (2004), Smith (2007), Vigh (2006); in Russia, Verdery (1996), Humphrey (1999), Varese (2001), and Volkov (2002); in East and Southeast Asia, Rafael (1999), Sidel (2004), and I. Wilson (2009); in Latin America, Arias (2006, 2016), Auyero (2007), Jones and Rodgers (2009), Goldstein and Arias (2010), and Jaffe (2013); in the Mediterranean, Blok (1974), Gilsenan (1977), Schneider and Schneider (2003), and Pine (2012); and in Japan, Kaplan and Dubro (2003). See also work by Strange (1996) on the political empowerment of criminal actors as a global trend.

21. See Santoro (2011) for a discussion of Mafia becoming a folk concept. The term and concept of “mafia” have been long debated. One interesting approach is to study this criminal phenomenon purely as an economic activity: on mafia as an “enterprise syndicate,” see Blok (1974); on “Mafia enterprise,” Arlacchi (1993); and on mafia as a protection industry, Gambetta (1988) and Varese (2001). Tilly (1985) has instead highlighted the relation between mafia and political sovereignty by introducing the very interesting notion that organized crime can be compared to both war making and state making (see also Volkov 2002). Varese (2011b) and Armao (2000) pointed out that what distinguishes mafia from other types of organized crime is that the former fundamentally uses politics and the judicial system to make a profit.

22. This folk definition of mafia is close to the analytical definition proposed by Armao (2000), according to whom, when organized crime—conceived as a structured and permanent group of individuals who use violence to make profit through criminal activities—meets politics, it gives rise to a third type of system called mafia.

23. Vohra Committee Report (n.d.).

24. For the Italian original version of the conversation, see Abbate and Lillo (2015: 20). Carmierati is said to have borrowed the term il mondo di mezzo (the world in between or Middle Earth) from J. R. R. Tolkien.

25. On this point, see Sen (2007a). Her work on urban gangs/vigilantes is one of the few available studies that explores contemporary criminal gangs in India and is in dialogue with concepts and theories developed in the field of the sociology of mafias. In a recent global atlas of mafias, the subcontinent is completely absent (Maccaglia and Matard-Bonucci 2014).

26. For a recent overview of this literature, see Rao and Dube (2013).

27. The anthropology of the state has produced a proliferation of studies that challenge the view of the state as an organizational category distinct from society. See, for example, Abrams (1988); Mitchell (1991); Fuller and Harriss (2001); Corbridge, Srivastava, and Veron (2005). For postcolonial critique of state/society boundaries, see Chakrabarty (2000); Kaviraj (2000); Chatterjee (2004). Much of the ethnographic work on the state tends to focus on “the effects of state,” on discourses and representations about corruption (Gupta 1995); on criminalization (Siegel 1998); on terrorism (Aretxanga 2002); or on how democracy is imagined rather than on realpolitik. Notable exceptions are the works by Wade (1985); Heyman (1999); Harriss-White (2003); Jeffrey (2010), which look at how politicians subvert the state bureaucracy.

28. By “Middle” India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, we mean South Asian towns with a population between one hundred thousand and one million. See Harriss-White (2015) on the concept of “Middle India” and the general lack of studies on small towns.

29. Ortner (1995: 185).

30. Dahl (1957: 202).

31. Sennett (1980: 190). We draw on notions of authority from Sennett—in particular with regard to his view of authority not being synonymous with legitimacy à la Max Weber and his compelling suggestion that in the modern world people “feel attracted to strong figures we do not believe to be legitimate” (ibid.: 26). However, contrary to Sennett, we conceive personal sovereignty not as a completely autonomous and independent field.

32. On the performance of personal sovereignty as an “art,” see Pine (2012). On sovereignty as a principle of political power, see Agamben (1998) and his focus on the body as a site of, and object of, sovereign power. See also Hansen and Stepputat’s (2005) compelling interpretation, as well as Buur and Jensen (2004); Das and Poole (2004).

33. Pine (2012: 17). See, in particular, Pine’s usage of “contact zone” as a liminal space where “getting by” brushes with organized crime.

34. Over the last few decades, the discussions about power have gravitated around a continuing critical engagement with Marx and Marxism, particularly the Gramscian variety, and the work of Foucault (1991) and more recently the work of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben (1998). “The current Foucauldian-Gramscian-Nietzschean obsession with power” produced a tendency for all “culture” to be seen as an effect of power relations and to be “explained” in terms of “domination and resistance” (Gledhill 2009: 9–10). Power had become anthropology’s “new functionalism” (Sahlins 2002: 13), an explanation for everything that ended up explaining very little.