Gangster, Businessman, Extortionist: Who Was Karim Lala?

Sanjay Raut withdrew his statement that ex-PM Indira Gandhi used to meet gangster Karim Lala in Mumbai. Who is Lala?

3 min read
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Abdul Karim Khan Sher Khan, aka Karim Lala, was a name all knew and feared in Mumbai from the 1960s. And now, the dreaded underworld gangster’s name has once again stirred up controversy nearly two decades after his death. Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut’s claim that former prime minister Indira Gandhi used to meet Karim Lala at Pydhonie in South Mumbai has the Congress fuming.

Here’s a look at how Lala, one of the original dons of Mumbai, rose to infamy and gained power in what was considered by many as ‘the city of dreams’.


From Karim Khan to Karim Lala

A native of Kunar province in Afghanistan, Karim Khan was born in 1911. While it’s unclear what year he moved to Mumbai, he arrived in the Maximum City from Peshawar sometime between the late 1930s and early 1940s. Described as a towering, almost 7 feet tall Pashtun, in Hussain Zaidi’s book Dongri to Dubai: Six Decades of Mumbai Mafia, Karim Khan started off his career by working in the docks.

He became a part of the seedy underbelly of the city after opening a gambling den in South Bombay. Demand in business prompted him to turn moneylender to most customers who came to gamble. Thus, Karim Khan was renamed Karim Lala.

Over the 1950s and 60s, Lala expanded his business to extortion, liquor dens, forced eviction of tenants, smuggling gold and hashish among other illegal activities. Karim Lala also offered his services to ‘solve disputes’ between different parties for an amount. With a sizeable number of Pathans in the South Bombay area and Lala as their leader, the ‘Pathan gang’ had formidable muscle power.


The Powerful Gangster Trio

Around the 1970s, Karim Lala came to an arrangement with two other dreaded gangsters – Haji Mastan and Varadarajan Mudaliar.

Varadarajan, who hailed from Tamil Nadu, sold hooch liquor, opened gambling dens and stole dock cargo with Haji Mastan’s help, reigned supreme in areas like Dharavi and Sion-Koliwada.

Karim Lala, meanwhile, operated in areas of south Bombay like Pydhoni, Nagpada, Kamathipura and Nagpada. Lala decided to pursue business with Haji Mastan on the latter’s proposal for manpower to protect his smuggled goods, in exchange for a percentage of the profits.

As Hussain Zaidi writes in his book Dongri to Dubai: Six Decades of Mumbai Mafia , the trio indirectly ruled Mumbai in the 1970s and early 1980s.


Political Clout and Downfall

Apart from his illegal businesses, Karim Lala owned three legitimate businesses. He had two hotels – Al Karim Hotel and New India Hotel – and also owned a travel and passport agency called New India Tours and Travels.

His political clout reportedly increased in the 1960s after he started the Khudai Khidmatgar and Paktoonistan Jigar-e-hind organisations that helped Pathans with employment.

Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut in his statement claimed that because of his capacity as leader of the Pathan community, several top leaders, including former prime minister Indira Gandhi, used to meet Karim Lala.

Following the outrage expressed by the Congress, Raut has withdrawn his statement.

With the rise of the next generation of gangsters like Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan, Lala slowly faded into the background since the latter half of the 1980s.

Karim Lala died of a massive heart attack on 20 February 2002. He was over 90 at the time.

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