Rule by Bosses? Criminal Political Economies in South Asia



In the past few decades, the term “mafia” has gained widespread usage across South Asia, and particularly India and Pakistan where there are said to be a variety of sector-specific ones: “land mafia,” “sand mafia,” “coal mafia,” “timber mafia,” “water mafia,” “contractor mafia,” and so on. The sum total of these mafia is captured by the term “Mafia Raj”—rule by mafia (“Mastanocracy,” or government by gangsters, is a rough equivalent in Bangladesh). While mafia has thus become a popular folk term to capture various corrupt nexuses in South Asia, what precisely does the term refer to in these contexts? And, why have these “mafia” seemingly become so entrenched in the 21st century after decades of economic liberalization, which promised to undermine corrupt rent-seeking and usher in a liberal capitalist order?


The Bosses

The jointly authored Mafia Raj represents an anthropological response to these questions—above all the first—through the ethnographic exploration of criminal “bosses” in South Asia. A collaboration of seven anthropologists, it consists of solo-authored chapters focused on one or several bosses in a particular milieu (four in India, two in Bangladesh, and one in Pakistan); and three jointly authored chapters providing context and drawing out common themes. With this quasi-biographical methodology, the authors are most interested in what they call “the figure of the boss” in South Asian popular culture, and the manner in which these figures build and maintain their image and authority—what they term the “art of bossing”. This focus on “figurality” is reflected in the noirish chapter titles: The Godfather, The Legend, The Henchman, The Rookie, and so on.

Mafia Raj provides granular portraits of a range of such figures: Lady Dabang, a woman in Uttar Pradesh who fled an abusive family to transform into a violent criminal broker and local political leader; Sukhbir, a Dalit ‘fixer’ in Punjab who bluffed his way into the leadership of an MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act) union; Fakhrul Khan, a ‘local party supremo’ in Bangladesh who used unscrupulous means to move from student politics to drug dealing and real estate to member of Parliament; Yaseer, an all-purpose racketeer and mediator in Lahore (Pakistan) who specialized in land grabbing (qabza); Paritala Ravi, a legendary gangster and politician from the dominant landed caste, Reddy, of Andhra Pradesh.

In depicting these and other criminal bosses, the volume illuminates the forms of charismatic authority—combined with violence and varying degrees of patronage—they deploy to acquire political power and accumulate capital. Yet each of these individuals clearly occupy different positions in different kinds of criminal or corrupt undertakings, raising the question: what is the structure of these various undertakings?


The Organization of Mafia Raj

Drawing on both older and more recent mafia studies, my first friendly critique of Mafia Raj is that its quasi-biographical methodology prevents deeper insight into the structure of this phenomenon. The individual contributions do mention a range of public and private actors with whom “bosses” pursue political and economic power, including politicians, businessmen, brokers, bureaucrats, police, lawyers, and judges. They acknowledge that these networks cross the public-private divide and appropriately make frequent use of the Italian term intreccio (interweaving) to describe this fact. But we get only scattered insight from these chapters into what those networks look like. 

Mafia Raj’s focus on the personal style of the boss thus leaves the reader with many lingering questions about their organization and the variety of other roles necessary to execute their criminal activities. Although presumed answer by the title, a big question thus remains: is “mafia raj” in fact synonymous with rule by bosses? The question is undoubtedly difficult to answer because of the loose and colloquial usage of mafia in the South Asian context. It seems to me, however, that a sensible way of answering it is to follow Anton Blok’s methodological advice and proceed roughly in the opposite direction of the volume: identifying the practices to which this discourse refers and from there to the individuals involved and their organization. If we proceed thus, will we find that the empirical reality to which the term “mafia” is applied is really the sum of individual bosses like those described in this volume? Do such charismatic figures sit on top of each of the sectoral mafias—land, sand, coal, timber, etc.—that we hear so much about in public discourse? Or is the public use of mafia, in these contexts, an attempt to grapple with far more diffuse and opaque networks of rent-seeking that cross the public-private divide?

A second major question which the book touches only lightly upon is that of causation: why have South Asian political economies become so criminalized over the past few decades? While acknowledging longstanding criminal practices, many of the contributors note qualitative if not quantitative shifts from the 1990s onwards. All are clear that some aspect of contemporary or neoliberal capitalism is at work, and that land and natural resources are crucial sectors for criminal political economies. In Chapter 1, appropriately called “Backdrops,” reference is made to “violent forms of entrepreneurialism” (p. 32), “predatory forms of capitalism” (p. 33), and “muscular economics” (p. 35). But these colourful terms remain precisely background; they are only thinly connected to particular cases and do not provide much explanation of why 21st capitalism in South Asia is producing so much criminality in general, and all these specific regional forms in particular.

This shortcoming of the volume is a wide-open opportunity for social science, and, given the significance of rural land and natural resources for various “mafia,” agrarian political economy in particular. As Michael Watts writes, the attempt by Blok—and also the Schneiders—to situate the rise of mafias within mutually conditioning processes of state formation, a specific regional trajectory of peripheral capitalist development and its attendant pattern of class reconfiguration—the latter almost entirely missing in this volume—remains particularly inspiring and potentially generative. This approach also has affinities with the Arrighian attempt to think through the implications of diverse agrarian paths not so much for economic growth as for “patterns of conflict” and social welfare.

This volume joins a growing body of scholarship which encourages us to break down arbitrary distinctions between the licit and illicit, the corrupt and legitimate, and the black and white economies, all of which inhibit perception of the deep imbrication of crime and corruption with licit state-capital relations. Putting the pieces back together into a more complete whole will likely force us to significantly reconstruct our theories of capital, class and state. Such a reconstruction may prove particularly useful for the Left which, in dismissing egregious forms of class plunder as merely “corruption,” has tended to cede this consequential political ground to liberal crusaders and right populists.

[This is an abridged version. Read the complete essay here.]

Michael Levien is Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology, John Hopkins University