Mafia Raj (India)

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Mafia Raj 🇮🇳
India map.png
Location: India
Definition: Criminal power networks
Keywords: India South Asia Patronage
Clusters: Domination Motivational ambivalence Co-optation Patron-client networks
Author: Lucia Michelutti
Affiliation: Department of Anthropology, University College London, UK
Website: Profile page at UCL

By Lucia Michelutti, Department of Anthropology, University College London, UK

Mafia Raj (or Goonda Raj) is a complex term. It is often employed to make moral assessments of the political and economic environments in which every day Indians live, to express frustrations concerning the paucity of jobs, the absence of meritocracy, and the state’s insufficient service delivery and accountability. It is also used to articulate systems of political and economic governance in which politics, money and crime have developed symbiotic relations. As the Hindi word raj (rule, reign, government) in Mafia Raj suggests, this is a system in which ‘criminal-political’ formations aspire to rule. As such Mafia Raj started to be used widely in the Northern states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in the late 1990s. Today the term may be applied to a political system as a whole or to sub-systems within it. It may apply to a particular area or to particular populations, and so we can have ‘pockets’ of Mafia Raj. Such systems of power whose modus operandi is so vividly described by fiction, press and social media remain mostly absent and abstract in academia. This entry relies on new material collected by a collaborative anthropological project on muscular systems of economic and political governance in South Asia (Michelutti et al 2016: Introduction[1]).

In India, 34% of current elected MPs are said to have criminal histories (see dataset ADR[2]). Public concern with ‘the criminalisation of politics’ and ‘the politicisation of criminals’ in the region transcend anxieties about endemic nepotism or the mismanagement of public funds. Many ‘criminal politicians’ are accused not just of embezzlement, but of burglary, kidnapping, and murder; the observed political and economic landscapes emerge not only as a ‘corrupt’, but also a highly violent sphere. Referred to by the names ‘goonda’, ‘dabang’, ‘badmash’, ‘mafia don’ or ‘godfather’, these individuals are an integral part of everyday social, political and economic life in the region. Alongside the manipulation of later forms of capitalism, competitive electoral politics (and their rising costs) are the pillars of the construction of decentralised fiefdoms headed by Mafia-esque bosses (see for example Brass 1997[3]; Jaffrelot 2002[4]; Hansen 2001[5]; Harriss-White 2003[6]; Michelutti 2008[7]; Vaishnav 2011[8]; Berenschot 2011[9]; Kumar 2014[10] and Sanchez 2015[11]). Thus Mafia Raj are hybrid systems where ‘criminal organisations, politicians, police, and bureaucrats—are entangled in a relationship of collusion and divestment, sharing control over spaces and population’ (Jaffe 2013[12]; see also Bayart, Ellis, and Hibou, 1999[13]). Such systems, which use force to accelerate the path towards power and wealth, share similarities with the Caciques and Caudillos of Latin America (Arias and Goldstein 2010[14]), the Mafiosi in Italy (Blok 1972[15]; Schneider and Schneider 2011[16]; Pine 2012[17]), the sistema in Russia (Ledevena 2013[18]), urban political machines in the United States, and today's gangster politicians in Indonesia, Jamaica, Thailand, Philippines, Bulgaria, Turkey and Brazil (see Sidel 1999[19]; Jaffe 2013[20]). India’s Mafia Raj are however distinctively shaped by a local unique passion for ‘the political’, and has some of the highest rates of participation and contestation in the world (Michelutti 2008[21]). Indisputably, ‘South Asian sistemas’ represent a unique amalgam. Cases of direct reconversion of violent entrepreneurs into political actors are reported as fairly rare in other parts of the globe (on this point, see Brisquet and Faravel-Garrigues 2010[22]). Beside the profit involved in adopting a political career path, and the impunity that such careers grant, there is also a particular ‘aura’ of prestige and status that goes hand in hand with political public posts in South Asia. Such an ‘aura’ is hardly comparable with other places such as Italy, Russia, or Brazil. In South Asia, ‘When you are an MP or MLA or City Mayor you are a Raja (a king), you are like a god and rich,’ (Karim, informant quote). Comparatively, Italian and Russian Mafiosi do not seem to have the same ‘cultural’ motivations to enter directly into politics, preferring instead to be ‘king makers’ rather than ‘kings’.

Mafia has indeed become a South Asian term and a ‘folk concept’. In South Asia the Sicilian words mafia or mafioso are increasingly used not only by the media but also in everyday vernacular conversations. As such its meaning should not be separated from the socio-cultural contexts in which it is used and talked about in everyday life and in public discourse (including the discourse of the state). The South Asian term mafia is employed to refer to organised crime in general, and also to business enterprises that seek to monopolise particular trades through extra-legal and violent means (‘alcohol mafia’, ‘water mafia’, ‘oil mafia’, ‘coal mafia’ or the ‘criminal mafia’ or a variety of ‘land grabbing’ practices known as ‘land mafia’). Local expressions such as ‘company’, ‘lobby’, ‘firm’ or ‘racket/cartel’ (in Hindi English), ‘parivar’ (family) or ‘groups’ or ‘rings’ can describe anything from a protection racket to a power syndicate, a violent lobby/interest group or handful of ambitious criminals working as part of a team. It should be noted that contrary to the Italian Sicilian ‘mafia’, the local ‘desi mafias’ are neither hierarchically institutionalised nor do they have long-running histories. These are often new entities that make strategic use of caste and community kinship connections and cultural idioms but are not necessarily structured by them. ‘Companies’ and ‘groups’ are not appendices to coherent and centralised criminal organisations; rather, they are part of broader systems of bossism, as explored by Michelutti et al (2016[23]). These are ultimately systems of governance, which are embedded simultaneously in predatory and democratic logics. Local bosses often present themselves as Robin Hoods without hiding their collusion with the state (or co-existence with the state). In fact, ‘being part’ of the state is what provides them appeal and power; thus bosses are often not anti-status quo characters or part of ‘parallel states’ (Leeds 1996[24]). They are not part of ‘shadow networks’ with distinctive forms of authority and politico-economic organisation (Nordstrom 2000: 36[25]). They do not present themselves as alternatives to the state but as ‘the state’.


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