Abdul Karim Sher Khan, better known as Karim Lala, was an infamous gangster of India who was active in Mumbai for more than two decades, i.e., from the sixties to the early eighties. He was one of the three most influential “Mafia Dons of Mumbai,” in the ’60s; the other two being Mastan Mirza aka Haji Mastan and Varadarajan Mudaliar.
Karim Lala was born in 1911 (age 91 years; at the time of death) in Kunar Province, Emirate of Afghanistan (present-day Afghanistan). When he was 9 years old, his family moved from Afghanistan to Mumbai and got settled in one of the most densely populated and impoverished Muslim ghettoes of Bhendi Bazaar.
Family & Wife
Transition From Abdul Karim Sher Khan to Karim Lala
Abdul Karim started his career as an ordinary worker in the Bombay docks. With the passage of time, he came in touch with the ethnic Pathans, who worked as illegal recovery agents for the Marwari and Gujarati money lenders, landlords, and businessmen, and he joined them. They used to employ burly Pathans; as their tall imposing size and built-up physique made it easy for them to recover money from the defaulting debtors. Soon, Karim Sher Khan became Karim Lala (Lala refers to elder brother in Pasto).
Smuggling of Diamonds and Jewels
Karim Lala started his career as an ordinary worker in Mumbai. Gradually, he started a small business in Mumbai for the namesake. But in reality, Lala started smuggling diamonds and gems from Mumbai Dockyards. By the 1940s, Karim had almost monopolised the smuggling trade in Bombay. He started making huge profits out of his smuggling business and extended his operations to unlawful liquor trade. Both, his name and business, grew manifold.
The First Mafia Don of Mumbai’s Underworld
Abdul Karim Sher Khan forayed into the world of crimes by operating an illegal gambling den in Bombay. Soon, he rose up the ranks to be the chief of the “Pathan Gang” that was popularly known for contract killings, forced evictions from property, kidnapping, and extortion. The gang operated several “carrom clubs” that were a facade for illegal moneylending, gambling, and betting rackets. On the foundation of his organised crime businesses, he had also developed some legitimate businesses and used a combination of the two to create and maintain a consequential sphere of influence. After a few years, Lala became the kingpin of several criminal businesses. Although many called Haji Mastan Mirza the first don of the Mumbai Underworld, experts consider Karim to be the first mafia don of Mumbai. Haji Mastan himself called Lala, the real don.
Association with the Two ‘Mafias of Mumbai’
Karim later associated with the other two big heads of the smuggling trade in Bombay, Mastan Mirza aka Haji Mastan and Varadarajan Mudaliar. In the seventies, Lala came up with an idea to divide Mumbai amongst themselves, i.e., Lala, Mastan, and Mudaliar; so that they could freely run their criminal activities without any conflict between them. The three eventually split and agreed to operate in their specific areas as per the mutual agreement between the three.
The Weekly ‘Durbar’
Lala used to hold a weekly ‘durbar’ in which he addressed the grievances of people as an arbitrator. This practice made him so popular that people from different societies and communities approached him for help. At his Durbar, there used to be no difference between the rich and the poor. Karim also used to provide financial help to the needy and the poor.
Rivalry With Dawood Ibrahim
Dawood’s entry in the smuggling business disturbed Karim Lala. There was no bloodshed in Mumbai’s underworld before the arrival of Dawood. During the 1980s, the enmity and hatred between the two increased so much that Karim’s Pathan gang murdered Dawood Ibrahim’s brother, Shabbir, in the broad daylight. Gang wars started on the streets of Mumbai. A blood war had begun between Dawood and Pathan gang. Dawood wanted to avenge his brother’s death and in 1986, five years after the death of his brother, Shabbir, his gang members killed Rahim Khan, brother of Karim Lala. Gradually, Dawood Ibrahim’s D Company eliminated Karim Lala’s Pathan gang from Mumbai. It is also said that Lala had once captured Dawood and beat him fiercely. Dawood suffered serious injuries. This incident is still prevalent in the underworld of Mumbai.
Transfer of Leadership
Due to declining health, Karim gradually transferred the leadership of the Pathan gang to his nephew, Samad Khan, during the late seventies. He remained friends with his counterparts, Haji Mastan and Varadarajan. In 1980, he tried to make peace between his nephew, Samad Khan and his rivals, Saabir Ibrahim Kaskar and Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar but failed. In addition to his illegitimate businesses, Lala also carried out legitimate businesses which included two hotels (Al Karim Hotel and New India Hotel) and a travel and passport agency named New India Tours and Travels.
Karim Lala died at the age of 90 on 19 February 2002 in Mumbai.
- Karim led a very simple and unsophisticated life, compared to his counterparts, even when he had an upper hand in the business.
- Lala was the leader of the Pathan community in Bombay and led an organisation called ‘Pakhtun-e-Hind.’
- Apparently, Karim is called the last king of the Pashtun Community.
- Karim was claimed to have had good relations with many Bollywood stars and political personalities, especially in the 1970s and 80s.
- It is believed that he used to throw grand parties for the Bollywood personalities on the Islamic festival of Eid al-Fitr.
- Lala has inspired many characters in Hindi films. In 1973, the character of ‘Sher Khan’ in the blockbuster film “Zanjeer,” played by the actor, Pran, was inspired by his life.
- Once, the film actress, Helen, also approached Lala for help. Reportedly, Halen’s friend, PN Arora escaped from Mumbai after taking all her earnings. At that time, Karim mediated in the case and her money was returned.
- As the leader of Pakhtun-e-Hind, Karim Lala met Indira Gandhi, a couple of times in Delhi and Mumbai. Not just the congress leaders, Lala also met several other politicians like the Shiv Sena founder, Bal Thackeray.