Who is Karim Lala and why did he hobnob with the who's who of Indian politics?

Former mafia don of Mumbai, Karim Lala has become a hot topic for debate between political leaders recently.

Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut may have begun the discussion with his comment linking the gangster to former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, but many others have now taken the discussion forward.

To recap briefly, the Sena leader had, on Wednesday, claimed that Indira Gandhi used to go and meet Karim Lala in Mumbai.

"There was a time when Dawood Ibrahim, Chhota Shakeel, Sharad Shetty used to decide who would be Police Commissioner of Mumbai and who would sit in the 'Mantralaya'. Indira Gandhi used to go and meet Karim Lala. We've seen that underworld, now it's just 'chillar'," Raut had said.

Also Read: Indira Gandhi used to meet gangster Karim Lala; we've seen underworld, now it's just chillar: Sanjay Raut

Now, who exactly is Karim Lala?

Born Abdul Karim Sher Khan, Lala hailed from the Kunar province of Afghanistan. An infamous gangster in his heyday, he was involved in smuggling, narcotics, gambling, forced property evictions, and extortion rackets in Mumbai for over two decades.

The leader of the 'Pathan Gang' for over 20 years, Lala migrated from Afghanistan to Mumbai in the 1920s. His family settled in the densely populated Bhendi Bazaar area of Mumbai and Lala started working in the city's docks.

He would eventually go on to make his criminal debut with an illegal gambling den.

According to accounts, he also had a brief stint as an illegal recovery agent for money lenders, landlords and businessmen.

Lala was on good terms with his contemporaries -- both gangsters and influential personalities.

"Many political people used to come to meet Karim Lala, times were different back then. He was a leader of the Pathan community, he had come from Afghanistan. So, people used to meet him over the problems faced by the Pathan community," Sanjay Raut had said while defending his recent comment.

Lala's grandson, Salim Khan, says that the two did indeed meet, although perhaps the venue suggested by Raut (Pydhonie in south Mumbai) is incorrect.

Salim Khan said that not only Indira Gandhi, other leaders such as Bal Thackeray, Sharad Pawar, and Rajiv Gandhi too met with him frequently in Mumbai or New Delhi.

"Though it is wrong to say that Indira Gandhi came down to Pydhonie (south Mumbai) to meet my grandfather, it's well known that they had met in New Delhi, there are pictures available," Salim Khan told IANS.

"Whenever there were problems concerning the Pathans, they would discuss and attempt to get them sorted out with the help of the leaders," he said.

He categorically rubbished former Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis' statements questioning whether the Congress took muscle-power or funding from Lala to win elections.

Also Read: Did underworld fund Congress? Fadnavis on Raut's remark over ex-PM Indira Gandhi

"My grandfather was a businessman, with the Pathan community's interests at heart and was never interested in politics. He was too modest to finance any politician or a political party... Sanjay Raut's comments have been completely twisted out of context," Salim Khan said.

Karim Lala's grandson-in-law Jahanzeb Khan said that even Giani Zail Singh had met Karim Lala, but this was also due to the close bonds all the political leaders of the era had for the towering Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan.

"People now call Karim Lala and others as 'mafia dons', but show one case or conviction against them... Raut rightly tried to portray the difference between the politicians, and underworld in those days and how they slid after the 1980s, but some people have misinterpreted his remarks," Jahanzeb Khan said.

He recalled an instance of Indira Gandhi once meeting Karim Lala along with Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan at the Mayor's Bungalow, but otherwise mostly they met in the national capital.

It is also said that Lala threw parties to which Bollywood personalities were invited.

He was also believed to have held weekly meetings that could be used by people from different walks of life to air their grievances and seek his help -- be it financial or justice using muscle power.

Following his criminal decades, health concerns eventually compelled Karim Lala to transfer the leadership of the Pathan gang to his nephew Samad Khan. It was not quite a reformation, but Lala did have several legitimate businesses, including two hotels and a travel agency that he focused on in his later years.

He died on 19 February 2002 at the age of 90.

Also Read: Balasaheb Thorat and Devendra Fadnavis engage in Twitter war over Sanjay Raut's comment on Indira Gandhi

Let us move away briefly from Lala to one of his peers -- gangster Mastan Mirza aka Haji Mastan. If his adopted son is to be believed, Karim Lala was not the only gangster who met with influential people. The reformed don-turned-politician, said Sunder Shekhar, was much sought after by politicians and film stars alike.

"He had floated a political party, which is now called Bharatiya Minorities Suraksha Mahasangh. I am the President now. People like (now Union Minister) Ramdas Athawale and Dalit leader Jogendra Kavade were regulars at our home," Shekhar told IANS.

He recalled how Athawale was "a very poor, simple boy then, and many times went hungry... wanted work, and the kind-hearted Haji Mastan used to help him and many other youngsters like him".

"Haji Mastan and Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray were buddies, born in the same year, just two months apart. They had frequent rendezvous at their favourite eatery in Juhu, Bagur Hotel, with fine beverages and dining. Balasaheb used to be accompanied by his close aide, Babban Salvi," Shekhar added.

Reminiscing further, he said that besides Bal Thackeray, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sharad Pawar, Sushilkumar Shinde, Vasantdada Patil, Murli Deora also used to meet Mastan regularly, and that he had "personally witnessed many such meets".

Also Read: 'Better if Mr Poet of Sena recites poetry': Milind Deora, Sanjay Nirupam criticise Raut's remark on Indira Gandhi

There were ripples even in the ruling state ally, Congress, with former Mumbai city chiefs taking strong objections to Sanjay Raut's recent utterances.

"Those who indulge in such fake propaganda about former PM Indira Gandhi, will have to repent. He must withdraw his statements immediately," ex-Mumbai Congress president and former MP Sanjay Nirupam said on Thursday.

"Indiraji was a true patriot who never compromised on India's national security. I demand that Sanjay Raut withdraw his ill-informed statement. Political leaders must show restraint before distorting the legacies of deceased PMs," added former city party chief and ex-union minister Milind Deora.

After facing criticism however, Raut said that that if someone feels that his statement had hurt the image of Indira Gandhiji or hurt feelings, he takes his remarks back.

Also Read: 'Have the greatest regard for her': After facing flak, Sanjay Raut retracts comment on Indira Gandhi

(With inputs from agencies)