Why Are Criminals Called ‘Goonda', 'Mafia' or 'Don’?

Recently, convicted gangster Mukhtar Ansari filed an application in a local court in UP asking the media not to use words like 'bahubali' and 'don' with his name. But how did these words become part of common parlance?

Recently, convicted gangster and former MLA Mukhtar Ansari moved a local court in Uttar Pradesh’s Barabanki against the use of terms like “mafia don” and “bahubali” in the media, alleging that these “derogatory terms” were being used by his political rivals to malign his image and influence court proceedings.

Here are some interesting and important questions it evokes: How and when did these terms enter our common lingo and legal discourse? In what context did they first begin to be used and what connotation do they bear now?

According to linguists, mafia is a word of Italian origin popularised all over the world after being borrowed into English. In the 18th century, organised and complex gangs of notorious, vicious and brutal international criminals which were originally active in Sicily (Italy) and the United States were known as the mafia.

Some dictionaries trace the term’s origin to be the acronym for the saying, “Morte alla Francia Italia anela” (Death to the French is Italy’s cry), which in turn originated when underground organisations rose up against the French invasion of Sicily.

The territory, code of conduct and organisational structure of these groups were well-defined. They had enmities amongst them too. It is these groups which were later termed as the mafia. At the time, this word did not refer to an individual criminal but to an organised gang which had a complex criminal network and whose leaders were addressed as Don.

The word Don is also Italian, and means boss or head. There are several Bollywood films titled Don. Among them, the film starring Amitabh Bachchan which was released in 1978 became quite a rage.

However, the word mafia was popularised across the world through Maria Puzo’s renowned work The Godfather in the 1970s. Recently, the term once again began trending after Atiq Ahmed was shot dead in police custody along with his brother in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. Many people started investigating the term and were surprised to find that this word has no relation to either Hindi or any other Indian language.

Atiq and Ashraf Ahmed moments before they were killed. Photo: Screengrab from video

Yet it is widely used for the honchos of the country’s organised gangs who extort money with threats and violence, by harassing people at gunpoint and making them bow before them, usurp land and property, conduct gang wars or murders, and carry out illegal supply and smuggling of drugs. Many a time, they are seen forcing agreements between the parties of various disputes.

In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, goonda and gangster are two other terms in popular usage. Since the latter term clearly refers to a gang member, there is nothing intriguing about it. While it is synonymous with goonda, in local parlance, it has other connotations as well such as scoundrel, felon, dacoit, bandit, robber, etc.

The word goonda is said to have been derived either from Pashto or English. Another speculation is that it comes from gund in Dravidian languages, meaning ‘to rise’ and has been used in a positive sense for knights and heroes. However, goonda’s relation with Pashto cannot be satisfactorily established. Those who believe that it is derived from English connect it more to Bastar in Chhattisgarh than UP and Bihar.

It is claimed that when this word was first published in a British newspaper in 1920, it was spelt “goondah”, which seems related to the English word ‘goon’ – which has a similar meaning. But the word goonda used by Hindi-speaking people has nothing to do with the English ‘goon’.

In Hindi, the word goonda was first introduced in the first decade of the 20th century when the British started referring to Veer Gunda Dhur, a freedom fighter and rebel leader from a tribal community in Bastar, as “gunda”. Gunda Dhur was fearless, daunting and unruly in the rebellion against the British and the latter could never catch him. In turn, they labelled Gundadhar for his decisive struggle for the country as ‘gunda’ and made the infamous Goondas Act for anyone who dared to follow in his footsteps.

Ironically, the tribal communities in Bastar worship Gunda Dhur as their hero and have been inspired by him in their struggle for fundamental rights. Whenever there are attacks on their life, forest and pride, Gunda Dhur’s rebellion gives them strength. On the other hand, many people express concern that the derogatory terms adopted by foreign rulers for the downtrodden, the poor, Dalits, tribals, and women during the colonial period are still prevalent as terms of abuse.

As far as the word bahubali is concerned, it means the one who has unusually immense strength in his arms. For a long time, it was also the name of a deity and a word bearing religious significance, but later it came to be used for criminals who forayed into politics. Many of them considered it as a symbol of their dominance and took pride in it and still do so.

Rekhta or Urdu lexicons state several meanings for the term gurga or henchman such as “low class person, servant, attendant, torchbearer, agent, spy, rascal, scoundrel and so on”. In the local dialect spoken around Lucknow, it is synonymous with the word goonda, while in many areas, it is also used to refer to the followers of a guru, assistants, disciples, pupils, adherents, minions, etc.

According to Wikipedia, the word henchman has been derived from an Old English word hengest and has been in use since the Middle Ages. Its meaning has certainly changed over time and the latest connotation is a loyal employee, supporter, right-hand man or associate of a person engaged in nefarious or criminal enterprises. Henchmen are insignificant on their own and all their value lies in their loyalty to their master and bullying anyone at his behest.

Gurgas, or henchmen, sometimes cross all limits of barbarity and crudeness in their evildoing. It brings to mind another word, mawali which was once an oft-used slang in Bollywood films. But the term has been derived from the Arabic word wali, which has several meanings including protector, guide, master and friend. However, Rekhta dictionaries describe the word in various ways ranging from scoundrel, goon, thief, and homeless person to king, head, master, friend and companion.

The Arabic word wali was used for non-Arab tribes living in Arabia – such as Egyptians, Iranians and Turkish slaves – who accepted Islam under the protection of one or the other Wali in the 7th century. These communities then earned the name of Mawalla i.e. protected sect or religious friend. These communities continued to be called Mawalli.

Here one may ask why the word Mawalli used for ‘the friends of religion’ became synonymous with miscreants. It was possibly because even after the Mawallis had accepted Islam, their non-Arab identity and attitude remained intact and reflected in their behaviour and appearance, due to which the Arab society looked down upon them as secondary citizens, unwanted, uncivilised and uncouth instead of ‘a religious friend’. Later on, mawalli became an umbrella term for anyone who was considered uncivilised and unruly.

It is difficult to say how this word entered local parlance in India but it does fit well to describe unruly, scoundrels, miscreants, henchmen and goons. It makes one wonder and worry at the fate of the poor word mawali! While it was meant to define a poor but respectable man, it now refers to the opposite. Some dictionaries also define Mawali as a caste in South India.

Finally, let’s look at the etymology of the word lafangey, which has a close association with the word goonda. According to some people, this word was derived from Turkish, while others believe it to be of Persian origin. Today it is street slang, often used as an insult. It means a person who behaves in an uncouth manner and enters into brawls unnecessarily. In the dictionaries, it has also been described as a synonym of lowly, idiot, bad character, adulterer, scoundrel, lecherous, lustful, loafer, lewd, etc.

Krishna Pratap Singh is a senior journalist.

Translated from the Hindi original by Naushin Rehman.