In 1995, when the first case for selling fake stamp papers was registered against Abdul Karim Telgi in Mumbai, it merited a small mention in the police briefing. No one could then fathom that the small-time operator would become the kingpin behind a Rs 30,000-crore scandal that would rock the Maharashtra government. It has brought to light a long line of willing collaborators—from politicians and bureaucrats to top officers of the state police. Telgi's business—an operation with a network of 72 centres spanning nine states—could have only flourished with official patronage.
The magnitude of the scandal, as it slowly unspools before a shocked nation, underscores the systemic rot. Telgi's nexus with law enforcers at the inspector general and police commissioner levels has caused public outrage. So far, 65 people, including a dozen senior police officials, two MLAs and a lawyer have been arrested for their collusion with Telgi. In fact, even the Delhi Police has arrested two people, Sushant Kumar Dass and Lalit Patodi, on charges of facilitating Telgi's fake dealings by providing him premises in the Capital and opening bank accounts under fictitious names. As the investigations continue, many more skeletons are likely to tumble out.
Mumbai's police commissioner R.S. Sharma finds himself in the dock for "conniving" with Telgi. This comes close on the heels of the arrest of IG (intelligence) Shridhar Vagal last week, under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) for accepting bribes from Telgi. Now, he has been remanded to judicial custody till November 27. This is the first time in the history of Mumbai police that such senior officers have been accused of directly conniving with a criminal. The Bombay High Court has left it to chief minister Sushilkumar Shinde to decide whether Sharma can stay, although evidence against him is strong enough to warrant a dismissal. During a meeting with the chief minister on November 13, Sharma offered to proceed on leave till his retirement next month. But the home department, which did consider accepting the proposal, later changed it mind.
Meanwhile, a delegation of former IPS officers and bureaucrats—including former Mumbai police commissioner Julio Ribeiro and ex-bureaucrat B.G. Deshmukh—met Shinde and insisted that he take firm steps to stem the rot and improve the plummeting image of Mumbai police.
The contents of the special investigating team's (SIT's) report probing the Telgi case—presented to the high court on November 12—are confidential, but sources close to the probe say there's enough 'meat' to nail Sharma. The SIT, led by former director-general (anti-corruption) S.S. Puri, has interrogated the Mumbai police commissioner twice and is said to have found substance to "nine instances of commission and omission" on his part.
According to former Karnataka DGP H.T. Sangliana, who interrogated Telgi in 2001, the trickster had told him of his links with top policemen and politicians. "He mentioned the name of Ram Jethmalani and several others when I interrogated him in Bangalore. He also gave me names of a number of police officers in Andhra, Maharashtra and Karnataka, who did not arrest him because they could 'milk' him till eternity. Some of them have been arrested by the SIT, but I am sure the others too will be picked up soon. In Karnataka, he named some officers who have received money. One of them was elevated to the IPS rank ahead of his retirement," Sangliana told Outlook.
The scam threatens to take a new turn with transcripts of 56 telephone calls—made by Telgi when he was in Bangalore jail—slated to be made public. Telgi was arrested in November 2001 in Ajmer by a police team sent by Sangliana. He was lodged in a Bangalore jail till end 2002.Later, he was brought to Mumbai when the stamp scam began to be investigated in Maharashtra. Last week, the Karnataka government, under directions from Bombay High Court chief justice C.K. Thakker, handed over transcripts of these calls to the SIT.
Telgi's road to infamy was simple—he bribed everyone he had to. He metamorphosed into a kingpin in just eight years by relying heavily on pay-offs to cops, politicians and employees of the government press in Nasik. A commerce graduate from Khanapur in Karnataka's Belgaum district, Telgi was born into a lower-middle-class family. His father got along by doing odd jobs at the local railway station. Telgi came to Mumbai in search of fortune and hit upon the stamp racket in 1994. He also befriended Samajwadi Janata Party MLA Anil Gote who became his link to other politicians.
Telgi began printing stamps with the help of printing machines and dyes which he procured from the central government Security Press at Nasik. The equipment and the material were procured with the connivance of the press employees. Soon, he was churning out postal stamps, stamp papers and insurance documents. Through his political connections, Telgi procured vending licences for his operatives who retailed his counterfeit stamps.
After the scam broke, a number of government press employees were arrested. Telgi not only bribed them but also seemed to have influenced their promotions. A raid on one of his Mumbai flats led to the discovery of a letter addressed by MP Ram Jethmalani to the then finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, in 1998, recommending the promotion of Ganga Prakash, deputy general manager of the press. Jethmalani told the SIT that Telgi had approached him through Gote, asking for the recommendation.
The present stamp scam first came to police notice in Andhra Pradesh in August 1999 when, acting on a tip-off from a local banker, police busted a gang providing fake stamps to clients, for a nominal service fee. About 40 people were arrested. Telgi was also questioned but let off.
Four months later, the case was handed over to the CID, which did not act on it until the scam hit the headlines again in September this year with the dramatic arrest of C. Krishna Yadav, a former animal husbandry minister in the Chandrababu Naidu cabinet. His arrest by a special police team from Maharashtra immediately raised awkward questions about the Naidu government's own handling of the case. There were allegations of a cover-up to save senior politicians and policemen who were possibly involved in the case. Curiously, though the case had been handed over to the CID four years ago, no chargesheet had been filed and not a single arrest made.
But the real scam is in Maharashtra where Telgi's illegal operations are estimated at Rs 3,500 crore. Commissioner Sharma's link with the conman is borne out by the decisions he took, first as the police commissioner of Pune and, subsequently, as Mumbai's top cop. When a carload of fake stamp papers was caught in Pune, the police began probing the case and Telgi's involvement was evident. As city commissioner, Sharma entrusted the job of supervising the case to assistant police commissioner A.C. Mulani, whose track record was already suspect. Mulani tampered with the chargesheet, deleted the names of the five accused and demanded a bribe of Rs 3 crore from Telgi. Sharma is accused of conniving with Mulani.
When he took over as Mumbai's police commissioner in December 2002, the crime branch was actively pursuing the stamp scam. But with Sharma assuming office, the pace slackened. He did not show much interest in checking the status of subsequent raids in Thane, Bhiwandi and Mumbai. That's not all. Telgi was allowed to live in his Cuffe Parade flat for 85 days when he was officially behind bars! During this period, there were barely any seizures of fake stamps.It was only after the SIT found Telgi and a group of policemen at his flat in January that the Mumbai police had its biggest success: stamps worth Rs 827 crore were recovered overnight in a raid in Bhiwandi.
Had it not been for DIG S.M. Mushrif complaining to the home secretary and the DGP about the manner in which the stamp scam case was being conducted, Sharma and Telgi would have got away with it. It was after his complaint and a pil in the Bombay High Court by social activist Anna Hazare that the SIT was set up to investigate the scam.
The new SIT chief Puri is likely to summon politicians across the spectrum for questioning in the coming weeks. In the chargesheets filed so far, just three politicians figure. Two of them, TDP MLA Yadav and SJP MLA Anil Gote, have already been arrested for their complicity in the scam. The third is Congress leader Ashok Chavan, a minister in the Shinde cabinet. In 2000, when he was state revenue minister, Chavan had recommended that one of the stamp vendors be given a licence. Later, the vendor was found to be linked to Telgi.
The SIT is also probing 10 corporates, including five psus, which purchased enormous quantities of counterfeit stamp paper. It's also suspected that officials were in cahoots in creating artificial stamp paper shortages to make room for the counterfeits.
It was his links with politicians and the cops that kept Telgi out of prison, although he was implicated in at least 15 counterfeit cases in Mumbai between 1995 and 2002. It was only after the SIT turned on the heat in November this year that the police cancelled the license of Telgi's hotel Alankar Lodge on Grant Road where he used to entertain politicians and cops. The conman also managed to retain over 22 properties across the city from where he ran his businesses. His main office was at 56, Mint Road, a stone's throw from Mumbai's general post office.
The scam, which originated and flourished in Maharashtra, has confronted the Democratic Front government with its worst political crisis, just a year before assembly elections. The integrity of the home department under deputy chief minister Chhagan Bhujbal of the NCP is being questioned. The opposition is vociferously demanding Bhujbal's scalp. But he, in turn, points to the fact that Telgi's empire grew during the Shiv Sena-BJP government. Should the SIT continue to probe the scam as vigorously as it is doing now, then the political fallout of the scam will be known soon. But by any reckoning it spells bad news for the Congress and its ally, the NCP.
Priyanka Kakodkar With B.R. Srikanth And Savitri Choudhary