At the time IPS officer SM Mushrif stumbled upon the “stamp scam” in Pune, he did not immediately realise what he had found. Mushrif was the first to flag the case that developed into a multi-crore rupee scam spread across 18 states and 70 towns over the course of a full decade. The case, which was probed by multiple agencies, indicated a powerful nexus of officials and politicians with a consummate conman at its centre, Abdul Karim Telgi.
Telgi breathed his last at Bengaluru’s Victoria Hospital on Thursday. He had been lodged in Parappana Agrahara Central Jail in that city for the last 16 years. “I had interrogated Telgi on a couple of occasions. He did not disclose much. But he alleged that the police were trying to extort money from him by adding his wife’s name in the case, even though there was no evidence against her,” Mushrif told The Indian Express.
Telgi was born in the small panchayat town of Khanapur in Karnataka. His father worked with the Railways. After the death of his father, Telgi was forced to take up odd jobs, including selling eatables on trains. He eventually moved to Saudi Arabia. Upon returning, he allegedly tried his hand at making fake passports, and subsequently shifted to making fake stamp papers. Once the scam was detected, the investigation revealed he had also engineered a shortage of stamp papers in connivance with a few officials of the Indian Security Press at Nashik. At its peak, the illegal fake stamps business had spread throughout the country, selling fake stamp papers worth Rs 10 to Rs 100.
Telgi’s golden run continued through the nineties. While a case of fake stamp paper was registered in 1991 and another in 1995, investigations by the Mumbai Police were allegedly lax, and Telgi got away. However, with mounting public pressure, the Maharashtra government constituted a Special Investigation Team, (SIT), and Telgi’s run came to an end in 2001. A separate Karnataka Police SIT headed by IPS officer Sri Kumar and was called STAMPIT.
On January 9, 2003, Sri Kumar and Subodh Jaiswal, who headed the Maharashtra SIT, found policemen partying with Telgi in his Colaba house. R S Sharma, then Commissioner of Mumbai Police, verbally ordered the suspension of an Assistant Police Inspector, but there was no action. Jaiswal submitted his report in April 2003.
Meanwhile, responding to a petition from social activist Anna Hazare, Bombay High Court directed the Maharashtra government to appoint a senior officer to supervise the probe. S S Puri, a retired Additional Director General of Police was appointed for the job, and Jaiswal was asked to assist him. The SIT made the first major arrest that June: Anil Gote, a Samajwadi Janata Party legislator from Dhule. And on December 1, 2003, a day after his retirement, Commissioner Sharma was arrested for allegedly shielding Telgi.
The SIT went on to arrest 54 persons, including two MLAs — Gote and Krishna Yadav, who was expelled from the TDP after the allegation surfaced. In 2004, the investigations were taken over by the Central Bureau of Investigation, which filed a voluminous chargesheet against Telgi in August of that year. “There was no pressure except for pressure to perform and collect evidence. While the case was subsequently handed over to the CBI, Telgi pleaded guilty to all the counts that we booked him for. He never challenged it,” S S Puri said. “Telgi was an intelligent man. The case only shows the failure of our system to reform him,” he added.
In 2007, Telgi was convicted in the scam and awarded 30 years of imprisonment and a fine of Rs 202 crore. But even from inside the jail, Telgi allegedly managed to carry on his business. This was revealed from the interrogation of his foot soldiers arrested in October 2002. “Police officers on Telgi’s payroll provided him with mobile phones which he used to carry out his business. By the time the jail authorities caught on, put the number on surveillance and wrote to the telecom operators, Telgi changed his SIM,” an official said.
While in police custody, much before his arrest in 2001, Telgi was allegedly afflicted with AIDS. On Thursday, Telgi died of multi-organ failure. While Telgi’s death brings closure to one of the most sensational cases of alleged fraud in the country, some would argue that he was actually just a pawn, albeit a very powerful one, and that politicians who benefitted from his crimes remain free.