Abdul Karim Telgi had modest beginnings. From a room boy in a hotel, he worked his way up to set up a stamp-vending stall in Mumbai.
Life was smooth on the legal path till Telgi realised that there was a shortage of stamps and stamp papers in the market. That's when he allegedly got the idea of printing fake ones and selling them to a desperate public.
Stamps and stamp papers are used for various purposes -- for registering the sale/purchase of land and vehicles, in legal matters, and in bank transactions -- and are a major source of revenue for a state government. The denominations range from Rs 10 to Rs 1,000.
It is still not clear when Telgi allegedly entered this lucrative racket. What is known is that the first case pertaining to circulation of fake stamp papers was registered in 1991. It was not, however, pursued and the illegal activity continued to flourish. Slowly it expanded to other states neighbouring Maharashtra.
In 1995, the Mumbai police registered seven cases against Telgi in various police stations. The amount of revenue lost by the government on account of the fake stamp papers was stated to be in crores. Both the sessions court and the Bombay high court rejected Telgi's pleas for anticipatory bail.
Inexplicably, however, the police did not arrest Telgi despite him being present in court on both occasions when his petition came up for hearing. R S Sharma, now police commissioner of Mumbai, was in charge of the crime branch at the time.
After this let-off, Telgi's business grew by leaps and bounds. Printing machines purchased with illegal help from some officials of the central government's security printing press in Nashik helped the alleged criminal mastermind in his plans. The quality of the fake stamps and stamp papers that came into the market was as good as that of the originals and most people were fooled.
Despite being aware of the racket, the crime branch made no apparent effort to curb it. In due course, Telgi established a name for himself in the public domain and went on to become an office-bearer of the Congress in Karnataka.
It was only when the Karnataka police arrested him in November 2001 that the magnitude of the racket came to the fore. Unlike the Mumbai police, the Karnataka police did not let Telgi simply walk away. Additional Director General of Police R Srikumar was told to probe the racket.
Investigations revealed the extent of Telgi's empire and forced other state governments to launch their own independent inquiries. All of them came to one conclusion -- a large number of the stamps and stamp papers in circulation were fake.
With this revelation came the need to determine the loss to the exchequer. The figures that emerged were so huge that state governments were forced to take a tough stand.
Since the scam had its roots in Mumbai and was also run from the metropolis (from an office in Khanji Khetji Building on Mint Street opposite the General Post Office, south Mumbai), public pressure forced the Maharashtra government in late 2002 to launch a high-level inquiry.
More pressure was created when the Karnataka police claimed to have taped the arrested Telgi talking on the phone to some crime branch officers in Pune regarding a charge sheet filed in the case.
The police had included the names of Telgi's wife, daughter, and brother in the charge sheet and were said to have demanded a bribe to let them off the hook. Sharma, then commissioner of police in Pune, was later accused of shielding the policemen involved.
When the Mumbai police finally managed to get custody of Telgi, they took him to his house in Cuffe Parade instead of the crime branch headquarters. That is where the special investigating officer, Deputy Inspector General Subodh Jaiswal, found Telgi and the policemen partying on January 9, 2003. The incident caused much embarrassment to the police and Sharma, who had by then taken over as Mumbai's police commissioner. But the authorities still dithered.
The special investigation team of the Pune police headed by Jaiswal submitted its report into the alleged irregularities in the case to the Maharashtra home ministry some time in March 2003. The report was leaked to the media in the first week of April 2003.
On June 29, a Samajwadi Janata Party legislator from Dhule, Anil Gote, was arrested in connection with the racket. Gote was allegedly close to Telgi.
Social activist Anna Hazare filed a public interest petition in the Bombay high court. On September 4, 2003, a court order forced the government to appoint an officer senior to Sharma to head the inquiry. Hence, retired additional director general of police S S Puri came into the picture. Jaiswal was told to assist him.
Owing to public pressure and pressure from the courts, the police was finally prodded into acting against its guilty officers. Over 50 accused have been arrested in the fake stamps racket so far. Of these, no less than 37 are policemen.
On September 6, C Krishna Yadav, an MLA of the ruling Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh, was arrested by the police of that state for demanding a bribe from Telgi. The police claimed to have taped the conversation. Yadav was once a minister in the N Chandrababu Naidu government. Opposition pressure forced Naidu to order a high-level inquiry into the racket.
Sometime in October 2003, police identified a body found on June 6 as that of a witness, Amir Mohammed Khan Choudhry, who was familiar with Assistant Inspector D B Kamat, who was among those found partying with Telgi during the January 9, 2003, raid on the latter's flat. Two other witnesses -- Anand and Poojari -- have been reported missing for a while now.
On October 16, the Bombay high court ordered Puri to probe the allegations against Mumbai Police Commissioner Sharma in an affidavit filed by S M Mushrif, now IGP at Pune.
Mushrif has accused Sharma of shielding the cops who put the names of Telgi's kin on the charge sheet and then demanded a bribe to undo their action. As Sharma is retiring from service on November 30, the court has ordered that the report be submitted by November 12.
It has also directed the Karnataka government to produce certified copies of transcripts of the conversation recorded on tape between Telgi and the police officers concerned.
The case still has some way to go. And going by how deep the warren is, more startling revelations are only to be expected.
Image: Uttam Ghosh