The link to politicians?

Print edition : January 16, 2004
in Mumbai

Abdul Karim Telgi.-INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP

ANTIM TOTLA, a rich but little-known businessman, may soon provide vital information necessary to nail some top politicians involved in the Rs.3,000-crore fake stamp paper scam. Totla, a Mumbai-based dealer of petroleum products, is believed to be the key link between Abdul Karim Telgi, the prime accused in the scam, and various politicians.

In fact, Chhagan Bhujbal, the high-profile Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader, appeared to have become the first political victim of Totla's revelations when he resigned on December 23 from the posts of Mahrashtra's Deputy Chief Minister and Home Minister.

On December 17, the Special Investigation Team (SIT) probing the racket questioned Totla. He denied any link with Telgi, but admitted that he knew several politicians, including Bhujbal and his nephew Sameer Bhujbal. There are allegations that Sameer Bhujbal and Totla worked in tandem with Telgi and accepted money to secure transfers and postings for several police personnel. Sameer Bhujbal is also expected to be summoned by the SIT for questioning.

According to reports, Totla, of his own volition, will be taken to a forensic laboratory for brain finger-printing, lie detector and narcoanalysis tests. The SIT believes that these tests will help find out the names of those involved in the politician-police-Telgi nexus.

Ever since the multi-crore scam broke and the SIT began investigations, several heads have rolled. In a systematic crackdown on the police force, the SIT arrested 12 police officials including two senior officers - former Mumbai Commissioner of Police R.S. Sharma and Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime) Sridhar Vagal (Frontline, January 2). Several others have been suspended and many are being interrogated. Clearly, the next targets are politicians. The sweep appears to have begun with the questioning of Totla.

The scam, allegedly masterminded by Telgi and initiated in 1995, involved the printing and selling of counterfeit stamp paper worth thousands of crores of rupees across the country. The centre of the operation was Maharashtra. Through a network of agents and with the connivance of police officials, Telgi allegedly built a thriving business that soon spread to Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

As Home Minister, Bhujbal was in the firing line since the scam came to light. Even before the SIT questioned Totla, the Opposition had been demanding Bhujbal's resignation for the corruption in the police force and, more important, his own alleged connections with Telgi. A day after Totla's interrogation, Bhujbal's assistant delivered a sealed envelope at the SIT office. On December 19, Telgi's lawyer accused Bhujbal of being involved in the racket.

Meanwhile, there was furore in the Assembly over a letter circulated by the Opposition. The letter, allegedly written by Dilip Kamath, an Assistant Police Inspector who had been arrested on charges of taking bribes from Telgi, is addressed to Maharashtra Governor Mohammed Fazal. It alleges that Bhujbal sent instructions to police personnel through his nephew Sameer to treat Telgi well. "We don't know whether the letter is credible or not," says a SIT source. On December 23, in an unprecedented act, NCP workers attacked the offices of a television channel that aired a satire showing a politician wrestling with other politicians to retain his post. Accepting "moral" responsibility for the vandalism, Bhujbal resigned the same day.

"Till date there is no hard evidence to prove Bhujbal's involvement, except Totla's link and a few baseless statements made by his adversaries. Yet, the events that led to his resignation have led to suspicions that he realised the noose was tightening very quickly and he had to get out," a former Police Commissioner told Frontline.

Apparently, Bhujbal's approval of R.S. Sharma's appointment as Mumbai's Police Commissioner played a role in paving the way for his resignation. In December 2002, Bhujbal approved Sharma's posting in spite of the fact that the latter was allegedly involved in the fake stamp paper racket, which was under investigation at that time.

He justified the appointment by saying that Sharma had been given the clean chit by the then Director-General of Police Subash Malhotra. Incidentally, Malhotra is now in the dock for giving Sharma the clean chit. His arrest is imminent, says an informed source.

However, during the second round of investigations into the racket, Sharma was not lucky. He was arrested under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) a day after he retired. Bhujbal, who initially refused to comment, made a terse statement that there was a problem with the police force. However, he did not respond to questions about his role in Sharma's appointment.

Several former police officers hold politicians responsible for the corruption and the rot in the police force. With the Telgi scam exposing the rot, several former police chiefs have appealed to the Chief Minister to revamp the procedures followed in appointments and transfers.

Meanwhile, Mumbai's newly appointed Police Commissioner, P.S. Pasricha, has transferred 125 officers and about 1,500 constables. The SIT continues with its investigations, unhindered by the threat of the Central Bureau of Investigation taking over the probe. It seems determined to get the culprits.

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