Print edition : April 20, 2007

Abdul Karim Telgi outside a hospital in Bangalore in November 2003.-INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AP

A CBI Special Court in Bangalore sentences Abdul Karim Telgi and his accomplices to 10 years' imprisonment.

ON March 24, a Special Court in Bangalore sentenced Abdul Karim Telgi, prime accused in the multi-crore stamp paper scam, and his four associates to 10 years' rigorous imprisonment each for forgery and cheating the government and a private firm, Sami Labs in the Peenya industrial estate outside Bangalore, to the tune of Rs.42.75 lakh.

The Special Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Court also fined Telgi and his accomplices Bhadrudddin, Irfan Ahmed, Wazir Ahmed Salik and Pradeep Kumar Rs.50,000 each for each of the 13 counts on which they were found guilty. In case of default, they have to serve an additional year. Judge Vishwanath V. Angadi, who had convicted the accused the previous day, also slapped a fine of Rs.25,000 on each of them for using forged documents. The case, registered in Peenya in 2003, is one of the 28 investigated by the CBI.

Telgi, who is serving a similar sentence in the Yerawada jail in Pune after he was convicted in January 2006 on similar charges in a fake stamp paper case in Maharashtra, heard the sentence through videoconferencing.

The stamp paper scam, which rocked the country four years ago, involved the sale of counterfeit stamp paper worth several thousand crores of rupees in various places in the country. The scamster's operations extended across seven States through a network built since 1995. It is perhaps the biggest scam witnessed so far in India. While investigations are yet to reveal the exact amount the exchequer lost, estimates range anywhere between Rs.3,000 crore and Rs.30,000 crore.

But more than the extent of the scam, what shook the establishment was the list of persons who may have been involved in the scam. The Special Investigation Team (SIT) probing it had reportedly found links between Telgi and some leading politicians and bureaucrats. But the alleged links were not probed. The prosecution had always maintained that Telgi could not have carried out such a mammoth scam without the connivance of some top people in government.

Telgi himself said on several occasions that some big fish were still swimming free. In March this year, he filed a petition before the Special MCOCA (Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act) Court urging it to allow him to become an approver and to be pardoned as an accomplice. Telgi said it could help him to expose facts necessary to pin down the real culprits. Telgi said he was neither the kingpin nor the main conspirator behind the scam. "This is a case of public importance, since it involves loss to the tune of crores of rupees to the government and hence, the entire truth must come before the court," he said. His application is pending with the court.

Telgi's lawyer M.T. Nanaiah said his client was under a lot of pressure to reveal names but it was unlikely that he would. Public Prosecutor A.M. Chimulkar also felt the same.

In 2003, during the peak of investigations, Telgi was subjected to a series of narco-analysis tests. In September 2006, a television channel procured a tape of these tests. From what could be made out from the tape, Telgi had tried to link Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar and Maharashtra Public Works Minister Chhagan Bhujbal to the scam.

Obviously, both denied any link. In fact, Pawar dismissed the issue by stating there was no need to take cognisance of what a proven criminal said.

Union Minister for Agriculture Sharad Pawar.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

A couple of other instances are mentioned linking Pawar to Telgi. In one, Pawar was allegedly the guest of Telgi's younger brother, Azim Telgi, in Khanapur, Telgi's home town in Belgaum district of Karnataka, in 1994. In another, Telgi was photographed with Pawar at a public function. About this, Pawar says he is a public person and many people take their pictures with him; he cannot recall each person he has been photographed with.

Soon after the channel expose, Telgi denied saying anything about Pawar or Bhujbal during the tests. He said this was nothing but a game plan of some politicians to further their own political agendas. He even stated that he would undergo further scientific tests to prove he did not have anything to do with Pawar.

The CBI said it would corroborate what Telgi said during the narco tests with other evidence before filing the charge-sheet. If the evidence and the revelations made during the tests match, the political repercussions could be huge.

"He (Telgi) is very shrewd when it comes to revealing information. He does not volunteer information easily and will only say enough to get the heat off him," says Sri Kumar, former head of the Karnataka Special Investigation Team that probed the Telgi racket. "He has given some explosive leads but not enough to catch anyone. This does not help in the end."

Telgi was also subjected to a "truth serum" test. A cocktail of sodium pentathlon, distilled water and dextrose, popularly known as the truth drug, was intravenously administered to him at a hospital in Bangalore. Through a controlled rate of administration, Telgi was driven into a hypnotic trance. When the investigators began questioning, Telgi apparently "sang like a canary".

He named prominent people who he had business dealings with, explained his modus operandi, revealed places where he operated and met people, and how much money he had and how much he distributed among those who helped him. He later denied all of it. Telgi was also made to undergo lie detector and brain mapping tests.

Maharashtra Public Works Minister Chhagan Bhujbal.-RANJEET KUMAR

The most incriminating evidence with the investigators is the 1,300 hours of taped conversation Telgi allegedly had with police officials and politicians. A former investigator told Frontline that while several of the police officials involved were nailed based on these tapes, the names of politicians were hushed up using massive political pressure. Telgi apparently always taped his conversations with "big" people. Obviously these tapes are very important evidence. Yet, no one wants to mention them these days.

What was perhaps most shocking about the scam was that more than 50 police officers were arrested in connection with it. The Mumbai Police has still not recovered from the crisis. The most embarrassing part of it was the arrest of former Mumbai Police Commissioner R.S. Sharma under MCOCA.

Inspector-General of Police Sridhar Vagal was the first Indian Police Service (IPS) officer to be arrested in connection with it. He had allegedly accepted Rs.72 lakh from Telgi and over a period of time amassed wealth to the extent of Rs.50 crore. As Home Minister and Deputy Chief Minister during this time, Chhagan Bhujbal faced a lot of flak, particularly since he repeatedly claimed that R.S. Sharma was clean.

When investigations proved him wrong, Bhujbal offered to resign. His offer was not accepted, but he quit his party post to reduce the embarrassment of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Bhujbal has since remained fairly low profile in politics.

Telgi's is a true rags-to-riches story. He began his career as a vendor at the Khanapur railway station. Later, he migrated to Mumbai. Initially, he worked as a sales executive for a few businesses. He then went to Saudi Arabia for a few years. After returning to India, he started a manpower consultancy claiming to send people to the Gulf for work. Promising attractive careers, Telgi would collect huge fees from gullible men. Some never left the shores of India. In 1993, a case was filed against him and he was arrested and thrown in jail.

In jail, Telgi met a share broker who told him about fake stamp papers. After he was released, Telgi obtained a stamp vendor's licence in 1994. His modus operandi involved washing cancelled stamp papers with chemicals, which would make them look as good as new. He would sell these through a network of front men.

Additionally, he cultivated officials at the Security Press in Nashik, where stamp papers are printed. With their collusion, he used government machinery to print his own stamp papers. Eventually he bought some of the machinery and began counterfeiting stamp papers. Telgi's "executives" would approach big corporations such as the Life Insurance Corporation of India and offer them discounts of up to 5 per cent on stamp paper. Most stamp vendors would give only 2.5 per cent. Unfortunately for Telgi, a client complained when it did not get a receipt for Rs.16 lakh worth of stamp paper it had bought. The General Stamp Office could not trace the stamp papers.

Eventually, the law caught up with Telgi in Bangalore after the Karnataka Police, investigating a stamp paper fraud, seized a carload of fake stamp papers. He was arrested in 2001. But he managed to continue his business. But what blew the lid off the scam was a tip-off that helped the police to seize another car filled with fake stamp papers from Bund garden in Pune. The papers were traced to Telgi. For some time after this, the cases were played down by the police. But following a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) petition filed by the anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare, the Bombay High Court appointed an SIT to investigate the scam.The SIT probe revealed that Telgi could only operate as he did with the collusion of top police officers and politicians. Investigations revealed that Telgi entertained many prominent people in his apartments.

A stamp paper is required for every legal transaction. With the amount of fake papers in circulation, it was difficult for the Reserve Bank of India to to a decide how to handle the case. It finally decided that the legality of the document would remain on all papers since too many innocent people would be harmed and would lose vast sums of money should the RBI declare the transactions made on fake papers null and void.

A direct result of the scam is that now every stamp paper has a serial number. The courts will only accept stamp papers with receipts and every document has to be franked. Karnataka has completely done away with stamp papers.

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