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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Telgi’s fate may have been different if he’d bought votes
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Telgi’s fate may have been different if he’d bought votes

The 1990s’ stamp paper scamster might have had a thriving career if he’d played his politics right

Telgi could not have run the operation without help from politicians and the police. Premium
Telgi could not have run the operation without help from politicians and the police.

Sometime in the 1990s, word spread in Mumbai’s dance bars that a man had spent 80 lakh on a gorgeous dancer in a single night. The amount mentioned in the rumour had kept increasing for some hours before settling at “80 lakhs." There was no doubt though that a man known as Abdul Karim Telgi had tipped the dancer a considerable sum. The inner circles of dance bars include cops. The news evoked the curiosity of the police, who discovered a man who had built an elaborate business counterfeiting stamp paper and other forms of revenue stationery. They had stumbled upon a perennial source of income. Telgi, who had starved as a child and sold fruits as a young man, had made a fatal error in trying to impress a dancer. But at the time, even the cops did not know how big Telgi’s operation was. Actually, no one still knows the full scope of his scam. What is certain is that he stole thousands of crores from the government.

Telgi is the subject of a SonyLiv show called Scam 2003, which is part of a series on endearing scams created by Hansal Mehta and Applause Entertainment. Telgi’s story is rare because it offers a clear glimpse into the making of a class of Indian politicians and the enormous sums of money in the underbelly of a corrupt country. The story would have never got out if he had fully evolved into a politician. He was getting there, though, to a point where an entire past of a ‘leader’ can be erased.

We like con-men, especially if they have not conned us. My favourite is the man who sold insurance to train passengers who wished to travel ticketless—if they were caught by a ticket checker, he would compensate the fine.

And there was that genius or a band of geniuses who claimed they were from the income tax department, placed newspaper classifieds to recruit interns, and raided a jewellery shop only to disappear forever. Telgi was different. He was somewhere between a con-man and a more menacing politician. He was convicted of “culpable homicide not amounting to murder," after a man who stole from him ended up as a corpse in the Arabian Sea, which has an inconvenient high tide.

The Telgi story was broken by the journalist Sanjay Singh, whose book, Telgi: A Reporter’s Diary is the primary source material of the online series. When he first got hold of a confidential police report on the full scale of Telgi’s scam, the seasoned journalist did not divulge its details even to his boss, Rajdeep Sardesai. “If you want to keep a secret do not tell your boss about it."

In the book, Singh writes that at its peak, Telgi’s enterprise of selling counterfeit stamp papers across India employed hundreds of people. “The top tier of Telgi’s workforce comprised chartered accountants and senior marketing managers. The bottom tier included over three hundred and fifty agents, graduate sales and marketing executives, delivery teams and telemarketing teams…"

Telgi could not have run the operation without help from politicians and the police. Actually, every powerful person who got wind of his operation extorted from him. He fed them all. By this time, Telgi was already found guilty of forgery and fraud, but the police never arrested him. He was “an absconder." As for why they couldn’t nab him, the police told the court astonishing things. One excuse of a police officer was, Singh writes, “I was so wrapped up in listening to the court’s verdict that I missed Telgi’s escape from courtroom."

In return, Telgi enriched all the people who could protect him. So what led to his arrest? What brought him to justice? This is a part of the most underrated question in India. Why do right things happen in the country?

Singh asks Telgi himself to solve the mystery. After Telgi’s enormous tip to the bar dancer, new policemen would keep appearing at his door to extort him. Telgi had no choice. “My paper was like currency too. I gave them my paper, they sold it in the market and earned money." But then, they “got greedy." They included the names of Telgi’s wife and children in their charge-sheet against him. They did this to milk him for more money. They had no evidence against Telgi’s family, according to Telgi, but if they could harass them they thought he would pay them more for their freedom. But it was a blunder, on par with Telgi’s generosity to the bar dancer.

Telgi knew that if he yielded once, there would be no end to the extortion. He defied the police, and in a sequence of events, as they tried to build a case against him to wear him down, they created a monster that went out of control. Eventually, rival police groups would, in pure self-interest, set in motion a process they would not be able to control. As it often happens, justice was the accidental outcome of a war between two powerful camps.

Telgi was convicted on several charges and was to spend three decades in prison. But he died in 2017, after about a decade in jail, at the age of 56. Some politicians and several senior police officers were implicated, but they were later deemed innocent.

Telgi’s story, too, could have been different, and of course a secret, if he had invested in his own political clout. Charisma is nonsense. Attend a legislative assembly session, you will be cured of the view that charisma wins elections. Telgi did give away crores in charity, but that was a paltry corporate-social responsibility-like ration compared to his wealth. That was enough, though, to get over 2,000 people to attend his funeral.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’


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Published: 10 Sep 2023, 08:22 PM IST
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