Abdul Karim Ladsaab Telgi was born on 29 July 1961. He was the second of the three sons of Ladsaab Telgi. His elder brother was Abdul Rahim Telgi and his younger, Abdul Azeem Telgi. The middle-class family struggled to make ends meet. Ladsaab Telgi was a Class IV employee in the Indian Railways. Though the job enabled Ladsaab to keep his family together, penury continued to be their faithful companion. Reportedly, the family couldn’t afford two square meals a day. The family settled in the panchayat town of Khanapur, in Belgavi, in the Belgaum district of Karnataka, and Ladsaab managed to eke out a modest living in the small railway station of Khanapur.

When Abdul Karim was seven or eight years old, his father died. Reasons for Ladsaab’s demise are unclear. He was, however, reportedly suffering from diabetes and remained distraught over his state of finances. Though Ladsaab’s widow, Shariefa Bi, then in her twenties, secured his family pension of rupees sixty a month, it was clearly inadequate for the family. Her three sons assisted her in sourcing fruits such as chikoos, pears, cherries and mulberry from the nearby forests and selling them at the Khanapur railway station on a pushcart. The family would also pack their wares in boxes and containers and sell them to passengers on the mere twelve trains that stopped in Khanapur in the 1970s. Often, a brother or two would travel distances on the trains to expand sales, while another would manage their stationary cart at the station. Abdul Karim Telgi also worked at the Khanapur railway station canteen, to supplement the family’s income.

Undeterred by the hardships, Abdul Karim completed his Class X from the Sarvodaya Vidyalaya English Medium High School in Khanapur (his brothers studied here, too) and joined the Gogte College of Commerce, Belgaum, from where he completed his BCom in 1984. His elder brother Abdul Rahim, too, was a BSc graduate, though younger brother Abdul Azeem dropped out of academics at the pre-university level.

Both Abdul Rahim and Abdul Azeem were accomplices in their mastermind brother’s crimes in their later lives and their names find mention in the criminal records at the Bangalore City Market Police Station and the Pune Bund Garden Police Station, respectively. When the CBI took over the cases in 2004, Abdul Rahim Telgi died before charges could be filed in the Bangalore City Market case.

Abdul Azeem, despite discontinuing education post-secondary level, worked as a labourer in the Gulf. He was apparently helped by Abdul Karim in his endeavours as a travel agent, and later returned to help his brother in his businesses, whether sending labourers to the Gulf or in the bogus stamp paper business. Allegedly, he was Abdul Karim’s chief recruiter for the fake stamp paper distribution network. He was politically active, too, and a member of the national minority cell of the Congress party. When Abdul Azeez was arrested on 2 July 2003, he was the vice-president of the Khanapur Municipal Council in Karnataka. However, his relations with Abdul Karim’s family appeared to have soured over time as evident during developments at Abdul Karim’s funeral.

After completing his graduation, Abdul Karim Telgi, whose ambitions couldn’t be contained in the cloistered confines of Khanapur, moved to the city of dreams, Mumbai, in search of a job. He reportedly stayed with his friends for six to seven months and gained employment as a sales executive with M/s Filix India Ltd at a salary of Rs 3,800 a month. Filix India Ltd supplied office furniture. For someone so inured by childhood trials and tribulations and successful at having navigated the choppy waters of a chequered education, it was expected that Abdul Karim Telgi would scorch a path in his vocation as much as he had in his academics. Regrettably, that was not to be. Abdul Karim was lazy and failed to meet his sales target month on month. He was soon dismissed for non-performance, and was then able to secure a job as a manager under Mr Yusuf Usmail Turk at a budget stay lodge, Kishan Guest House, on Walton Road in Colaba. He worked there for about two-and-a-half years.

During this period, he met Shahida Begum, the sister-in-law of Yusuf Usmail, and fell in love with her. Shahida resided in Shivajinagar, Bengaluru, at the time. Abdul Karim and Shahida married on 19 April 1987 with the blessings of both the families. Abdul Karim’s dreams soon began to outgrow Mumbai.

He decided to try his luck in the Gulf. He landed a job and left for Saudi Arabia. However, his sloth was again his failing, and he soon lost that job. Reportedly, he tried his hand at odd jobs but, eventually disillusioned, returned to Mumbai within a couple of years. His goalpost in life at that point appeared to have clearly shifted: how to make money without hard work.

As one of the many in the 1980s who flocked to the Gulf with dreams of garnering wealth, Telgi had seen the lucrative business of travel agents, who helped such youths with their passage, up close. Initially, he borrowed money to rent a shop in Crawford Market in Mumbai and set up a business in manpower consulting and then started sending people to Gulf countries for employment. Business prospered and he opened his own company, Arabian Metro Travels. However, the painstaking and often slow success that comes with fair dealing was not Telgi’s cup of tea. He soon realised that with the sharp competition among various travel agents, whose tribe was threatening to outgrow applicants for Gulf jobs, the only way that he could enhance revenues was to expand his clientele.

And the easiest way to do so was to make those ineligible for immigration and travel (for various faults with their passports or other documents) eligible. This involved creating false documents and forgery. He and his team began to make a plethora of fake documents that would facilitate smooth passage of the aspirants at the airport even if their passport had an ECR (emigration check required) stamp or other issues that could raise red flags for immigration officials.

He also managed to use his contacts in the Middle East to illegally send these people abroad. As his fame as a ‘fixer’ spread, candidates began to flock to his doors. The business boomed for about three years. However, it was not all smooth sailing, and, in several cases, immigration clearances and passports were either refused or delayed. Telgi, in turn, denied returning the handsome advances that applicants paid him. Many resorted to filing police complaints and cases were registered against him under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for cheating. Immigration officials, too, had become aware of the racket that Telgi was running and tipped off the police.

Police investigation revealed that Telgi was guilty of forgery and fraud under the Immigration Act as well as many sections under the India Penal Code (IPC). The Mumbai Police chased him to Khanapur
village and arrested him in December 1993 under various sections of the IPC along with sections under the Immigration Act for cheating people by promising to send them abroad for employment. It must be mentioned here that Abdul Karim Telgi was famous and was loved in his village as Karim Lala. Though he splurged crores in personal enrichment in later life, he reportedly also spent Rs 14 crore in philanthropy with donations for ambulances, hospitals and other charitable purposes. A beneficiary of much of the largesse was Khanapur village and Belgaum district.

The Mumbai Police put Telgi behind bars for fraud and forgery at the MRA Marg Police Station in south Mumbai. This was Telgi’s first run-in with the law. However, the incarceration, instead of reforming him, became his springboard into the murky world of crime and corruption on an unprecedented scale.

While in custody, Telgi met Ram Ratan Soni, a stockbroker who had been jailed for forging share papers, specifically recycling used share transfer stamps. The idiom ‘Thick as Thieves’ found its ideal expression in their unholy nexus, though later the two fell out. In his book Dangerous Minds, author and former investigative journalist S Hussain Zaidi mentions that Soni encouraged Telgi to think big and commit crime for crores and not ‘loose change’. Soni indoctrinated Telgi into the world of stamps and stamp papers, and advised that the stamp-paper office was one of the most ‘porous’ and neglected government departments with poor checks and balances. If that could be exploited, the sky was the limit.

Soni also told Telgi that he had a wide network of government officials, politicians and in the underworld, all the necessary ingredients for a mega scam. The seeds of the scam had been sown in hushed conversations in their dank and sordid cells, germinating to a heady resolve soon enough. Together, the two plotted to collaborate once they were released and began to plan their lives outside the prison.

Excerpted with permission from The Counterfeiter : Abdul Karim Telgi and the Stamp Scam, Bhaswar Mukherjee, Om Books International.