How Abdul Karim Telgi went from being a fruit seller in Belgaum to Mumbai’s crime kingpin

With the death of the fake stamp paper scam mastermind, a look back at his journey to riches and power.

The sleepy, verdant hamlet of Khanapur in Belgaum, Karnataka, probably would have never been in the spotlight but for its most notorious denizen, Abdul Karim Telgi.

Telgi was the son of a Class IV railway employee, popularly known as Ladsaab. Born in the pre-Independence era, Ladsaab’s parents actually hailed from northern India but at some point, beset by financial troubles, migrated to the south. It is not known when they picked Karnataka.

However, both parents belonged to the conservative mould and adhered to north Indian traditions. In those days, the custom was to give royal names to the children, in the hope that some nobility would rub off on their existence from the people they were named after. Names such as Nawab, Nizam Bahadur, Badshah Sahib, Ameer Sahab and Aamir all indicate a family’s ambitions for their children. It was much the same with Ladsaab, a rather unique name – it was, in fact, a distorted version of the British title “Lord Sahab”.

The family’s poverty and lack of education made Ladsaab a bitter man. He often expressed exasperation about his parents giving him such an odd name.

Ladsaab married Sharifa Bi and then migrated to Khanapur after his job in the railways took him to the Khanapur station. Born in 1961, Telgi was their second child. Stressed out and depressed, Ladsaab got diabetes and died within a few years of Telgi’s birth.

Barely in her twenties, Sharifa Bi was left to fend for herself and her three children. Khanapur was a fertile village. The forests had abundant fruit. Sharifa began taking her children to the forests, collected fruits such as pears, cherries, chikoos and mulberries.

The family packed these in tin boxes and cane baskets, and then Abdul Rahim and Abdul Karim and Abdul Azim would help their mother sell the fruits, peanuts and chikki to passengers on board trains that halted at Khanapur station.

In the 1970s, the station was a halting point for twelve trains going up and down. Vending fruits all day, the family would manage to eke out a living. The three brothers studied at Sarvodaya Vidyalaya. Driven by their circumstances, they were ambitious to improve their lot through education and enterprise.

Telgi managed to finish his schooling and joined the Gogate College of Commerce in Belgaum. When he returned a commerce graduate from the city, all of Khanapur was impressed. Telgi knew that he could grow rich and powerful only in bigger cities, not in Belgaum or Khanapur. He got his first job as a sales executive in M/s Fillix India Ltd in Mumbai. But failure to achieve targets and laziness resulted in his dismissal. Unwilling to return to Khanapur a disappointment, Telgi immediately secured a job at Kishan Guest House in Colaba as manager.

But this was not his dream career. As a Gulf stint was a dream among Muslims in the 1980s, he decided to try his luck in the Middle East. In 1986, he got a job in Saudi Arabia, but again his lethargy and lack of consistency led to him losing the job. Within a couple of years, he returned to Mumbai.

Now Telgi no longer wanted to climb the ladder to success, he wanted to take the elevator. He kept exploring ways to make a quick buck that would make him a rich man overnight.

Telgi, who had seen a lot of travel agents strike gold by sending people to Saudi Arabia for employment, decided to become a travel agent himself. He launched a business to export manpower to Saudi Arabia and opened a company by the name of Arabian Metro Travels at New Marine Lines. This worked well for several years.

In his village, Telgi was now known as Karim Lala or Karim Seth, a worthy successor to Ladsaab. But working hard and long, with honesty and sincerity, was not Telgi’s style. He began to cheat and defraud his clients. Soon, his stock in the fraternity began to fall.

Manpower exporters and overseas recruiters commonly indulged in illegal business practices for short-term pecuniary gain. Among the tribe, one unlawful practice in the 1980s and ’90s was to forge immigration clearance documents for Gulf- bound labourers whose passports had questionable credentials. Travel agents would create a plethora of fake documents that would facilitate labourers’ smooth passage 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. The travel agents’ practice was called “pushing” in the parlance of manpower exporters. Telgi resorted heavily to pushing and other illegal practices and forgery on the stamp papers that was noticed by the immigration authorities at the airport.

In 1993, Telgi had his first brush with the law when he was thrown into the lockup at the MRA Marg police station in south Mumbai, under various sections of the Immigration Act pertaining to cheating and forgery.

But not for nothing are jails known as the cradle of crime. Men with a weakened conscience and a predilection for crime get sucked into a destructive spiral once exposed to hardened criminals.

Telgi’s cellmate was a small-time crook named Ratan Soni, who engaged in wheeler-dealing at the stock exchange. When Telgi asked Soni why he had been arrested, Soni told him, “Paisa chaapne ke liye [For minting money].” Soni had just taught Telgi his first lesson in criminal enterprise. “Agar crime karna hi pade to chillar paise ke liye nahin karna, crore rupaiyye ke liye karna [If you are forced to commit a crime, then don’t settle for loose change but for a big chunk of money].”

This got Telgi thinking. One of the charges against him at the time was for the verification of 312 stamp papers. Soni laughed at Telgi, asking why commit a crime where the turnover was barely Rs 30,000 and the margin not even Rs 3,000. This invaluable lesson in numbers that he imbibed from a share market scamster in police custody was the turning point for Telgi, the commerce graduate. They both decided to collaborate on bigger and more profitable ventures. Soni explained to Telgi that one of the most unmonitored or neglected government departments was the stamp-paper office. If only they could start counterfeits of stamps, it would be like creating a parallel economy and printing almost a proxy currency. The profit would not be measured in crores but in crores of crores.

The first major initiative that the Soni–Telgi combination undertook was to exploit the weakest link in the law enforcement and justice machinery, greasing the palms of greedy politicians for their vested interests. Telgi approached Samajwadi Janata Party MLA Anil Gote for arranging a meeting and access to Vilasrao Deshmukh, who was the revenue minister in Maharashtra’s Congress government.

In March 1994, the duo managed to procure a stamp-vending licence, Number 12500, with the blessings of the ruling party. Several accounts were opened in various Mumbai banks and numerous offices set up in south Mumbai. Soni would procure counterfeit stamp papers, and Telgi would mix the genuine and fake papers together. As he was a licensed vendor, nobody bothered to examine the limits of his business or turnover.

According to statements given by officials of the Stamp Office in Mumbai, Telgi purchased genuine stamp papers to the tune of Rs 2.5 crore in little over a year, which according to the CBI was then mixed with the fake stamp papers and sold for a turnover of almost Rs 10 crore.

The CBI concedes that this is a tentative figure that they arrived at based on estimates of various cheques and formal deposits in accounts. The actual figure could be much higher. And after such massive income generation, Telgi diversified into other major money churners – money laundering and the kerosene black market. The CBI investigators were flummoxed at such glaring instances of hawala and they had to launch separate investigations into both these side businesses.

However, Soni and Telgi soon got tired of each other, or maybe their unbridled greed sowed the seeds of dissent. Telgi had by then learnt the shrewdness and wile needed for the fake stamp paper business.

Excerpted with permission from Dangerous Minds, S Hussain Zaidi and Brijesh Singh, Penguin Random House India.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.