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.