Telgi's spreading stain taints the high and the mighty

  • Indo-Asian News Service, PTI, Mumbai
  • Updated: Nov 17, 2003 12:50 IST

A multi-billion-rupee forgery scandal has spread its web of deceit far and wide entrapping prominent politicians, including a former Maharasthra chief minister, top police officials and even multinational firms.

The list of those touched by the mass forgery of legal stamp papers allegedly masterminded by Abdul Karim Telgi is growing longer by the day. And the net could actually widen.

Records of phone taps made by the Karnataka Police and Telgi himself threaten to bring more names into the open.

As more and more names tumble out in the country's biggest financial scandal ever, many fear for the life of Telgi, now locked in a jail in Bangalore.

Officials said the master forger must be given protection so that he is alive to testify before the courts.

The scam that has shocked the country with its audacity and the sheer range of people implicated in it has already tainted Mumbai's top police brass, including its chief Ranjit Sharma who was replaced on Friday.

And the latest to be accused of links with Telgi, who is said to have amassed a fortune of anything between Rs.170 billion and Rs.220 billion, is former Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh.

A local newspaper in Mumbai has unearthed an old letter signed by the Congress leader, when he was the revenue minister in 1994, recommending Telgi for a vendor's license to sell revenue stamps, stamp papers and other documents.

According to reports, Telgi approached Deshmukh through Anil Gote, a journalist-turned-legislator from Maharashtra.

Gote is now in jail as is Krishna Yadav, a legislator from Andhra Pradesh who too was arrested for his links with Telgi.

Deshmukh could not be reached for comment. His aides said he was away. The scandal has cut across party lines.

Last week, Maharashtra's opposition leader and former chief minister Narayan Rane of the Shiv Sena alleged that a relative of Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal had obtained pay-offs from Telgi.

Bhujbal of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), already in the eye of a storm after several police officials close to him were arrested in the case, denied the allegations.

"There are so many allegations against me that I have stopped reading newspapers," an angry Bhujbal told reporters in Mumbai.

The blame game has started in earnest.

In an apparent bid to deflect attention, the ruling Congress-NCP coalition is calling for a probe into the conduct of senior Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders who held important positions between 1994 and 1999 -- when they ruled the state.

Bhujbal says that Shiv Sena and BJP leaders should be held accountable as scandal was at its peak in the late 1990s.

Fingers are also being pointed at BJP leader and former deputy chief minister Gopinath Munde for phoning a number of police officials investigating the scandal.

Munde, who admitted to making the telephone calls, said he only wanted to ensure that his long time colleague Gote was treated fairly by investigators.

Also under the scanner in the scam are major companies, banks and multinational corporations that normally buy the stamp papers - used to file legal affidavits -- in bulk.

With information provided by the Special Investigation Team (SIT), special squads of officials have started verifying documents registered by dozens of companies in Mumbai.

According to police officials, Telgi recruited young management graduates to oversee sales of fake stamp papers to major corporates, high net worth individuals and stand-alone licensed stamp vendors.

Often, clerks employed with these companies were provided handsome commissions illegally if they purchased the stamp papers from Telgi.

Observers said extra vigilance on the part of the Stamp Office could have halted the scam much earlier.

"There should have been attempts to tally the number of stamps sold along with the value of the stamps registered," said former Mumbai police commissioner Julio Ribeiro.

Though the scam was detected more than two years ago, it hit the headlines only recently following the arrest of Mumbai's Joint Commissioner of Police Sridhar Vagal for his links with Telgi.

Subsequently, the SIT, functioning under the supervision of the Bombay High Court, found several acts of omissions and commissions against Mumbai Police Commissioner Ranjit Sharma. Telgi made his fortune by printing and selling the fake stamp papers in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu through the 1990s.

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