Investigation most foul: Death of a woman who knew too much

The inquiry into RTI activist Shehla Masood's ghastly murder seems designed to shield the powerful culprits

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Danish Raza | September 5, 2011


Shehla Masood`s pic (left) and Shehla Masood`s dead body in the her car (right)
Shehla Masood`s pic (left) and Shehla Masood`s dead body in the her car (right)

"Khuda haafiz, Abba," were Shehla Masood's last words to her father as she left for the state secretariat around 10 km from her house – A-100, Kohe Fiza Colony, an upscale locality in old Bhopal. Little did her father realise that in the holy month of Ramzan the Satan had conspired to kill her.

At 11.30 am, barely ten minutes after leaving her house, she was found dead in her silver Santro car outside her home on August 16. A .315 calibre bullet fired from a country made weapon took the life of this RTI activist and whistle-blower who had worked passionately for the cause of environment and wildlife. She had come to be known as a lone warrior who was not afraid to take on even the most
powerful.

Why was she killed?

Theories abound as her personal life is being prised open. And as happens with disturbing regularity in such high-profile cases, her murder is sought to be turned into a crime riddle that can be used to sully her personal life and trigger juicy gossip even as the powers that be continue to shield the powerful culprits.

Just a day after the murder, the state police came out with an absurd theory of suicide. “The bullet was fired from point blank range. It is a contact wound, which means the weapon almost touched the skin. At this point, we have to look at the possibilities of both suicide and murder,” said Dr D S Badkur, director of the Bhopal-based Medico Legal Institute, which conducted the post-mortem examination. In other words, the victim shot herself in the car, got out to throw away the weapon and then returned to be found dead in the car.

This is not an isolated instance of the Madhya Pradesh police twisting the criminal investigation to suit its political masters. The botched-up inquiry of Sanjay Joshi's obscene CD and the cases related to saffron terror are just a few of the recent examples.

There is enough evidence to establish that the 38-year-old activist was up against a section of the ruling elite. Even the union minister Jairam Ramesh appreciated her courage in taking on the mine-mafia in the state and exposing scams through use of the RTI Act.

“It is difficult to give names at this moment. We are questioning all those who were associated with her,” assured Ashish Khare, city superintendent of police, Shahjahanabad, Bhopal.

But the conduct of the Madhya Pradesh police inspires little confidence. There seems little progress on Masood's complaint against threat from an IG Police, Pawan Shrivastava, for instance.

It is an open secret that she had close association with a national BJP spokesman and former Panchjanya editor Tarun Vijay who is believed to have roped her in for event-management at the Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Trust.

Vijay’s number figures repeatedly in her call records. After initial silence which was quite intriguing, Vijay spoke after 15 days only by uttering platitudes. "We were regularly exchanging notes. Even on 16th morning when Anna was arrested we had spoken in the morning at around 9.30 am about Anna's arrest, the movement and the demonstration. It is very sad and has hurt us very deeply. We want justice for Shehla," he told the media in Delhi on September 1. Obviously Vijay appeared less than forthcoming on the issue which is hogging the media's attention.

On the other hand, the Madhya Pradesh government has been prevaricating initially on handing over the probe to the CBI. However under the constant pressure of social activists and the media and given the sensitive nature of the crime which threatens to snowball into a major political controversy, Madhya Pradesh chief minister has finally decided to request the CBI to take over the investigation. But the most disturbing aspect of the case is that the gruesome murder of Shehla runs the risk getting caught in political quagmire like many high-profile cases. "Let us not politicise the murder" said Tarun Vijay whose initial silence speaks eloquently about his diffidence to recognise the seriousness of the crime and his nature of asquantaince with Shehla Masood. Similarly Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh has been pitching for the CBI inquiry apparently not so much for the truth but in his eagerness to put the BJP in the dock.

As a committed activist, Masood had ruffled several feathers and it is unclear whether the state police is examining every possibility in this case.
“Though the police are questioning everyone who was even remotely connected with her, the high and mighty are sitting safe in their drawing rooms,” affirms Ajay Dubey of the NGO Prayatna who worked with her on environmental issues.

One such powerful person is Dhruv Narayan Singh, son of former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Govind Narayan Singh and patron of Masood's NGO, Udai. Singh is a  BJP MLA and has been heading the Bhopal Development Authority and Bhopal Tourism Corporation for a long time. Apart from her activism, Masood had been running a parallel career in event-management which brought her closer to Singh, Tarun Vijay and Pawan Shrivastava. In some cases, she rubbed powerful people on the wrong side.

Her father, Sultan Masood, cites an instance: “Pawan Shrivastava owed her around Rs 18 lakh on account of event-management conducted by her for the culture department. He made the payment nearly one year after the due date.” In fact, that is why she wrote to the DGP last year about her perceived threat from Shrivastava. However, the police has not even questioned Shrivastava in the case yet.

Masood made national headlines last year when a tigress named Jhunjhura died in Bandhavgarh. She refuted the official claim of poisoning by establishing that the tigress was hit by a vehicle, owned by a state politician, which was moving inside the sanctuary without requisite permission. The event caused a major embarrassment for the state government and provoked strong reaction from the wildlife activists.

Masood made powerful enemies in the mining mafia too as she used to send e-mail alerts to scribes about large-scale stealing of minerals in the state. Former environment and forests minister Jairam Ramesh too told the media on the day she was killed: “She brought to my notice issues relating to Panna and Bandhavgarh. I recall having spoken to Dr Rajesh Gopal, member secretary of NTCA (National Tiger Conservation Authority) and Dr H S Pabla, chief wildlife warden of Madhya Pradesh, about her complaints.”

Shehla Masood was a picture of rare courage. She defied bigotry and tradition to step out of her conservative family background and to take on the enemies of society and nature. In the process, she made powerful enemies who felt threatened by her zealous activism and boundless energy. But the manner in which the Madhya Pradesh police has been investigating her murder only reinforces the collusive nature of the state in covering up this ghastly crime.

PTI Reports

CBI team visits Masood's residence; recreates murder scene

A CBI team led by DIG Hemant Priyadarshi on Monday visited the residence of slain Madhya Pradesh RTI activist Shehla Masood here and recreated the sequence of events that led to her murder.

The team, which reached Masood's house around 11 am recreated the scene of the killing, which took place outside her residence last month.

It examined the car in which Masood was shot dead and a man was made to sit in the vehicle to find out the possible angles from which she may have been shot.

Priyadarshi told reporters this was a murder which was very challenging for the CBI as no clue or eyewitness has been found in the case so far.

Members of the CBI team are holding disscussions in connection with the murder with her family, he said.

The DIG said some evidence has been found but it would not be proper to disclose it at this point of time.

Asked how much time it would take to solve the case, the officer said that it was not possible to give particular a time-frame.

Masood was shot dead when she was going towards her car outside her home in Koh-e-Fiza locality here on August 16.

The Madhya Pradesh government had sought a CBI probe into the murder.
 

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