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Courageous Shehla met crusader’s fate

Shehla Masood’s car, in which she was shot dead, lying in the open outside the Koh-i-Fiza police station in Bhopal.

ifteen days before she died, RTI activist Shehla Masood had written to Environment ­Minister Jayanti Natarajan about leopards disappearing from Madhya Pradesh and exhorted the minister to start a project similar to "Project Tiger".

Masood's letter, a copy of which is with The Sunday Guardian, reads, "Since January 2011, 21 leopards have died in Madhya Pradesh for reasons best known to the officers and in the last five years, more than 125 leopards have died, 85 were poached, (and) eleven were killed by villagers." She demanded an enquiry into the matter.Image 2nd

People who knew Masood in Bhopal say that she had rubbed up too many people the wrong way in a short span of time.

The Bhopal police, of course, has tried to drag in the suicide angle in the case. They recently claimed to have come across documents that showed that Masood had entered into a land deal worth Rs 80 lakh. "We are looking into the details of her bank accounts," said D.S. Tomar, station in-charge of Koh-i-Fiza. Tomar said that the police was trying to ascertain if it was a suicide. "We are waiting to get the forensic tests done on the jewellery she was wearing on her hands that day," said Tomar. His statement, however, contradicts the version of the new Inspector General Vijay Yadav, who had earlier said that it was a case of homicide.

The prevailing sentiment amongst those who knew Masood in Bhopal, including journalists and activists, is that she was not a person to commit suicide. A city journalist covering the case said, "Shehla's feistiness could be a bit too much for a conservative place like Bhopal."

Her family has rejected the police's theory that she was killed over a property dispute. "She had no property in her name. Neither did she inherit any property. We just have this house and a plot of land nearby," said Shehla Masood's father Masood Sultan, a retired librarian. It is a double storied house in which her father and her aunt live in the posh Koh-i-Fiza locality.Image 3rd

Shehla Masood's advocate Ajai Mishra said, "This is not true. She discussed all her legal matters with me and I would have known if she had any such deals."

Her family has also rubbished suggestions of suicide. "She had her ticket booked for the United States on 3 September and was quite excited about it. She also wanted to go and meet our cousin, Rajil, in Denmark after that. Why would she commit suicide suddenly?" asked her younger sister Ayesha Masood, who lives in the US.

Shehla Masood ran an event management company called Miracles. She also used to bid for tenders for government functions. That was how she got into RTI activism, by trying to find out information about the bidding process, which earned her the wrath of IPS officer Pawan Srivastava, who was the director of the cultural department.

Shehla wrote to the chairperson of the Parliamentary Petitions Committee to complain about the alleged illegal diamond mining in Chhattarpur in Madhya Pradesh.

ater on, she started filing RTIs about Srivastava's activities (one of the RTI replies showed that Srivastava had gone to the US without the home ministry's permission). In a note she wrote for herself, she mentioned that Srivastava was appointed at the behest of Anil Dave, state vice-president of the BJP. Rattled by her RTIs, Srivastava reportedly threatened her. Masood complained about it to numerous authorities, but no action was ever taken.

Politicians and bureaucrats were not the only people she rubbed the wrong way. On 22 May, she wrote to the chairperson of the Parliamentary Petitions Committee to complain about the alleged illegal diamond mining in Chhattarpur in Madhya Pradesh. In her letter, Masood alleged that two district collectors had been transferred by the state government to facilitate illegal mining. She added that she was in the process of corroborating if the new collector allowed illegal mining.

However, her cousin Rajil did not think this implicated either Srivastava or Rio Tinto, a mining company. "Srivastava has been transferred already and her investigations into Rio Tinto's activities were at an initial stage," he said.

On 16 August, the day she was found dead, she had called an official in the state secretariat to get a visitor's pass, minutes before she sustained a fatal bullet wound in the hollow of her neck, while sitting in her car outside her home.

She made her last call to her office boy, Irshaad (this newspaper has her phone details) to ask him to bring the banners for a demonstration at 2 p.m. She was part of India Against Corruption protest and ran its Bhopal chapter.

This newspaper has learnt that the special task force, which is also probing the case, has ruled out the suicide angle.

Ajai Dubey, her long time acquaintance and partner in RTI activism, does not buy the suicide theory or the property dispute angle. According to him, the Bhopal police is too inept to do a proper investigation. Incidentally, Shehla Masood's family raised questions about Dubey's role. Masood's family members told this newspaper that Dubey had fallen out with her and was not in touch with her. Dubey contacted her again a few days before she died.

However, Dubey denied all this. "We were not out of touch. She was spending a lot of time in Delhi for the last one year," he said. He added that they had a misunderstanding over the issue but clarified that he had differences with the way Masood used the RTI Act. "She could be too aggressive. She would snatch files and fight with officials. I didn't think it was ethical that she should file RTIs on the Culture Department since she used to bid for tenders there herself," he said.

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