Death of an activist. Murder or suicide?

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The clues to Shehla Masood’s death could lie in her anti-corruption crusades. So why can’t the police crack the case, asks Priyanka Dubey

Post mortem Forensic experts are divided on the cause of Masood’s death

SHEHLA MASOOD’S eventful life was brutally cut short on 16 August, when her body was found in the front seat of her car. A fierce wildlife conservationist and RTI activist, 38-year-old Shehla was also a flamboyant socialite of Bhopal. The murder in broad daylight outside her bungalow in the posh Koh-e-Fiza area sent ripples across the otherwise peaceful city. With the state media jumping from one conclusion to another and propagating theories about a possible suicide, alleged property issues, her proximity to high profile politicians like Tarun Vijay, bureaucrats and her personal relationships with people across all sections of society, Shehla’s death has turned into a mystery of unending hypotheses. Having led successful RTI campaigns and anti-corruption crusades, her untimely death has led to an array of speculation about her professional as well as personal life — mostly speculative in nature — so much so, that to paint a clear picture means collecting clues from all sides of this largely baffling story.

Shehla headed the Madhya Pradesh chapter of the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption campaign. On that fateful day, waking up to a rain-drenched morning, she exited her house at around 11 am to lead the anti-corruption protest scheduled for 2 pm. Ten minutes later, she was found in a pool of blood.

Shehla was shot in the neck at pointblank range while starting her car outside her house. A 3.5 cm long bullet weighing around 16 g was found lodged in her neck and fired from a .315 bore country-made revolver. The bullet pierced her wind-pipe, got lodged in her back and turned her into a lifeless corpse in a matter of minutes. Nobody, not even neighbours or members of Masood’s family heard any gunshot. Hearing no sound of an engine starting for about 10 minutes, Masood’s aunt Rubarb Zaidi thought of checking what was wrong. “She peeped out of the window wondering why Masood’s car was still stationary and saw that she seemed unconscious,” says her father Masood Sultan. “I left my shaving brush and ran out. I splashed some water on her face. But when her dupatta fell from her neck we saw blood. She had been shot.”

Crusading zeal Fired up about environmental conservation, Shehla Masood met Union minister Jairam Ramesh to make a representation

Masood’s murder caused an immediate rumble in Bhopal’s bureaucratic and political circles. Every road led to Koh-e-Fiza. The presence of the Collector, the Director General of Police (DGP), forensic experts, politicians, and a number of mediapersons at the murder spot only added to the mystery. Since there were no eyewitnesses, it seemed as if the murderer had vanished into thin air. Interestingly, no weapon was recovered from the scene, and there were no signs of struggle. The DIG promptly declared that the police was determined to find the culprits soon. “Everybody and anybody who comes under the radar of suspicion will be questioned, be they politicians or top cops,” he announced.

The post-mortem report only deepened the mystery. Dr DS Badkur, director of the Medico Legal Institute, MP, claimed that Masood’s death was not a murder, but a case of suicide. Making his point, he said: “The bullet was shot very closely with the gun almost touching her neck. Her wound was a contact wound. Also, firing below the chin is very unusual for an armed attack. There was a wall on one side of the car and the other door was closed. So how could anybody kill her? I am sure this is a suicide.”

Interestingly, Dr DK Satpathy, predecessor of Dr Badkur in the Medico-Legal Institute, offers a different opinion. “It is not a contact wound as her dupatta has burn marks. Carbon has collected around the wound, no gunpowder was found on her hands as happens when a bullet is fired from pointblank range. Moreover, no weapon was found and it goes against common sense that such an enthusiastic person would commit suicide,” he says.

Masood’s family too dismisses the suicide theory as an attempt by the police and the government to dilute the case. “She was so full of life and such a brave child. She was a born fighter. Why would she kill herself? I have no hope of justice from this government,” says Sultan. Under increasing pressure, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan recommended a CBI inquiry but the agency had not taken up the case till the time of going to press.

Masood was schooled at St Joseph’s Convent and got her master’s in mass communication from Delhi’s prestigious Jamia Millia Islamia. She was a born leader with the guts to take on anybody. A close friend says on the condition of anonymity: “She was like a mountain of explosives. Disagreement was an integral part of her nature. She would fight, argue and would go to any extent for a cause she felt was right. She was close to her father and became very protective of him after her mother’s death. She came back to Bhopal and started her own event management company after working for various firms, including Amitabh Bachchan’s company.”

Masood had reportedly filed a complaint against an IPS officer for harassing her after she exposed him

When Masood’s event management firm ‘Miracles’ started facing problems in getting contracts, she used RTI as a tool. Her US-based younger sister Ayesha told TEHELKA: “She was disturbed by the corruption she faced. Sick of government red-tapism, she resorted to RTI for answers. Then eventually she got inclined towards environment conservation and wildlife.” That was when Masood started filing RTIs exposing corruption in different government departments. “She was always in the forefront of conserving the tiger and Bhopal’s heritage. She used to say that she is not scared of dying and would protest against the mining mafia and all other kinds of corruption,” says Ayesha. At the time of her death, Masood was reportedly waiting for replies to over 40 RTIs she had filed in different departments of the state government.

MASOOD’S FAMILY believes that she was killed because she exposed corruption through incessant RTI campaigns against powerful government officials and influential corporates. They have also named as suspect a top cop of the state government, Pawan Shrivastava, recently posted as IG, Police Training College, Indore. Masood had filed a complaint against the IPS officer for harassing her after she filed RTIs exposing his alleged corruption. Two politicians, allegedly close to Masood, have also been named in the inquiry. They include a Delhi-based Rajya Sabha MP and a state cabinet minister, Dhruv Narayan Singh. Property issues and her personal equation with people from all walks of life are also being examined. The MP police has sealed her office and is scrutinising her laptop, her two mobile phones and various RTI files.

SSP Yogesh Chaudhary, in charge of the investigations, says the case is a blind alley. “Since we don’t have any eyewitness or even a small clue, this is a completely blind case. We can’t rule out any possibility. We are taking statements from everybody who spoke to her but we have not got any tangible piece of evidence that could point to any particular line of investigation.”

Close to a week since Masood’s death, there are still no leads. With the media fanning the fire, it’s time the government stood up and took note of the growing sense of doubt that has irrevocably crept into the investigations.

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