On 16 August 2011, 38-year-old Shehla Masood – a prominent RTI activist – was brutally silenced when the fatal bang of a countrymade pistol filled the confines of her silver Santro car outside her home in Bhopal's Kosh-e-Fiza locality.
According to her relatives, on that fateful morning, Shehla sat in the driver seat of her car ready to leave for an Anna Hazare rally. The Police report in the case lists the cause of death as a low-velocity bullet shot from close range that went through her throat before finally resting in the back of her neck.
Shehla’s work as an RTI activist was unsettling many in positions of prominence, and had the potential to rock the political establishment to its core. Many allege that Shehla’s death was the price paid for her threats to uncover an illegal diamond mining ring worth over hundreds of crores.
However, according to the CBI, Shehla’s unfortunate end was nothing but the result of a “love triangle” that went horribly wrong.
The case has been shrouded in mystery for over five years now. After multiple embarrassing botch-ups by the authorities during the investigation, the courts are finally on the verge of pronouncing a judgement in the case – on 28 January.
Who Was Shehla Masood?
Shehla Masood was an environmentalist, and a known RTI activist. She was also associated with Anna Hazare’s India Against Corruption movement. Born and brought up in Bhopal, Masood lived with her father Sultan Masood, a retired government officer of the state education department, and her aunt Rubab Zaidi.
Before taking up social activism, Shehla ran a modest event management company – Miracle – and organised high-profile events for the state government and corporate clients. It was here that Shehla started to make contacts with the big boys in town.
As an activist, Shehla pursued several causes – she worked extensively for women's rights and batted for Police reforms in Madhya Pradesh. Masood was also actively involved in raising issues related to the deaths of tigers in the various sanctuaries of Madhya Pradesh.
How Did Shehla End up Becoming an RTI Activist?
Masood became an RTI activist in 2009, when she launched an NGO named ‘Uday’ and started playing an active part in the movement for the right to information founded by activist, Aruna Roy.
Days before her death, Masood with the help of her friends also started ‘RTI Anonymous’, a portal through which whistleblowers can file RTIs applications without having to reveal their identity. Using these tools, she helped many to expose corruption at the highest levels in the country’s rotting setup.
According to reports, Masood filed over 200 RTI appeals in various courts, and even put in a written complaint through a select committee in the parliament scuppering mining conglomerate Rio Tinto's plans to illegally extract diamonds worth hundreds of crores from mines in Chattarpur.
Masood was posthumously awarded with the SR Jindal “Crusade Against Corruption” award, an honour she shares with the likes of Anna Hazare and late President, APJ Abdul Kalam.
How Was She Killed?
On 16 August 2011, 38-year-old Shehla was murdered outside her home in Bhopal's Kosh-e-Fiza locality. Shehla sat in her Santro, ready to leave for an Anna Hazare rally when she was fired at from a close distance by a country-made 315 bore pistol. The murder weapon was never recovered.
According to the forensic report, the low velocity bullet shot by a hired hitman, Imran Ali, went through her throat.
Ali – hired by middleman Saquib Ali ‘Danger’ to carry out the murder – was killed in a separate incident before the CBI could lay its hands on him.
What’s the Mystery Surrounding Her Death?
Masood Lived Under Constant Threat
I fear for my life. But I will continue working and carry on. I’ve been using the RTI Act since 2005 as a tool to collect evidence. It is the nexus between politicians and babus which is slowly poisoning our country. The fight is between the powerful and weak and I represent the weakest and the poorest of society.Masood, in an interview to Outlook magazine a month before her death.
Masood was constantly living under threat, as revealed by her in an interview before her murder. Shehla had even filed a complaint to the Director General of Police (MP) against IPS Officer, Pawan Shrivastava, who had allegedly threatened her after she started probing the death of a tigress in Bandhavgarh National Park.
Bhopal, not used to professionally executed shootouts, was stunned and names of several politicians cropped up during the investigation to explain the murder.
Her crusade against corruption ruffled quite a few feathers in the government and her use of RTIs as a weapon to uncover the misuse of state funds at the highest levels had earned her enemies.
Murderous Vested Interests or a Love Triangle Gone Wrong?
Six months after Shehla’s murder, investigators junked all theories which claimed the activist was murdered because of political reasons. On 28 February 2012, CBI arrested a Bhopal-based woman, interior designer Zahida Parvez, claiming that she was jealous of the close relationship between BJP MLA Dhruv Narayan Singh and Shehla. Parvez was allegedly in a relationship with Singh.
Basing its argument on the entries found inside Parvez’s personal diary, the CBI announced Zahida to be the main conspirator in the case.
“She was shot dead in front of her house,” said the entry for 16 August 2011, the day of the murder. It added: “I was very depressed since early morning... all of sudden Ali (Saquib Ali ‘Danger’, the man who allegedly hired the hitman) called up around 11:15 and said that Mubarak ho sahib (Congratulations), now we did it in front of her house.” Zahida noted that she confirmed the murder by sending an employee to Shehla’s house to double-check. “Then I became so relaxed.”Case details accessed by India Today
What for months had looked like a politically motivated killing, was suddenly given the spin of being nothing more than a Bollywood-style love triangle.
Parvez’s diary also described how she had kept a close eye on the 'friendship' between Masood and Dhruv Narayan, and had allegedly gone to the extent of trailing him along with her friend Saba Farooqui, who was also arrested in the case.
However, these allegations have been denied by Parvez, who has maintained her innocence in the case. Even the slain activists’ family has suggested a deeper political game behind the murder.
Where Does the Case Stand Now?
The trial has now reached its final stage, and the special CBI court in Indore will pronounce its order on 28 January. Both the defense and the prosecution have placed their final arguments and closed their witnesses for examination. The court has also taken on record the testimony of Hitesh Trivedi, a technical expert.
The CBI has filed a 2,500-page chargesheet in the case, and has named Zahida Parvez, Saba Farooqi, Tabish, Shaquib and Irfan Ali as accused in the case.