A MURDER IN BHOPAL

With her close links to BJP politicos, and her dogged enemies, this is not an open and shut case. So who killed Shehla Masood?
Akash Bisht Delhi

The plot of the 1974 Agatha Christie classic, Murder on the Orient Express, bears striking resemblance with the broad daylight murder of RTI activist Shehla Masood in Bhopal on August 16 this year. The movie revolves around a famous financier who is murdered on board the Orient Express, turning everyone into suspects due to their innate hatred towards the businessman. Eventually, the killer is caught by a detective in this gripping adaptation by Sidney Lumit of one of Christie's finest mysteries, which fetched Ingrid Bergman an Oscar. Indeed, despite the uncanny similarities and grey zones, the end is what separates the film from Masood's murder. While the killer is apprehended in the classic, Shehla's case seems to be making no headway with new names emerging each passing day, and the cops whistling in the dark.

Just like the murdered businessman, its seems, Masood reportedly had a long list of enemies who would have wanted her silenced for her campaign against corruption, which had upset several people in various corridors of power. To expose the wrongdoings of Madhya Pradesh officials, she used the RTI, filing queries on corruption, nepotism, police reforms and misuse of public money. She campaigned for environmental causes, especially tiger conservation, and had recently targetted the notorious mining giant Rio Tinto's plans to destroy the finest teak forests in central India for mining diamonds.

Her growing clout with top BJP leaders in the state and at the national level too raised many eyebrows in political circles. Her critics marked her as a highly ambitious woman with an eye on getting a top slot in BJP – using the Muslim card.

However, just like many other whistleblowers who have been silenced in the past, Masood too was killed in cold blood. She was shot dead in her car outside her house in the posh Koh-e-Fiza locality of Bhopal. "A single round penetrated her throat and got stuck in the back of her neck. It could be the result of a misfire, and the low speed of the bullet suggests that the murder weapon could be a country-made pistol," says a senior CBI official probing the case.

Masood Sultan, Shehla's father, told Hardnews, "I was shaving when her aunt saw her body slumped in the driver's seat of her Santro. I rushed out. I thought that she had passed out. I splashed water on her face, but she didn't respond. As I removed her dupatta, I saw a black hole in her neck. Then I realised that she had been killed. I shouted, Shehla has been shot."

His voice turns heavy as he talks about how his "brave, bold and intelligent daughter" has been silenced. He says that she readily accepted challenges and loved the good things of life. "She was fond of cooking and would often cook exotic meals for her friends, including some BJP leaders who often visited our house. She loved to drive and used a scooter when she was a kid, considered a taboo for girls. She even learnt driving a car and became an accomplished driver," he adds. He also mentions that she had a fetish for symbols of affluence: designer wear, expensive crockery, perfumes and jewellery. "She loved to spend lavishly."

Recalling her childhood days, the heartbroken father remembers how they were so nervous when she went for an 'interview' for admission in Lower Kindergarten (LKG) in one of the most prestigious schools in Bhopal – St. Joseph's. "She wore a dress that had flowers all over and when the principal asked her the colour of her dress, she promptly said white; and when she asked about the kind of flowers, she said roses. She even sang a famous Hindi song for her." The same principal, shocked, had called him when she read about Shehla's murder; your daughter was so bright, she said.

Soon after her graduation, Shehla moved to Delhi and secured admission in a postgraduate course in journalism at Jamia Milia Islamia. "After she finished the course, she joined the Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited (ABCL) earning Rs 8,000. She worked there for nearly six months," narrates her father. Her next job was with a firm that paid her Rs 25,000; the big jump made him suspicious. "I was not happy. I thought something was not right. I went to see her and then realised that she had left that job as well; her editor had pasted a notice on Jamia's Working Women's Hostel about her resignation," he adds. It seemed she had a tiff with the management and they wanted to harass her. Hence, she was forced out of the hostel. She rented a flat.

Clearly, Shehla was not happy with the way things were progressing. She decided to start her own venture in Bhopal.

It was the beginning of Miracles, an event management company that she started with a friend. The firm initially suffered a loss of Rs 8 lakh, says her father. After early hiccups, Miracles finally hit the upwardly mobile network and Shehla was seen socialising with influential persons, especially with BJP leaders like Dhruv Narayan, currently an MLA. They routinely came to her house where Shehla cooked "5-star" meals for them, those close to her informed. She worked closely with Dhruv Narayan's NGO Udai, but reports suggest that the two fell apart owing to differences. However, her phone records suggest that the two were still in touch. "I had no clue; that is why Dhruv was one of the first people I called after her death," says her father.

Clearly, Miracles was doing 'good business' and Shehla was organising events for the BJP-ruled government's cultural department. She was the organiser of a dance show in Bhopal with BJP MP Hema Malini. She also organised shows in Delhi, Kolkata and Srinagar for the Shyama Prasad Mookherjee Research Foundation run by the RSS.

Earlier, she had differences with the head of the MP cultural department, Pavan Srivastava (an IPS officer, now posted as DIG in Indore), who blocked her payments and rejected her quotations for events. She had recorded their conversation in which Srivastava reportedly threatened her with dire consequences. After Srivastava quit, her payments were quickly cleared.

Meanwhile, Shehla developed close relations and ties with several BJP leaders, including RSS mouthpiece Panchjanya's former editor and current Rajya Sabha MP Tarun Vijay. The Mookherjee Research Foundation was headed by Vijay. "In Srinagar she shared the dais with Vijay. She also went to the US and Pakistan with him. She was clearly very close to him," says an RSS leader. The two were in constant touch. She had reportedly called Vijay a few hours before her murder. She was also convenor of Arvind Kejriwal's India Against Corruption (IAC) in Bhopal. Observers say this also proves the hidden links between IAC and the RSS.

Many believe that Shehla's growing clout within the BJP must also have added more names to the list of her detractors. "She was ambitious. She wasn't inclined towards Congress as she didn't see any point in getting associated with a party that had no future in MP. Her growing proximity with Vijay gave her hope, but others in BJP didn't like her RTI queries. Apparently, in 2009, Shehla had requested for a BJP ticket for local municipal corporation elections; this was denied because a section of the state BJP leadership didn't like her guts," says a source.

She had also filed RTI applications against an NGO – Narmada Samgra – whose secretary was the prominent BJP Rajya Sabha MP Anil Madhav Dave. Her father recalls Shehla telling him that Dave has become her enemy. She also filed another RTI against BJP MLA Vishwas Sarang on his role in a cooperative society of tendu leaf collectors that he headed as a chairman. "This must certainly have sent wrong signals within the party. She wanted to join BJP, but was maligning sections of the state leadership," says a friend of Shehla.

Shehla had also complained to the MP Chief Vigilance Commissioner against Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan and other government officials allegedly on certain issues of "financial wrongdoings". There are reports that in her letter she has quoted RTI documents on how State funds were being used to entertain guests. In that same letter, she has stated that Rs 5 lakh was spent on BJP leader LK Advani's visit to Pachmarhi – a state plane was allegedly used by him to travel from Delhi to Bhopal and back, while a state helicopter was used to ferry him from Bhopal to Pachmarhi and back.

"It becomes dangerous when a woman acts against the party's interests and against its ideology. Her credentials were not known and the party should have taken cognisance of that. Even Tarun Vijay should have been cautioned for his role in promoting her," says an RSS insider. He, however, adds that being an "English-speaking modern woman" and that too a Muslim, her chances of getting into the party were bright; the only hitch was the campaign she unleashed against certain BJP leaders. "It was impossible to enter BJP solely on the basis of her proximity to Vijay."

Reportedly, days before her murder, Shehla had confided to a close friend that she has some explosive information on BJP. Certain media reports quoted her sister Ayesha saying, "It is not just one person, it is a group. She told a friend five days before her death that she had some information that could shake the government in Madhya Pradesh to its core."

Apart from her political foes, Shehla had made enemies in other sectors too, including on environmental issues. She had been attacking the multinational Rio Tinto after their proposal to mine for diamonds in the pristine forests of Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh. The cash-rich project was apparently worth 37 million tonnes of diamond bearing ore. The project, she and other environmentalists claimed, will destroy the watershed zone of Panna Tiger Reserve and Shyamri River.

Owing to her efforts, the mining project that was inaugurated by Chief Minister Chauhan in 2009 hit a roadblock after the Bhopal High Court issued notices to both the state and central governments to explain the reasons for permitting mining in violation of all rules and regulations. Besides, the Australian mining company Rio Tinto has a notorious reputation wherever it has entered, and is opposed by environmentalists across the world. Apparently, in July this year, Shehla had written to Union Home Minister P Chidambaram asking him to intervene. She also wrote letters to Union Minister of Environment and Forests Jayanthi Natarajan apprising her of the threat that mining posed.

Ajay Dube of NGO Prayatna has been working with Shehla on RTIs and the Anna Hazare campaign, of which both were part. He recalls, "She had the courage to say what she liked and that's what made her vulnerable. She wanted to stay relevant in both political and social sectors, and there were many people who wanted her silent."

People close to her have also allegedly raised doubts over how the DGP, IG, SSP, SP and ASP, among others, got to the murder scene "within half an hour". "How could they reach the spot so early?" says another friend.

Her friends say she didn't seem to anticipate the murderous attack. "Shehla was a fighter. She was a tigress who could fight her way out. If she had known that they aimed to kill her, she would have given them a tough fight. She was definitely taken by surprise," says a Bhopal-based journalist and Shehla's friend.

Even the dubious manner her post-mortem was conducted suggests a larger conspiracy. In a sting operation by Headlines Today, it was revealed that Dr Badkur, director of the Medico-Legal Institute in Bhopal, conducted the post-mortem, which is not routine practice. He had asked another doctor, who wasn't even present there, to sign the report. Badkur also suggested that she had committed suicide, something denied by other senior doctors and forensic experts. Questions are being raised on Dr Badkur's dubious conduct.

Surprisingly, Dr Neelam Srivastava and Dr Geeta Rani Gupta, the two doctors on duty in the hospital, were not allowed to do autopsy on the body. Says Dr Srivastava in the sting operation: "He (Dr Badkur) does it in the cases in which he does not want to involve us. It has happened before also in the Sultania case, where he asked me to go away despite the fact that she was a female. Dr Khelu was not even present there. In spite of that, he made her sign the report because a senior doctor's signature was required. He did not put me on duty and instead took Dr Khelu's signature, even when she was not there during the post-mortem."

"They would have dubbed it a case of suicide and shut the case, if the media had not kept up the pressure," says Shehla's father.

Despite the public outrage, few people attended her funeral. "People say all kinds of things after someone is dead. No one would have dared to say a word against her, if she was around. That was Shehla, the fighter," adds an activist and friend.

Says a senior journalist: "She was a Muslim who was educated, spoke good English, and hanged out with hot shots. People are bound to cast aspersions on her, especially in a conservative town like Bhopal. They envied her guts and ambition, and that is the reason for the spate of dirty rumours against her."

Despite an award of Rs 5 lakh to whoever provides information, the CBI is yet to find any lead. "We are probing if there were any witnesses. Someone must have seen the killers as there is huge slum right opposite their house. This is not suicide," says a CBI officer.

Indeed, if this is murder, investigations can dig out uncanny connections. With her close links to BJP politicos, and her dogged enemies, this is not an open and shut case. In Bhopal, Shehla Masood's death remains a puzzle to be unravelled. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2011