x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

What really happened to Shehla Masood?

An Indian anti-corruption activist intent on thwarting plans for a diamond mine was found shot to death outside her home. The authorities say it was suicide; her family say it was the work of dark, powerful forces.

Ayesha Masood, sister of the activist Shehla Masood, with her sibling's picture at the spot where she was shot dead outside her home in Bhopal, India. A policeman stands guard across the road. Gethin Chamberlain for The National
Ayesha Masood, sister of the activist Shehla Masood, with her sibling's picture at the spot where she was shot dead outside her home in Bhopal, India. A policeman stands guard across the road. Gethin Chamberlain for The National

Shehla Masood had a secret. She was about to break her silence, scuppering plans for a US$4.7 billion diamond mine, exposing a nest of corruption and rocking the political establishment to its core. Then she was murdered.

It may sound like the plot of a prime-time TV drama, but this is a scenario India's Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is faced with as it searches for clues to explain how Masood, an anti-corruption activist, met her death. Masood had devoted herself to using freedom of information requests to uncover the misuse of hundreds of thousands of dollars of state funds and wrongdoing at the highest levels: many in India think that murder is considerably more plausible than the original police assertion that she had shot herself in the throat. No weapon was found at the scene.

It is two months since Masood was found slumped in the driver's seat of her little silver Santro car outside her home in a smart neighbourhood of Bhopal, the capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh, in the heart of India.

The glamorous 38-year-old with a fearsome reputation for exposing wrongdoing had been shot, a single low-velocity round penetrating her throat and lodging in the back of her neck, possibly a misfire where the bullet was discharged at reduced speed, and probably fired from a homemade weapon. Her killer is yet to be caught. Neither has there been a single breakthrough in the police inquiry, though there have been a series of embarrassing blunders - local officers used her phone to make calls after her death and failed to spot a number of items in her car - and plenty of questions about the involvement of the police themselves in the killing. Even the offer of a Rs500,000 (Dh37,000) reward has failed to elicit a single witness to a murder that took place in broad daylight in a busy street. That is simply not possible, say Masood's family. There had to be witnesses: the road past the house leads downhill to a large slum and people use it all day long. But to date, all enquiries have been met with silence.

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"I fear for my life. But I will continue working and carry on," she told the weekly Outlook magazine a month before her death. "I'm fighting for good governance, transparency, police reforms and environmental issues like tiger conservation. I've been using the RTI [Right to Information] Act since 2005 as a tool to collect evidence. It is the nexus between politicians and babus [officials] 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 had been using freedom of information requests to try to uncover corruption in the state government, firing off applications for information in all directions, exposing misuses of funds by senior politicians from the ruling BJP party and officials up to and including the chief minister and his family.

Given the sheer number of people Masood had upset with her requests, perhaps the most surprising aspect of her death is that she had not turned up dead before. RTI activism is a dangerous game in India - at least 10 prominent campaigners were murdered last year alone.

Had she asked one question too many, poked her nose into one case she should have let lie? Her friends and family believe so. They are convinced it was her decision to fight plans by the international mining giant Rio Tinto to extract $4.7 billion of diamonds from the state that led to her death.

"I think it is an alliance ... mining and the BJP are linked together. We feel it is a big, powerful group," says her sister, Ayesha. "It is government-involved, it is not just one person, it is a group. She told a friend who met her five days before her death that she had information that would shake the government in Madhya Pradesh to its core."

Ayesha sits in the smart front room of the family's two-storey home in Bhopal, flicking through paperwork. Shortly before her death, her sister had told a friend she had "a very big thing in hand", she says. She digs out a letter her sister had sent to a minister in Delhi accusing those behind the mine of breaking Indian law.

"The Rio Tinto company began exploring in this eco-sensitive zone before being granted government permission. The officials who objected have been transferred from their positions," she wrote.

Such suggestions of wrong- doing are strenuously denied by Rio Tinto. A statement given by the company says it cannot understand why its name has been linked to Masood's death. "We never met nor had any contact with Ms Masood," this statement reads, "and are unaware of any communication she had with the ministry of environment and forests."

Inaugurated by the state's chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, in October 2009, Rio Tinto describes its planned mine in the Chhatarpur district as its most advanced diamond project - "an exciting development for the global diamond industry", according to Bruce Cox, managing director of Rio Tinto Diamonds. Thought to hold 37 million tonnes of ore - or 27.4 million carats - it is the largest discovery of diamonds anywhere in the world in the last decade. The company is spending $45m developing the mine and a lot of people stand to become immensely rich.

The area in question is forestry land, where mining has long been prohibited, and environmentalists fear the project threatens the watershed of the nearby Panna Tiger reserve and the Shyamri river.

"This was the first instance of a voice being raised against the mine," says Gopal Krishna, founder of the environmental pressure group ToxicsWatch Alliance.

"Her involvement must have rattled those involved and we think she was silenced."

Krishna was working with Masood in opposing the mine in the months leading up to her death. She had just started work on a new set of RTI inquiries in an attempt to winkle out more information, he says. But Masood was also planning more direct action, contesting a court case aimed at bringing the mine to a grinding halt. The public interest litigation was initially heard at the high court in Jabalpur in April. Documents filed with the court accused Rio Tinto of mining in forestland without permission and claimed that it had been "permitted to do illegal mining in gross violation of rules and regulations" despite being warned by a former collector (district official) that it was in breach of the law.

The lawyer Vipin Yadav, who presented it, told the court that no action had been taken to halt the mine despite warnings from a senior local official: "This proves that the officials of forest and revenue departments are working hand-in-hand and foreign companies are making profits at the cost of our country's natural resources," he told the court.

The public interest litigation accused Rio Tinto of continuing to mine despite failing to win permission under the various pollution control acts.

Other activists also believe it was the threat to the mine that sealed Masood's fate, bringing her into the sights of a powerful group of politicians, officials and others who stood to make a fortune if the obstacles to its progress could be overcome. Vinita Deshmukh, an Indian journalist and activist, says Masood had been asking too many uncomfortable questions.

"Money and muscle power almost always overpower the laws of this country, especially when it comes to big projects that generally throw up lucrative commissions and kickbacks to officers and elected representatives at various levels of the government and the political class," she says.

Granting a mining permit to the company would have violated the rule that mining activity is considered illegal in a nature reserve, she says, and Masood's decision to press for official explanations about how this was being permitted was forcing the hands of people who would rather not have the reasons aired in public.

"It was more convenient and more economical perhaps to snuff out the life of Shehla," Deshmukh says.

The state government, however, insists the suspicions are unfounded. The mine is very important economically, says Uma Shankar Gupta, the home minister, because it will bring in tens of millions of rupees of income for the state.

If illegal mining is brought to the state's attention, action will be taken, he promises.

But this mine cannot be illegal, he explains patiently, and for one very good reason: "If the chief minister went over and inaugurated it it has to be legal," he says.

As for Masood being a thorn in the side of the state government and its officials, Gupta says, there is no substance to the claim.

"The government was not upset by her revelations. There is no question of it. There are so many RTI activists and there are more capable ones who were getting more information than she was," he says, though he also grumbles that not all RTI activists are good and fair.

The company itself is keen to distance itself from the case, insisting Masood's death has absolutely nothing to do with the mine.

In a statement it said: "Rio Tinto started exploring for minerals in India in 1996 after the sector was opened for foreign direct investment. In 2004, Rio Tinto made news across the world with the discovery of significant diamond deposits at the Bunder project in Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh. We are currently at the evaluation stage and doing detailed studies while our application for a mining lease is pending with the government of India. We have a very strict, transparent ethics policy that is uncompromising no matter where we operate.

"We learned through the media of the shocking death of Ms Masood, for which we extend our sympathy to her family and friends. We join with the community of Bhopal in condemning such acts of violence and the loss of life.

"We cannot understand why our name is being linked with this tragedy. We never met nor had any contact with Ms Masood and are unaware of any communication she had with the ministry of environment and forests. We have had no communication with the CBI so are unaware of any details about the investigation."

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Standing in the road outside the family home, Ayesha Masood is angry and frustrated, unsure where to turn next, unconvinced that the police will crack the case, disheartened by the reward, seeing it as a sign of desperation. "People walk along the road all the time from the nearby slum. It is impossible that no one has seen it. There are people who are not coming forward who are intimidated or scared," she says.

A couple of maids walk past: across the road, four policemen lie on string beds in the shade of a large tent. They are supposed to be guarding the family in case the killers return. Three appear to be asleep; one, seeing Ayesha, rouses himself and drags himself outside to slump in a chair. A moment later, he raises himself up again and disappears inside the tent, re-emerging with an old rifle, which he leans against the chair.

This is the spot where Masood died. It was 11.15am on August 16 when she left the house. She had been planning to go along to a government building to pick up answers to questions she had been asking about corrupt judges, before heading on to a rally on the waterfront of the city's Lower Lake. The rally was in support of the veteran anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare, who was due to begin a hunger strike in Delhi that day to force the national government to legislate against graft. Masood was leading his campaign in Madhya Pradesh: she planned to get supporters to write the names of corrupt politicians and officials on a 60-metre-long banner attached to railings along the waterfront.

"She said 'goodbye'. I told her 'God may keep you safe', and she left," says her father, Sultan Masood.

He went into the bathroom to shave. A short while later - five or 10 minutes - an aunt looking out of an upstairs window noticed Masood's car was still there, with the door open. She went down to see what was wrong, then ran back into the house.

"She said Shehla was unconscious in her driving seat and please come quickly."

He ran out to the car. "She was lying with her head back. I called 'Shehla, Shehla' but she didn't speak. I took some water and splashed it on her face and then her dupatta slipped down and then I noticed the black hole in her neck. I started screaming 'Somebody has killed my daughter, someone has shot my daughter'."

The police initially tried to claim she had shot herself, he says, shaking his head, though the gun was nowhere to be found. "From the first day the police wanted to bury the case," he says.

So vocal were the family in their anger over the police handling of the case that the state's politicians were left with little choice but to hand it over to the national criminal investigations agency, the CBI.

"I wish I knew the answer to why she was killed and I wish it was more simple," says Hemant Priyadarshy, the deputy inspector general of police leading the inquiry.

He is as polite as he can be about his local colleagues: "The state police know best why the case was transferred to the CBI. We maybe have a more professional approach and we can operate across other states. The local police have a lot of things to do other than investigating."

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The only scenario Priyadarshy is prepared to pour cold water on is the suicide theory - though even that cannot be ruled out completely until the forensic results are returned, he says. There is still no sign of this: the lab is very busy, he explains. Apart from that, anything is possible. Masood's close friendship with a national BJP politician, Tarun Vijay, is known to have upset local party members who were jealous of her growing influence. There are some suggestions that the fact that she was also a Muslim may not have played well with hardline members of the BJP, which is seen as the party of Hindu nationalism. According to friends, false rumours had started circulating that Masood was a spy for Pakistani intelligence. On top of all this, she was also involved in a long-running dispute with a senior police officer, Pawan Shrivastava, who she had accused of corruption and who had, she alleged in an official complaint, threatened her life.

"We are not ruling anything out," says Priyadarshy. Whoever it was, it was a professional job, he adds. "You need a lot of guts to kill someone like that."

Even now though, there are those in the local establishment who cling to the idea that the entire case can be made to go away.

Dr DS Badkur, director of the Medico-Legal Institute of Madhya Pradesh, sits in a large office off a hallway lined with shelves containing skulls, body parts, and a row of pickled babies. It was Badkur who carried out the original post mortem, and who concluded that Masood had most probably shot herself.

"I am sure this is a suicide," he said at the time. He seems puzzled about why anyone would doubt that conclusion. He maintains that the wound suggests the gun was placed against Masood's neck, consistent with someone shooting themselves, although subsequent inquiries found the bullet had passed through her dupatta and suggested it had been fired from several inches away. "No one can rule out any possibility," he says crossly. "The data suggests that a contact wound is suicide. I have no grounds to disagree."

He reaches round and pulls two textbooks from a shelf behind his desk, both with their pages bookmarked, and opens them to display a number of underlined and highlighted passages referring to the frequency with which families remove the weapon from a suicide scene. He leans back, as if having proved his case.

Ayesha shakes her head in bewilderment. Her sister had no reason to kill herself, she says. She was so full of life, "a workaholic, she was charismatic, very talented, an avid reader. She loved to interact and meet people. She never compromised, even on clothes and shoes."

She doubts they will ever get justice. She produces a letter she is writing to the prime minister urging him to intervene and stop the dirty tricks campaign by the local establishment.

The letter is still a work in progress: "Was her only crime that she was a liberal patriotic Muslim activist?" her pencil notes say. "So easy for them to tarnish the image of a Muslim and bury the investigation."

She looks down at a picture of her sister, smiling, confident, happy.

"If highly influential people are involved or a diamond mafia is involved, India is very good at sacrificing its own citizens," she says sadly.

Gethin Chamberlain is a photojournalist based in South India.