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Shehla Masood: Fighter till the end

By Kamayani Bali-Mahabal

Shehla Masood, RTI and wildlife conservation activist who was shot dead on August 19, was campaigning for a law to protect whistleblowers, investigating Madhya Pradesh’s record on conservation, and questioning the mining activities of diamond major Rio Tinto in MP

Shehla Masood, Slain RTI activist

It was Diwali 2010, and this was the festive message I received from Shehla Masood: “HAPPY DIWALI IN PENCH - Today nothing can be more exciting than the news of the Pench tigress giving birth to five cubs, and Saraswati elephant giving birth to a baby elephant calf. Both the mothers and their young ones are safe and healthy.” It was typical of Shehla, her concerns as an animal conservationist and her spontaneously expressed joy of living. Less than a year later, on August 16, 2011, she would be shot dead by an unknown assailant, slumped in her car outside her residence in Bhopal.

A Right To Information (RTI) activist herself, she had always been very disturbed by the murders of those who exposed corruption in high places like Satyendra Dubey, Satish Shetty, Shanmughan Manjunath, and Shashidhar Mishra. Little did she know that she would come to share their fate.

It was this issue that brought us together for the first time a few years ago. We had been in touch with each other through Facebook, but when we happened to meet in Delhi, Shehla told me she wanted help in starting an online campaign for a whistleblowers law. Being a woman from the minority community, she said she needed the support of committed activists whom she could trust. She had also revealed that she was being threatened by the Madhya Pradesh police.

The “accidental” death of the Jhurjhura tigress in the Bandhavgarh reserve on May 18, 2010 saw Shehla swing into action. By September the organisation she set up, Udai, had launched a massive signature campaign demanding that the culprits behind the tigress’s death be brought to book. They were believed to be influential people. Shehla always came straight to the point. In one meeting I had with her she raised an important question: “The MP government has been given approximately Rs 2,000 crore over the last five years for tiger conservation. But there have been no tigers in the Panna reserve since 2006. So where is that money?”

She also made the connection between tiger conservation and its role in safeguarding environment. She was keen to save the watershed of the Panna tiger reserve and was disturbed by the fact that the Shyamri, one of the cleanest rivers in the country, was being destroyed by the illegal mining activities of diamond major, Rio Tinto. The issue went on to become an international one and even figured in parliament.

The evolution of a mass communications student – who went on to become an event manager – into a social and environmental activist, is striking. Says Ajay Dubey, a friend who was her junior in college, “Shehla was an amazing, courageous and gutsy woman, who sought transparency and accountability from the system. She was someone who could be termed an alert citizen.” Dubey’s organisation, Prayatna, had been working with Shehla’s NGO, Udai, in filing RTI queries since 2009.

Observes Shiv Karan Singh, a Bhopal-based journalist and another of Shehla’s friends, “She was one of the strongest voices in the field of tiger conservation.” According to him, Shehla always managed to annoy bureaucrats and politicians with her incisive RTI queries and public campaigns against corruption and wildlife conservation. He reveals that last year Shehla had gone public with the fact that wildlife tourism was mushrooming because of the financial interests of officials in the government, whose relatives were allegedly employed by the leading African tour operator, CC Africa, rebranded recently as ‘& Beyond’. CC Africa has also been involved in the Madhya Pradesh government's attempts to translocate animals from one reserve to another. 

According to Singh, the central SIT report on tiger deaths in the Panna Reserve between 2002 and 2008 has revealed how the forest department completely denied rampant poaching in the area.

Today, Shehla’s heartbroken father, Sultan Masood, a retired government officer from the state education department, has only one plea: “Please do not let the issue die with her death. Shehla continues to need the support of her friends.”

Shehla loved the good things of life. She had an eye for designer clothes and enjoyed shopping. I once asked her what kept her going besides her work and whether she had anyone special in her life. Her reply was characteristic of her, “My dear, I do not have the time or inclination for any man in my life. The tigers take up all my time. Besides I cannot compromise on my independence and freedom!” I remember how we burst into laughter after she pronounced this.

It was not just tigers that took up her time. Shehla was drawn to other social issues as well. The president of the Progressive Muslim Women’s Association, she was very vocal about the Women’s Reservation Bill and strongly believed in the dictum that the “personal is political”. In the recent past, she was also associated with Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement.

My last conversation with Shehla was on the Supreme Court judgment in June on the Salwa Judum. She was excited about it and said that we should publicise the judgment as much as possible. She then went on to talk about the situation of tribals in Madhya Pradesh. According to her, they are running against time and bureaucratic hurdles are coming in the way of their realising their claims under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Rights) Act, 2006. I remember the passion in Shehla’s voice, as if it was yesterday, when she pointed out how the tribals are facing eviction from their forests despite having lived in them for generations and how incidents of forced eviction, firing and harassment were rising.

According to Shehla, not a single case out of approximately 30,000 cases of alienation and restoration of tribal land has been ruled in favour of the community in Madhya Pradesh. We ended that conversation with the familiar Shehla line: “We should do something about this.” Sure, Shehla, I had said as I bid goodbye, not realising that that would be the last time I would be talking to her.

The signature line on her last mail summed her up, “We think, we have different opinions, we discuss, we form consensus, we identify the best alternative and we move forward”.

Shehla, we will move forward, but we will miss you terribly.

Women's Feature Service, August 2011