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
[image: 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
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
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
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
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.
You cannot build anything on the foundations of caste. You cannot build up a
nation, you cannot build up a morality. Anything that you will build on the
foundations of caste will crack and will never be a whole.