SOHAGPUR, India — It was her land, she said, and she was tired of her uncle planting his wheat and grazing his cows on her property without paying rent.
So in April, Leena Sharma traveled from her home in New Delhi to her ancestral village in central India to confront her uncle, a powerful community leader. She planned to build a fence to keep him off her 37 acres — and eventually sell the property.
It was a bold move in a country where patriarchy remains deeply ingrained and where women have long been denied the legal right to own land. For Sharma, the consequences of asserting her property rights would prove deadly. First she disappeared. Then her half-naked corpse was found in a remote forest about six miles away.
The tensions between Sharma and her uncle had been building for years.
Sharma, 39, left the area years earlier for a glamorous life in the capital of New Delhi and a career that culminated in a job at the prestigious American Embassy School. Independent and strong-minded, Sharma had been trying to protect a plot of farmland worth an estimated $250,000 for more than a decade and had complained to police about her distant uncle Pradeep Sharma several times, friends said.
Pradeep Sharma is a tall man with a neatly clipped black beard, well known as a leader of the Indian National Congress, a political party dominated by the oldest political dynasty in the country. He could turn out hundreds for rallies by sheer force of his charm and often smoothed out electricity and water problems for local farmers.
It’s not easy for women to own property in India, where epic battles over ancestral land in large extended families have long favored sons. Succession laws passed in 1956 and amended in 2005 attempted to make it easier for many Indian women to inherit property. But still, women own and operate less than 13 percent of agricultural land in India, according to census data.
Land activists say that even if laws are in place to ensure a woman’s inheritance, powerful societal forces exist that can wrest true control over property from the female owner.
Women can be persuaded to give up their rights, disinherited or simply forced to turn over the administration of the property to the men in a family, experts say.
Moreover, women in land disputes are often branded as witches, accused of practicing black magic in small towns and villages. From 2000 to 2014, 2,413 women were killed as witches in 12 Indian states, including Madhya Pradesh, where Sharma’s property was located, crime records show.
When Leena Sharma went to her ancestral land to begin the process of demarcation in April, her friends — who knew of the animosity between the pair — warned her not to go to the isolated area alone, but she assured them she could handle it.
“She was kind of scared, but she was a very strong woman. She said, ‘Don’t worry about me, I’ll manage,’ ” said Ritu Shukla, 38, a beautician in Bhopal.
A few days later, Shukla rang one of Sharma’s cellphones and found that it was switched off. Her alarm grew as she checked the other phone — same response.
Sharma had disappeared.
Sharma, the daughter of civil servants, had enjoyed flouting convention even as a young girl — clipping her hair in a short pageboy, besting boys at arcade games and swimming on the state championship team. After college, she moved to Delhi and joined a large technology outsourcing company, working overnight to answer customer service inquiries. It was a familiar stop for ambitious young women migrating from Indian towns to cities at the time.
“It was all fancy for her in Delhi. The nightlife, being independent and not answerable to anybody,” said her friend Swati Rawat, 33, a customer service manager in Noida, a suburb of Delhi. “She was not a traditional Indian woman. She never wanted kids. She said if her husband wanted her to cook, they’d be eating out or having salad.”
By the time she fell in love, Sharma was earning enough to finance a flashy wedding — a ceremony held on a wide lawn at an auspicious time on the Hindu calendar. The marriage unraveled in a matter of months.
Sharma’s life was in flux the day in April when she hopped into a clattery auto-rickshaw to head out to the property she owned.
She told friends she had been laid off from her job at the American Embassy School. She had also signed up for a matchmaking service in hopes of finding love again.
To celebrate, she had recently dragged Rawat all over Delhi looking for the perfect diamond ring — a single woman’s ring, a bright solitaire with two waves of tiny stones, her talisman of freedom and emancipation. She had haggled with each jeweler in her typical outspoken fashion, Rawat recalled.
She brought that same tough attitude into the dealings with her uncle, Rawat said. Rawat had counseled Sharma to settle with him and allow him to stay on part of the property. But she was adamant.
“She always said, ‘This belonged to my mother, and I would never let him even touch a seed that belongs to my mother,’ ” Rawat recalled. “It was sentimental for her.”
“That land was not even hers!” Pradeep Sharma’s lawyer, Sher Khan, insisted one morning in Sohagpur, a sleepy hamlet of narrow lanes surrounded by wheat and soybean fields. He had just rolled up the shutter on his small storefront, a stifling room with a desk, bookshelves and a motionless ceiling fan. Other men who knew about the dispute quickly gathered.
Leena was untrustworthy, they agreed, a divorcee, a “loose woman” who only came back to the area a few times a year to “abuse” her uncle and demand money.
Bitter — even violent — land disputes are not uncommon in this part of Madhya Pradesh, where improvements in roads and connectivity, and new farming practices, have sent land prices up in recent years. The local constable estimates that 7 out of 10 slayings in the area are over property disputes.
Ancestral land is particularly challenging, experts say, because official records that exist are often incomplete, wills nonexistent and illiteracy a hampering factor. Male heirs often have a distinct advantage, although in the past decade women increasingly have been asserting their rights to property, according to Govind Kelkar, a senior adviser to Landesa, a group that works for land rights for the poor.
In a recent survey of cases in 300 district courts by Daksh, a Bangalore nonprofit that analyzes the Indian judiciary, about 66 percent of litigants in civil cases were embroiled in land disputes.
In Leena Sharma’s case, she ended up with about 37 acres, a portion of which she co-owned with her sister, including farmland, a tiny temple and a ramshackle cowshed. A separate suit brought by predominantly male relatives was stalled in court, clouding the ownership issue further.
Ultimately, the local revenue office determined that Pradeep Sharma had illegally encroached upon about 10 acres of Leena’s land. But he did not see it that way.
His wife, Seema, 47, a teacher in a local school, said that the couple had every right to the property because her husband had been living on the land for decades, and that older family members had said the land belonged to him.
“While we lived there, we were told that this land is ours,” she said. “I once spoke to Leena when she was visiting and said that we are all family and we should be there for each other. Leena told me, ‘Auntie, we will give you this land.’ ”
Police saw nothing amiss at first when Pradeep Sharma arrived, with Leena’s elder sister in tow, at the low-slung concrete police station one afternoon in May to report Leena missing. She had last been seen on April 29 after she had worked with tax assessors to chalk off the property to install a fence.
Over cups of tea with officers he knew well, Pradeep Sharma, who seemed oddly unconcerned about his niece’s welfare, suggested she might have gone with friends to a nearby town, or off to Bangkok, police said. But as the days went by and Leena’s friends continued pressuring police for action, they turned to Pradeep Sharma’s employees for answers.
When Leena Sharma arrived on a hot April day to oversee workers constructing the fence around the property, she was met by her uncle and two male assistants, investigators eventually learned.
The three had come to try to persuade her to stop the fencing, one of Pradeep Sharma’s employees told police. They argued, and Leena tried to flee, getting caught as she tried to scale a barbed-wire fence, one of the workers who witnessed the scene, Pratap Khuswaha, recalled in an interview.
The men with her uncle started beating her, he said. “They hit her with sticks and stones. They must have hit her at least 25 times.” Pradeep Sharma threw a rock, he said.
The laborers fled, terrified that they would be beaten themselves. At a safe remove, they watched as the uncle’s two assistants covered Leena Sharma and took her away in a small tractor. Pradeep Sharma followed on his motorcycle.
Police say Pradeep Sharma’s employees later confessed that they had gone into the forest, where they dug a pit and deposited the half-naked corpse, pouring urea fertilizer and salt over it before covering it up.
“They did an inhuman thing to a woman,” said Arjun Uikey, the subdivision officer of police in Sohagpur. “Fine, you have killed her. But bury her with dignity instead of stripping her clothes off. You understand the animalistic mode of the men involved.”
They burned her purse and other items and, in a plot twist apparently inspired by a Bollywood movie, threw both her cellphones onto a moving train. The two assistants broke down and confessed during an interrogation, police said, leading investigators to the burial site. Pradeep Sharma ultimately said he acted in self-defense after Leena had assaulted him, according to police.
He said that he had gotten into an argument with his niece and that she fell during a scuffle and suffered a fatal head injury.
Khan, Pradeep Sharma’s lawyer, says his client is innocent.
“The cops have made up the story. Nobody knows what happened with the murder,” he said.
Sharma and his two assistants — Gorelal Marskole and Rajendra Kumre — were charged with murder, conspiracy, destruction of evidence, offending the modesty of a woman and other crimes, and remain jailed without bond. The trial could take years.
“A woman who is independent and wears Western clothes is considered a loose woman,” said one of Leena’s friends, Saad Bin Waqqas, 38, a sales manager from Bhopal. “This is how they perceive things. These are uneducated people. They could have easily been incited to take it upon their honor to kill her.
“That land took her life,” Bin Waqqas continued. “They did not just kill a woman, they silenced an independent voice.”
A handful of relatives organized the Hindu last rites at a cremation ground in Bhopal. After prayers were said, Sharma’s body, wrapped in a white cloth, was set on fire.
The diamond ring — her emancipation ring, symbol of her independence — was not with her, as Rawat had hoped.
When they dug up her body the day before, it was nowhere to be found.
Swati Gupta contributed to this report.