LUCKNOW (Reuters) - Two children from India’s lowest caste were beaten to death by two men after they defecated outside, officials and relatives said on Thursday, in the latest case of communal violence in the country.
Rajesh Chandel, superintendent of police in Shivpuri, a district in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, told Reuters the children, identified as 12-year-old girl Roshni and her nephew Avinash, a 10-year-old boy, were attacked at around 0630 local time on Wednesday.
Two men, whom Chandel identified as Hakam Singh and Rameshwar Singh, have been arrested, he said.
“The accused are mentally stable and during the interrogation they have said they committed this crime,” Chandel said, adding the investigation was continuing.
It was not possible to reach the accused or their representatives for comment.
The two children belonged to what are known officially as “scheduled castes”, but also called “Dalits”, or “untouchables” for their position in India’s ancient caste hierarchy.
Discrimination on the basis of caste is illegal but still widespread in India, especially in rural areas where hundreds of millions of people live.
Both Chandel and Avinash’s father, Manoj Balmiki, said the murders followed an earlier verbal altercation between the two families where “casteist slurs” were used by the accused.
“There is a lot of untouchability issues in our village,” Balmiki, 32 told Reuters.
“Our children cannot play with their children.”
Poor sanitation that forces Indians to defecate outdoors is one of the country’s biggest health issues, and its eradication has been a top priority for the Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Modi launched the Swachh Bharat, or Clean India, mission in 2014, and has promised to make India “open defecation free” (ODF) by Oct. 2 this year.
This week Modi was given an award by the Gates Foundation at a ceremony in New York for his role in the scheme.
Swachh Bharat has constructed more than a hundred million toilets for some of the poorest in Indian society, according to official data, but problems in some areas remain.
Anugraha P, the district’s top civil servant, told Reuters that Bhaukhedi village, where the two families live, had been declared as ODF in 2018, but that Balmiki’s house did not have a toilet.
Reporting by Saurabh Sharma in Lucknow, editing by Alasdair Pal and Catherine Evans