Two children from the Dalit community – the former untouchables – have been beaten to death in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh for defecating in public, according to officials and relatives.
Roshni Valmiki, 12, and her 10-year-old nephew, Avinash, were attacked at about 06:30 am local time (01:00 GMT) on Wednesday, in Shivpuri district of Madhya Pradesh in central India.
Police have arrested two men – identified as Hakam Singh and Rameshwar Singh – in connection with the attack.
“The accused are mentally stable and during the interrogation, they have said they committed this crime,” Rajesh Chandel, the superintendent of police of Shivpuri, told Reuters news agency, adding an investigation was ongoing.
There are a lot of untouchability issues in our village.
The two children belonged to what is known as the “scheduled castes”, commonly called “Dalits”, for their position in India‘s ancient caste hierarchy.
Avinash’s father, Manoj Valmiki, said the murders followed an altercation between the two families, where “casteist slurs” were used by the accused.
“I heard them crying for help. I went out to see what had happened and to my utter shock, I saw two men hitting them with sticks at a distance of about 60 to 70 feet from our house,” he told Al Jazeera by telephone.
“Before I could reach them, they were dead,” said 32-year-old Valmiki, who works as a labourer. “I couldn’t save them.”
He said the attackers tried to flee from the spot, but were caught by the villagers who handed them to the police.
Discrimination on the basis of caste is illegal in India but still widespread in the country, especially in rural areas where hundreds of millions of people live.
“There are a lot of untouchability issues in our village,” Valmiki told Reuters. “Our children cannot play with their children.”
Valmiki told Al Jazeera that Shivpuri district’s magistrate visited them on Thursday and gave two cheques of 400,000 rupees ($5,637) each as compensation.
He said the officer promised him that the two men would be given “strict” punishment.
“I want both of them hanged to death so that an example is set and no one kills anyone’s child like this in future,” he said.
Valmiki said the children had to defecate in the open because the family didn’t have a toilet at home.
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-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Modi launched the Swachh Bharat, or Clean India, mission in 2014, and is planning to declare India “open defecation free” (ODF) on October 2 this year, according to Indian media reports.
Earlier this week, the Indian leader was felicitated by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation at a ceremony in New York for his role in building millions of toilets across the South Asian nation of 1.3 billion people.
International human rights activists slammed the decision by the foundation, which defended it by saying that Modi’s efforts have helped millions to have access to safe sanitation.
Swachh Bharat has constructed more than 100 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 ODF in 2018, but that Valmiki’s house did not have a toilet.
Bilal Kuchay contributed to this report from New Delhi