NEW DELHI: Two children were beaten to death in India for defecating in the open, police said Thursday (Sep 26), underlining the violence sometimes unleashed to enforce Prime Minister Narendra Modi's flagship cleanliness drive.
The children, identified as 12-year-old girl Roshni and her nephew Avinash, a 10-year-old boy, were attacked at around 6.30am local time on Wednesday, police superintendent Rajesh Chandel told Reuters.
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 children had been on their way to their grandfather's house in the Shivpuri district in the central state of Madhya Pradesh on Wednesday.
"It was early morning and they had stopped to attend to nature's call" when they were attacked, police inspector-general Raja Babu Singh told AFP by phone.
"The kids were taken to the hospital but they succumbed to their injuries."
Roshni and Avinash 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."
READ: Modi proclaims a cleaner India, but the reality may be more murky
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.
The multi-billion-dollar campaign combines raising awareness, subsidies for making latrines, and communal naming and shaming of those still relieving themselves in the open.
A news channel earlier urged viewers to send in images of those defecating in the open so they could be shamed on national television.
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.
"We don't have a toilet at home. The children went out to defecate in the morning," Manoj Balmiki was quoted as saying by the Press Trust of India news agency.
"The (brothers) ... shouted at them for defecating on the road and rained sticks on their heads while the children were relieving themselves, killing them in seconds."
Catching those defecating in the open has previously resulted in violence.
In 2017, a man was lynched after he tried to stop authorities from photographing women who were defecating in the open.