Outrage in India over Dalit farmers’ suicide attempt after police beating

(Reuters) – LUCKNOW: A lower-caste Dalit couple in India attempted suicide after police beat them and destroyed their crops, triggering calls on Thursday for an end to brutal evictions of poor minorities.

An online video showing half a dozen police officers dragging and beating the couple with sticks to evict them from government-owned land in central Madhya Pradesh state has been viewed more than 1 million times since it took place on Tuesday.

The couple consumed pesticide moments after the eviction and were rushed to hospital, S. Vishwanath, head of the local administration, told a news conference late on Wednesday, hours before he and the police chief were removed from their posts.

“To force a couple to attempt suicide by damaging their crops … is most cruel and shameful,” Kumari Mayawati, a Dalit political leader, said on Twitter.

“Nationwide condemnation of the incident is natural. Government should take strict action.”

Government and senior police officials were not immediately available for comment.

The eviction was part of a drive to stop encroachment on land and the area the couple was farming had been allotted for the construction of a college, said a policeman who declined to be named as he was not authorised to talk to the media.

Six police officers were suspended on Thursday and the state government has ordered an investigation into the incident.

India banned discrimination based on caste – a system which divided Hindus into groups based on occupations – in 1955. But centuries-old biases against lower-caste groups persist, making it harder for them to access education, jobs and homes.

A growing population and rising pressure on land to build homes, highways and industry is triggering conflicts, with lower-caste citizens often facing eviction, particularly in rural areas where biases are most entrenched, campaigners say.

More than half of India’s lower-caste population is landless, according to census data. Several states have laws aimed at giving land to Dalits but few have produced results, according to Dalit activists and leaders.

“They were begging the police to not destroy their crops as they were in debt … but the police did not listen to them,” N. Kumar, a neighbour of the couple, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Nankhedi village.

He said the couple had asked the police to wait two months so that they could harvest their crops.

Ram Prakash Sharma, a tribal and Dalits’ rights activist in Madhya Pradesh, described the incident as “unfortunate” and urged authorities to do more to help the couple.

“The Dalits in Madhya Pradesh are one of the most backward people and they do not own farming land,” he said.

“The government must provide this couple a house and employment so that they can feed their kids and not die of starvation.”