MUMBAI, India – Catholic leaders in India are demanding answers after the death of a Dalit Catholic woman in custody after she was accused of stealing money from a church.
The Telangana High Court last week ordered a judicial inquiry into the death of the woman, allegedly due to police brutality, on June 18, The Times of India reported. An inspector and two constables were suspended in connection with the woman’s death.
Telangana is located in central India, and Christians make up around 1 percent of the population of the state.
The police had taken the woman, named Mariamma, and her son, Uday, into custody on June 15 to question them about the theft of over $2,500 from the premises of a church where she worked. Their lawyers have alleged that they were tortured for three days.
Assistant Commissioner of Police N. Shyam Prasad Rao told the newspaper that the woman complained of uneasiness during questioning on June 17 night. She was soon moved to a hospital but was declared dead on arrival on the morning of June 18.
Dalits, formerly known as Untouchables, suffer discrimination in India, and allegations of persecution an abuse by the authorities are common in the country.
Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak, the Chairperson bishops’ conference Office for Scheduled Caste and Backward Classes said he was shocked by the news of the case and demanded a thorough investigation.
“I am not aware to the details; however, life is life, and the death of the Dalit Catholic – or anyone – in police custody is very condemnable,” he told Crux.
If there is an accusation of theft, the police must carry out proper investigation, and the court will decide guilt or innocence, but life has to be protected and saved. It is very sad that Mariamma was killed in police custody,” he continued. “The police are supposed to take care of life and law and order situation.”
Jesuit Father A. X. J. Bosco, a Dalit human rights activist, said the “merciless killing” of the woman in police custody was “only one such of innumerable instances that cries for Justice.”
“Dalits are discriminated, Dalit Christian’s are doubly discriminated, and Dalit Christian women suffer the worst,” the priest told Crux.
Bosco noted that Indian law doesn’t afford the same protections to Dalits who are Christian or Muslim as it does to those belonging to the Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist religions. He said all Dalits, no matter their religion, “suffer the same plight; they are looked down upon with contempt; they face the same atrocities.”
“And so, the Dalit Christians and Muslims must be brought under the purview of the Prevention of Atrocities Act 1989. They must be given the same legal protection and privileges in the legal procedures and compensations as Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist Dalits,” he said.
Father Devasagaya Raj, former national secretary of the Commission for Scheduled Castes at the Indian bishops’ conference, said the facts surrounding the detention and death of Mariamma are “horrible and disgusting.”
“It’s nothing more than a police murder,” he claimed.
“Vulnerable people face discrimination from society and even those who, like law enforcement, should be neutral are on the side of the oppressors. It is another shock when we hear the custodial death of Mariamma,” the priest continued.
“The First Information Report [the document prepared by police when a crime is reported] shows that she was taken to the police station along with two more men for an alleged theft. For the theft of less than [$2,500] a life is gone. The life of the Dalit is equated with little money. Whether Christian or Hindu or Muslim the lives of the Dalits are taken away just for the loss of little money,” he said.
During a hearing on the case last week, the High Court asked the lawyer why there were no CCTV cameras at the station despite orders from the Supreme Court that police stations have cameras installed.
It added that CCTV cameras could help police officers prove their innocence.
“Suppose if the victim died of a heart attack, then they can easily establish their innocence,” the court said.