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Maid Murder and the Plight of the Help


Police in India, who have opened a murder investigation in the death of a household maid in her mid-thirties whose bruised and burnt body was found last week at the home of a federal lawmaker, expect an official autopsy report on Tuesday, a Delhi police official told The Wall Street Journal.

The woman’s body was found a week ago in a porta-cabin that served as her living quarters in the sprawling bungalow’s rear courtyard, according to police, and the death has raised concerns about how Indian employers, and professional women in particular, treat household help.

“She had burn injuries on the stomach, on the back,” said Shio Balak Singh Tyagi, deputy commissioner of police for the New Delhi district, the political heart of India’s capital. Mr. Tyagi said the woman also had multiple head injuries that appeared to be caused by a blunt object.

Police last Tuesday arrested Jagriti Singh, a dentist at a state-run hospital and the wife of lawmaker Dhananjay Singh of the regional Bahujan Samaj Party, and are investigating her on suspicion of murder, Mr. Tyagi said. She has not been formally charged with a crime, and could not be reached directly for comment while she remains in police custody. Her lawyer, N. Hariharan, declined to comment.

Mr. Singh is also in custody and under investigation for concealing evidence of a crime, according to police, but has also not been charged with a crime. Mr. Singh had reported the woman’s death to the police, but said that the woman had died in a fall, according to the police. Police say Mr. Singh tried to conceal the whereabouts of a second maid from the police, who is now under police protection and receiving medical treatment for a fracture, police say.

Ashok Singh, a political aide for Mr. Singh, said the lawmaker was innocent of any crime and was cooperating fully with the police. The two men are not related.

A 17-year-old boy who was working in the home, and who police say was also beaten over several months, is also under police protection.

Ashok Singh, the aide, said the lawmaker had been in his political district at the time of the alleged beatings and death.

“I have not seen him hit anyone with a shoe or even his hand” said the aide.

The aide also said that Mr. Singh is in the midst of divorce proceedings and for several months had not been living at the home where the death occurred. Mr. Hariharan, the lawyer, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this account.

The maid died around the time of the Hindu festival of Diwali – when households in India go on a cleaning spree to attract the blessings of the goddess of wealth and god of new beginnings, and are more than usually demanding of domestic help.

The police say that the 17-year-old told them that Mrs. Singh increased the number of beatings she gave the maid who died the day before Diwali, because she was working too slowly.

The next day, when the woman could not get up, Mrs. Singh began kicking her, the boy told police, according to the police and a police document reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The day after Diwali, the woman’s body was stiff, the boy noticed, according to the police document.

The death of the woman, who is believed to be from the Indian state of West Bengal, from where many domestic workers come to the capital for work, comes on the heels of several other publicized investigations of abuse of domestic help from the hinterland by professional woman in the capital.

In late October, Delhi police began investigating an air hostess for a state-run airline on suspicion of abusing a young woman who worked for her as maid, the India Today weekly magazine reported. 

Roop Narayan, a head constable at the Sarojini Nagar police station where the case was registered, said the suspect, who has denied wrongdoing and filed an application for bail, remains in police custody in Delhi’s Tihar jail. She could not be reached for comment. It was unclear if she had engaged a lawyer.

And on Oct. 1, police in Delhi arrested a spokeswoman for the Indian unit of French engineering firm Alstom S.A. on suspicion of allegedly abusing a full-time maid living in her home. Vandana Dhir has not been formally charged with a crime, her lawyer said this week, declining to comment further on the investigation.

An Alstom India spokeswoman could not immediately comment Tuesday. Previously an Alstom spokeswoman in Paris called the investigation “a private matter,” and declined further comment.

But in this most recent investigation, the account offered by the 17-year-old to the police appeared especially gruesome, according to interviews and a police document reviewed by The Journal.

He said that severe beatings began for him and the other two maids around spring. One time, he was beaten with a metal replica of a deer’s head with antlers, drawing blood from his head.

Another time Mrs. Singh shoved a door latch in his mouth, drawing blood, the 17-year-old told the police.

“When she saw she had made us bleed she told us seeing blood didn’t make her feel sorry and to clean up the blood,” the boy said in a statement to the police.

On Diwali, he was beaten for waking the dentist up at 4 a.m., instead of 10 minutes earlier, the statement said.

Video cameras were installed all over the house, including in a bathroom used by the domestic help, police say.

The events are alleged to have occurred in a government-provided residence in an area from where top ministries and the president’s official residence is visible. A police post and station are also located nearby.

But the 17-year-old told police that he and the other servants lived in slavery-like conditions: They were locked inside when Mrs. Singh left the home, and were also told the security guards would shoot them if they tried to run away. They were not allowed to have cellphones or use the house landline, the boy claimed, according to a police official.

The boy also told the police he had never directly received any money while working at the home, but that he was told his mother was receiving 2,000 rupees (around $30) every month. Police say they confirmed that these payments were made.

Police say they are trying to verify whether the family of the deceased woman, or the family of the other maid, received any payments over the period of nearly a year that the women worked in the home.

Rishi Kant, an activist with the nonprofit Shakti Vahini, which rescues domestic workers from abusive situations, said the rise in cases of exploitation by educated, upwardly mobile women was very troubling. The organization alerted police to the alleged abuse by the Alstom spokeswoman, after receiving a tip-off from the area.

“For so many years women were suppressed. And suddenly women are becoming empowered. Women are working,” said Mr. Kant. The activist added that for some women, when faced with the pressure to run a home and do the bidding of relatives as well as excel professionally, “it all culminates in anger.”

“And then the violence starts,” said Mr. Kant.

– Saptarishi Dutta contributed to this post.

 Follow India Real Time on Twitter @WSJIndia.

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