The Koraga Tribe – Untouchables among the untouchables

The midday sun beats down his back as Sharath (name changed) walks about the quadrangle at the Kasturba Medical College (KMC). The housekeeping workforce of Manipal Servicecorp Facility Management (MSFM) has gathered outside the hospital entrance to get the administration to meet their demands. Sharath, however, sits at a distance. He understands his co-workers’ angst, but he has his own story to tell.

Originally from Belgaum, he has been with MSFM for over a year. He holds up his blue shirt and says, “Look at my uniform. It is the only reason as to why people don’t question my family background. I am given work, and I get paid for it. That’s more than enough for me,” he says. Sharath may have found a way to dodge caste-ism, but many others wish they were as lucky as him.

In the very heart of the temple town resides the Koraga tribe, which still fights for a dignified position in society. “The Koragas who live in and around Udupi still face discrimination at many levels,” says Mandeep Shetty of the Karnataka Komu Souhrada Vedikae in Udupi. “We still hear instances of them not being allowed to use water from the wells that are used by people from other castes, including the other untouchables. In situations where their interests are ignored simply because of their background,” he says.

More than sixty years after the abolition of untouchability as pressed upon the Constitution of the country, the tribal still are made to follow practices, some unfair and even inhuman, which go beyond untouchability. One such practice is Ajaalu, which is carried out in many forms. Sriram Diwar, a freelance journalist based in Udupi, defines it through one instance. “Should the child be born on the ‘bad’ day, such as the new moon, the father gives away the child to someone from the Koragas. Later, the infant is ‘bought’ back by him; this way, the misfortune is transferred to the tribe,” he says.

Members of higher castes have a method by which they believe they can symbolically transfer sins or even an illness to another human being. Should any of them fall ill, the family calls upon any woman from the Koraga tribe, who is made to eat food with the fingernails or the hair of the patient mixed with it. This is their way of freeing the patient of the illness; they believe that this can symbolically transfer the disease to the lower rung of society. And it happens even today, laments Diwar.

As an aftermath of exclusion from the social and economic benefits, these “untouchables that live among untouchables” face many problems within their community regarding health and hygiene. Heavy alcoholism is prevalent among men, while women and children suffer from malnutrition. Their primary means of livelihood, basket weaving, has also come under threat because of deforestation. The upcoming factories and industries near forests have led to the decline of their resources.

Education amongst the tribal has its own story. Only a maximum of 200 individuals out of 13,000 people have received education in undergraduate fields. Many children drop out of school to support their families financially. Those who do continue with it often face discrimination at the hands of teachers from higher classes.

“When I was in school, I was the only Koraga in my class. I was always made to sit on the last bench. I was not allowed to drink the water provided by the school. Once, during a public holiday, our teacher (who belonged to a higher class) took the entire class to the temple. But I was told to stand outside,” narrates Dinakar Kenjoor, head of the Koraga Abhivridhi Sanghagala Okkoota (Federation of Koraga Development Association). “I had my brothers and sisters in school; they too had to endure the same thing. And today, our children go through it,” adds Kenjoor, a guest lecturer of Commerce at Mangalore University.

In classrooms or on a public stage, inequality knows no place. The treatment the Koragas receive at the traditional bull racing sport of the Kambala festival, where they are required to beat the Dollu drums, is described as inhumane by them. Apprehensive of the same, the Koraga from Udupi asked the Tehsildar to ensure that the Karnataka Koraga (Prohibition of Ajaalu Act), 2000, was not violated.  Taking no note of their pleas, the organizers hired Koraga from other parts of Karnataka, pushing the Koraga Abhivridhi Sanghagala to stage a protest in December 2011 in Udupi.

“Nothing has changed. The rest of the society isn’t open to accepting us,” says Kumara Koraga, an auto driver in Manipal. A member of Udupi Nagara Sabha, he has been trying to make a difference in the welfare of one of the most backward communities in India. “As a nominated member, I feel that I get respect only for the post I hold, not for the person I am,” he says. However, his proposals are often brushed under the carpet, and he wonders if that has something to do with his surname.

K. Jayaprakash Hegde, MP from Udupi-Chikmanglur, had proposed the inclusion of the Koragas in the Scheduled Tribes list in May 2012, as opposed to the Backward Classes list in which they currently fall.

“It is all just talk,” remarks Kenjoor. “We can always try to change the injustice system. But the real problem lies in the society itself. How much can the law do if people can’t learn to accept everyone?” he goes on.  A ruling can eradicate a practice, but if the mindset doesn’t change, he says some other form of discrimination always finds its way back into the system.

Reporter Bhavya Balakrishnan | The Manipal Journal

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