THE kuchcha house with its brick tile roof in Hosadu village of Karnataka’s Udupi district stands out for the B R Ambedkar poster that covers almost half its length. On the night of April 24, though, it wasn’t the poster that led the attackers to it. A girl of the house was getting engaged the next day and, post-midnight, the preparations were still on. As the bride-to-be sat surrounded by giggling cousins discussing the mehndi and other festivities, in another corner, men were preparing beef to be served at the next day’s meal. More than 40 people hung around.
Eventually the party would be scaled down, to a hundred people, from the 300 they were expecting. Around 12.30 am that night, a mob attacked the house and beat up three tribals for killing a cow at their home. But, says Shakuntala, the owner of the house, for Koraga tribals like her, the festivities couldn’t have been complete without beef. A total of eight families live in Hosadu’s Ganadamakki Koraga Colony.
“Initially, we Koragas ate the meat of dead cows. But later the government banned this. Now we purchase cow or male calf and sometimes people from other castes give them to us as gifts to eat. On April 24, we were preparing the cow meat for engagement, as it happens at functions organised by our families, when they attacked,” says Shakuntala.
However, the 42-year-old, of a tribe that has long lived on the scraps of upper castes, at the edges of villages and towns, decided not to let the attackers get away.
On the basis of her complaint, police filed a case against a gang of 13, including Sunil Poojari, Chandrakanth Poojari, Gururaja Acharya and 10 others, for attacking the tribals. The ‘gau rakshaks’, in turn, filed a complaint with police against the residents of the Hosadu house for slaughtering a cow. All, including the cow vigilantes and tribals, are out on bail.
Karnataka’s Prevention of Cow Slaughter and Cattle Preservation Act says a cow can be slaughtered in the state only if it is certified as suffering from a disease, or for research at a government-recognised institute. It also prohibits anyone from selling or disposing of a cow, if they have knowledge it would be slaughtered. The Koragas, in turn, say that they stumbled upon beef more out of necessity. For long, like many other aspects of their lives, what the Koragas eat has been determined by their place in the social hierarchy.
One of the most neglected tribes in India, they are on the Centre’s list of primitive tribal groups. The 2011 Census put their numbers at 14,794 in Karnataka, with around 2,000 more in Kerala. Very few among the community are educated, and most of them work as daily wagers or sweepers or weave baskets for a living.
Many Koragas, including Shakuntala, have grown up with the memory of collecting food mixed with human hair, nails and other such material from upper caste homes. The upper castes forced this superstition, called Ajalu, on the Koragas as they believed that any illnesses in their families would be transferred to the tribals if they consumed the food. In 2000, the government banned the practice through a legislation.
Bogra Koraga, the head of the Koraga Samiti in Udupi, says the practice still continues since police turn a blind eye to it. According to him, beef became a part of the Koraga diet when they started to migrate into hamlets around Dakshina Kannada and Udupi from the forests a few centuries ago. “The Koragas would go near villages in search of food and pick up leftovers. Villagers slowly started to ask them to help with the disposal of dead cows. They began collecting meat from those cows and started to eat it,” says Bogra.
Shakuntala says that over the years, mixing of human hair and nails by upper castes in their food stopped as the younger Koragas revolted. But the practice of collecting food from upper caste homes continued. “Even now, those among the older generation go to upper caste houses to collect food on Saturdays and New Moon days. Now they give them leftover food from their kitchen and not from their plates. Earlier they would threaten and blackmail that bad luck would befall us if we didn’t eat the food they gave us,” she says.
Sabitha, now an assistant professor at Mangalore University, remembers accompanying her mother, aunts and grandmother as a child to collect leftover food. “My father died when I was around 5. I used to go with the others for Ajalu. There was no question of resisting… we just took it as our fate at the time,” Sabitha says. The Koragas are also forced to run barefeet over wet farmlands in coastal Karnataka ahead of the traditional Kambala buffalo races, to ensure that there are no glass pieces or holes in the path that can hurt the buffaloes. The races, banned for a long time, resumed recently. Sabitha points out that Kambala organisers now give the Koragas uniforms as part of the “job”.
Many Koragas are also in demand for their drum-beating skills, and are hired to protect agricultural fields from wild animals or during festivals and deaths. Among the few persons from the Koraga community to obtain a Ph.D and break away from the traditional occupations of the community, Sabitha says, “I struggled to complete my education. I quit school twice before I was able to join college with the help of an NGO.” Now she stays with her husband and brother in Mangaluru. The Karnataka government has in recent years announced free houses and land for the Koragas. State Social Welfare Minister H Anjaneya, who is from a Scheduled Caste community, stayed at a Koraga colony near Udupi on the night of December 31, 2016, to bring in the New Year.
However, as the Koragas are a tiny community, thinly spread out, they count little for political leaders. A few members of the community such as Shakuntala have got elected as gram panchayat members on seats reserved for STs, but that too is only possible when there aren’t any other tribal communities in their villages. Sabitha says their ordeal doesn’t end there. “Even when the Koragas are elected to panchayats, they are not allowed into the panchayat office. Upper-caste people take all the decisions and only obtain the signatures of Koraga members. Some money is given by the upper-caste leaders to Koragas in return.” While Shakuntala is into her second term as Hosadu gram panchayat member, her son Cheluva, with whom she lives, is a sweeper in the panchayat office. Shakuntala, whose husband left her within a year of their marriage, works as a daily wager to make ends meet.
Mahesh Koniki, who was among those assaulted, was also arrested by police for slaughtering a cow. He says the assaulters took photographs of the meat before leaving. “They threatened us that they would pour petrol and set our colony ablaze if we continue eating beef,” he says.
N Vishnuvardhan, Additional Superintendent of Police (Udupi district), says cows can’t be killed for the purpose of consumption in the state, except for a few exemptions. “What the Koraga youths did was an offence and they will be punished if the allegations are proved,” he says.
Advocate Sanjeev Poojari, who is representing the ‘gau rakshaks’, says police filed a case against Shakuntala’s family members based on genuine information. Even the complainant in the case is a Dalit, he says.
Bogra points out that still nobody had the right to attack the tribals. “Eating beef is a need of the Koraga community. If there were violations of law, they could have informed police, but they chose to attack us.”