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The Untouchables: Breaking Down Caste Barriers in India
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The Untouchables: Breaking Down Caste Barriers in India
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Despite being rejected by society since birth, millions of so-called "Untouchables" in India are beginning to win the battle against the prejudice that has denied them basic human rights for centuries. 

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Produced by UN 21st Century.

Learn more about Spoorthi's efforts to improve the quality of life for Untouchables in Karnataka, India.

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Segment 1

DALJIT DHALIWAL
Imagine being rejected by society since birth and being denied access to certain human rights because of your status in the community. Well, that's the reality facing millions of so-called "Untouchables" in India. Although the Indian government has been fighting prejudice against them, it still continues to this day.
VOICEOVER
They are considered the original inhabitants of coastal Karnataka in South India. They are called upon by their community to beat ceremonial drums, to race and guard water buffalo for the upper caste. They are the Koragas, one among the many Untouchable communities in India. Literally outcasts of society, they live on the edge of the forests in segregated communities, brought up to believe that they are inferior. India's 170 million Untouchables can face a lifetime of abuse, but slowly their status is changing. Basri is an Untouchable. She and her family are illiterate and desperately poor.
BASRI [Koraga]
It is our bad luck that our community has been cursed for such a long time.
VOICEOVER
Basri's granddaughter, Jaya, was sexually abused by an upper caste man, a fact she finds sad.
BASRI
Today, the men folk are not hesitant to touch us as they wish. But the women would not come near us. Sometimes, I can't resist asking: "Do worms grow in our bodies?"
VOICEOVER
Hindus place people into four castes, based on how they lived their past lives. At the top are the Brahmans: the priests and the scholars; and then the Kshatriyas: the rulers and soldiers. Below them are the Vaishyas: the merchants and traders; and then the Sudras, the laborers. The Untouchables, considered impure and unclean, are unworthy to belong to any caste. By tradition, they are the lowliest of the low. But they do have their champions. For nearly two decades, Keshav Koteshwar, an upper caste man, has been struggling to end the discrimination against Untouchables. At a time when few dared to, he entered the community. His goal: to change attitudes in the entrenched Indian caste system, including a custom in which the Koragas were expected to eat other people's scraps.
KESHAV KOTESHWAR
Earlier, the Koraga used to go to marriage halls and collect leftover food that was thrown there. They dry them like this and store them in a box. During the rainy season, they re-cook the food and consume it.
VOICEOVER
Untouchables also have a difficult time finding work.
KESHAV KOTESHWAR
Members of the Koraga are not given decent jobs. They are given only cleaning jobs in hotels and hospitals.
VOICEOVER
Historically, there have been many attempts to eradicate Untouchability. The most famous is the hunger strike led by Mohandas Gandhi in 1932. In 1955, the Indian Parliament passed legislation outlawing Untouchability. Today, national and state governments have a minimum quota of jobs set aside for Untouchables, but these are not always enforced, says Shukra, a Koraga working part-time in a government hospital.
SHUKRA
People promise that there are jobs reserved for the local community people. But no one is bothered. I am not blaming the government, but that is the reality.
VOICEOVER
For generations, the Koragas have accepted the limitations placed on them, following the traditional beliefs and practices dictated by the caste system without question. Sridhar explains.
SRIDHAR
In our village, we are not allowed into the house of rich families. We feel sad, but we accept it. Our families think that we are from the lower class.
VOICEOVER
In 1993, Keshav set up Spoorthi, a residential school for the Koraga kids, to teach them about equal rights and to stand up against such feudal customs. But people in the upper castes were reluctant to release them from work to go to school.
KESHAV KOTESHWAR
When we first started enrolling the Koraga kids, they asked me if my father would work in their houses if the kids are gone.
VOICEOVER
Only 10 students were enrolled in the first year. But Keshav persisted. He began staging hunger strikes and peaceful protests to draw attention to the plight of the Koragas. He led a movement to collect alms from home to home, village to village to raise funds to support the children's education. Today, the school provides a 12-year curriculum to 60 students, including a class teaching a dance form that is traditionally practiced only by the upper caste.
SRIDHAR
Earlier when our parents said that by entering the temple god will curse us, we used to believe them. But not any longer, thanks to my schooling. Now I have the confidence to talk with anyone. Earlier I used to be scared of even facing the upper caste people.
VOICEOVER
While progress is being made within the younger generation, many older members of the Untouchable communities continue to follow the traditional duties handed down to them. The Koragas lead processions to announce temple festivals, a duty that they have performed for generations, says Santosh.
SANTOSH
Traditionally my job is to guide the buffalo. This is a duty that I have inherited. If we don't do our duty, then the deity will create problems for us.
VOICEOVER
More importantly, Santosh and others fear losing the money, the rice, and the coconut they receive as donations for carrying out these rituals. Ganesh, a young Koraga, challenges this tradition. He joins Keshav in his fight to change perceptions about Untouchables.
GANESH
Only the lower caste participates in the buffalo procession. To bring equality, we suggest all communities participate because it is a program of the entire village.
VOICEOVER
At the village square, an intense discussion is taking place between members of the upper and lower castes about the procession. After much negotiation, Keshav succeeds in persuading both sides to join the march.
KP Adyanthaya
Do you have problems if we participate?
KORAGA
No.
VOICEOVER
Taking the lead is an influential upper caste man, KP Adyanthaya. He's the caretaker of a powerful local Hindu temple. This may seem like a small step, but it's deeply symbolic. The willingness of different caste members to march together shows that attitudes can change. It offers hope for the Untouchables: the possibility of breaking down centuries-old prejudice and caste barriers.
DALJIT DHALIWAL
That's all for this edition of 21st Century. I'm Daljit Dhaliwal, we'll see you next time. Until then, goodbye.