In the 51st session of the UN held in November, Ashwini K.P become the first Asian-Dalit woman rapporteur as an independent expert on racism, xenophobia and related intolerance for a term of three years. Owing to her persistence, grit and dedication, Ashwini was endorsed by a 57-member UNHRC (Geneva) and was one of the three-member shortlisted and recommended by the Consultative Group. It was HRC’s president, Federico Villegas, who nominated her to the Council.
“For the longest time, the concept of intersectionality was least discussed or never taken into consideration. At present they cannot afford to neglect intersectionality owing to the emergence of the discourse of marginalised women, or of Dalit, Adivasi, Muslims and so on. It is important to remember that women are not homogenous. The struggle of every woman and other gender binaries in India differ depending on the communities, religions, and regions they belong to. It is significant to incorporate the concept of intersectionality, be it in gender, caste, class, region or both in the Anti-caste and feminist movements.“Ashwini K.P
In her application to the UNHRC, she said “Belonging to a marginalised community myself, an Indian Dalit woman, working on issues related to descent and occupation-based discrimination has been part of my professional space, research and activism and are not new to me.”
Hailing from a small town called Chikkaballapur in Karnataka, Ashwini completed her education at Mount Carmel college, her Master’s in Political Science from St Joseph’s and she later went on to do an MPhil and PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University. During her JNU days, she successfully completed her comparative study of India and Nepal in the context of the human rights of Dalits and how they were subject to exploitation. The theme of her thesis was ‘The International Dimension of Dalit Human Rights: A Case Study of India and Nepal.’
During the completion of her doctoral thesis, she found herself interacting with numerous Dalit activists and academics, both from India and abroad. Through this process, she gained experience that contributed to her understanding of casteism and racism.
Ashwini was also a part of the Samyukta Dalit in JNU which gave her the opportunity to explore student activism and become the voice of the marginalised. In college, she participated in anti-caste and Ambedkarite movements and was deeply influenced by them. As a woman of colour and medium stature, she also faced severe discrimination throughout her life, however, at 36, her journey from a small town in Karnataka to Geneva is a reminder of how one can overcome her odds and achieve what one wishes to desire.
In an interview, she said “In terms of my struggle, though not overtly, there have been several instances where I have faced hostility for being assertive and vocal about anti-caste issues. There have been several instances where I have been denied opportunities. In urban and progressive areas, caste and gender discrimination manifest in the most nuanced manner. Being assertive always comes at a cost.“
Ashwini always believed in the power of helping the poor and also became a senior campaigner at Amnesty International India. After joining the organisation in 2017, she extensively worked on the issues and rights relating to tribal communities of Chhattisgarh and Odisha. Her research allowed her to understand the various challenges associated with race and the occupation of tribal communities. She propagated the rights of these vulnerable communities, residing in the most remote areas, at an international level.
When asked about how her mandate as the UN rapporteur for intolerance will address the caste issue, she claimed that while there are several conventions and working groups operational to address caste-based issues it remains necessary to analyse and assess policies and legislations and their effective implementation at the country level. Ashwini believes that via protective legislation in states across the country, caste discrimination can be curbed in the Indian diaspora and the rights and interests of the communities can be protected. She also added that through her mandate she would like to focus on intersectionality and gender that involve the LGBTQIA+ community.
In an interview, she has stated that “For the longest time, the concept of intersectionality was least discussed or never taken into consideration. At present they cannot afford to neglect intersectionality owing to the emergence of the discourse of marginalised women, or of Dalit, Adivasi, Muslims and so on. It is important to remember that women are not homogenous. The struggle of every woman and other gender binaries in India differ depending on the communities, religions, and regions they belong to. It is significant to incorporate the concept of intersectionality, be it in gender, caste, class, region or both in the Anti-caste and feminist movements.“
Moreover, Ashwini emphasised social transformation through representation which meant that true progress in society could be achieved by representing the needs, demands and intersections of a marginalised group in a country with the second most population. At an international level, this not only a win for the Dalit community but gave reassurance to all other marginalised communities across that they too are heard and of importance in society.
Therefore, leaders like Ashwini serve as an inspiration to all aspiring activists and non-state social actors. Her story dictates that if the cause of achieving equality for marginalised groups in society is staunch, one will succeed at a national or international level. Her achievement is a larger win for all proponents of intersectionality.