Special Rapporteurs are independent experts appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), who personally serve and report on human rights from the perspective of a specific country.
The 47-member Geneva based UNHRC endorsed the appointment of Ashwini KP, a Dalit activist and professor of political science on 21 October. The position opened up after incumbent E Tendayi Achiume, from Zambia, resigned before completing her tenure.
Ashwini was a part of a three-member shortlist recommended by the Consultative Group for selection to the HRC’s president, Federico Villegas, who nominated her to the Council. She was appointed by the council at the conclusion of its 51st session, on 21 October.
The shortlist also included fellow Indian Joshua Castellino and Unity Dow from Botswana.
Hailing from Karnataka’s Kolar district, Ashwini completed her graduation from Mount Carmel College in Bengaluru after being schooled in various districts across the state. She subsequently pursued her Masters from St Joseph’s College, Bengaluru, and went on to complete her MPhil and PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University.
She is the co-founder of a Zariya: Women’s Alliance for Dignity and Equality, an NGO and has previously worked with Amnesty International.
The First Dalit Special Rapporteur
“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,” she said in her application to the UNHRC.
Her research areas include UN mechanism, descent and occupation-based discrimination.
Ashwini mentioned that she has worked with indigengious communities of Chhattisgarh and Odisha “who were victims of illegal land acquisition,” and added that her current role as an academician and researcher specifically focuses on descent and occupation based discrimination.
Ashwini KP is the first Dalit to be appointed to the role and has praised the exposure to progressive movements that she received at an early age. In an interview to The Leaflet, she said:
“I come from an Ambedkarite family and because of this, I received academic and activist orientation at a very young age. My parents made sure that I received exposure to Dalit and other progressive movements. This exposure has had an immense impact on developing my understanding of progressive movements, particularly Ambedkarite philosophy and the Anti-caste movement.”
During her time at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Ashwini KP was an active part the student movement and was a part of the United Dalit Students Forum at JNU.
She also said that though not overtly, she experienced “several instances where I have faced hostility for being assertive and vocal about anti-caste issues,” adding that she had been denied opportunities on multiple instances.
“In urban and progressive areas, caste and gender discrimination manifest in the most nuanced manner. Being assertive always comes at a cost,” she said, but added that these events helped her develop “academic and field experience.”
A Widespread Mandate Against Discrimination
Ashwini KP said that her basic mandate is racism, xenophobia and issues related to different forms of intolerance.
“I will focus on apartheid, racism, region-based discrimination, Islamophobia, discrimination against the migrants, and so on,” she said, adding that she will draw specific focus to racism within the Indian diaspora in the US and discrimination against migrants workers in West Asia.
While caste is not a part of her official mandate, Ashwini believes that caste is closely related to racism, and is strongly operating within the US’ Indian Diaspora. She also said that there is a strong need to address gender-based racism and xenophobia.
“The racism faced by the African women is different from others. The struggles of the Muslim women is different. So, I am very much interested in looking at gender issues in racism,” she said.
In her application letter, Ashwini explains her motivation to initially apply for the position and says that the post gives her the opportunity to use her academic and activist experience simultaneously and to bring solutions to several forms of discrimination.
Presently, she is keen to address issues of how social media is systematically used to spread and amplify hate. In a conversation with The Hindu, she said, “Dalit women, African women, and Muslim women are often targets. Death and rape threats are normal. I plan to address these issues in UNHRC.”