Interview: Dalit woman appointed UN Special Rapporteur says caste a global phenomenon

TNM speaks to Ashwini KP, the first Dalit woman to be appointed as the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance by the UN.
Ashwini KP
Ashwini KP

Refusing to acknowledge the problem of caste in USA, Google had recently cancelled a talk on caste-based discrimination. This was despite allegations of a Dalit employee being discriminated by his superiors from the Upper Caste community reported in the USA, which resulted in a lawsuit. Amidst the discussion around the practice of caste discrimination among Indian diaspora, the United Nations has appointed 36-year-old Ashwini KP, a Dalit woman from India as the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. Ashwini is the first Dalit woman from Asia appointed on the role by the UN Human Rights Council.    

In an interview to TNM, Ashwini traces her journey, the struggles both as a woman and a Dalit, her activism, her politcs, and the consequences she had to face for asserting her caste identity.  

Congratulations on your appointment by the UN Human Rights Council as the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. How significant is this step as a woman and also a Dalit.

Thank you. I feel this is a huge opportunity I have received particularly in the context of the mandate that I would be heading at the UN. Representation of women and marginalised communities in positions of power and decision making has always been disproportionate. The inadequate representation of marginalised communities had constantly affected the manner in which issues related to equality and discrimination has been addressed at various platforms.  Being a woman and a Dalit, this opportunity has opened several avenues to me to address dissent and occupation-based discrimination in the context of intersectionality. For the longest time the issue of Dalit women has been pushed under the garb of gender with minimum or no consideration to the caste aspect that affects Dalit women immensely. I strongly feel representation of Dalit women in positions like this will bring genuine discussion and discourse about gender and caste which very much resonates with the mandate that I will part of.  

Your contributions to observe Dalit History Month suggests that you are an Ambedkarite. How do you see racism from Ambedkar’s point of view?

I actively took part in Dalit History Month which is initiated by Project Mukti is primarily to focus on the history and narrative of the Dalit history and various aspects of the Dalit community which is often appropriated or not spoke of. The time I spent for Dalit history month has taught me several aspects in terms of the distinctive themes and topics that we as a team focused on. Dalit history month was truly a process of knowledge creation which will facilitate in constructing an authentic history of the Dalit assertion. Babasaheb Ambedkar has written and spoken extensively about caste and racism. He was also of the opinion that though caste and racism are similar to each other, the aspect of untouchability makes the caste system worse than racism. He has provided a socio-political and legal perspective of how caste or race should be addressed. This perspective on race provided by Ambedkar is extremely significant in the process of anti-caste or anti-racism movements in the global context.   

You had done a PhD in South Asian studies and worked for marginalised communities with Amnesty India. How did this tenure shape your opinions on caste and race?  

I completed my doctoral thesis in the Centre of South Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. I chose to do a comparative study of India and Nepal in the context of Dalit human rights. My thesis tilted ‘International dimension of Dalit human rights: A case study of India and Nepal” focused on the status of Dalits in the context of rights and legality in the global context with specific reference to the various mechanism at the United Nations. In the process of doctoral thesis I had the opportunity to engage with several senior Dalit activists, academicians both in India and outside. Many of the activists and academicians I spoke to were engaged with various platforms at the UN. Their experience helped to build my understanding about the complexities and similarities that caste and race have. 

I worked as a senior campaigner with the business and human rights team at Amnesty. My work was related to the land rights of Adivasis communities in states like Chhattisgarh and Odisha. The work I did at Amnesty exposed me to the veracities of the lives of indigenous communities in the most remote parts of these states. The struggles of both Dalit and Adivasi communities are similar. As a Dalit woman I could relate to the lived experiences of Adivasis particularly the women from Adivasi community. Adivasis and Dalits are often exposed to Descent and occupation based discrimination. Various intricate aspects that lie in both caste and race made us understand the similarities and the importance of highlighting the need to address caste with similar rigour like that of race. 

Revealing one's caste is extremely complicated—some people assert their marginalised identity, some do not—and you did not shy away from disclosing your caste identity. How did this affect you?

Caste is everywhere and it is not easy for everyone to be assertive about their caste identities. In my case, the credit of me being assertive about my caste identity goes to my parents. This was also possible because of the environment I was brought up in. I came from a background where being caste conscious was not seen as a problem. Having educated parents and their guidance helped me understand my social identity in a political and social perspective. I had the privilege of being assertive about my caste identity which many of them don’t. Disclosing identity is one the complex situations that every marginalised individual is exposed to. Also, it is not easy to be assertive and open about one's identity. Caste assertion in the context of Dalits is often misunderstood and is construed in a negative connotation. I have experienced mixed reactions with regards to my caste identity. I have also faced the brunt of being assertive about my identity wherein I was told that it is not necessary for one to be open about their caste identity thereby dismissing my experience of being a Dalit woman.

As a woman coming from a Dalit community, you must have faced enormous challenges in all spheres. How did you take on those challenges? Could you trace back to the formative years which made you who you are now?

Honestly, it is not easy to be a Dalit woman and be assertive.  Yes, there have been several instances both in academia and other spaces where I have faced hostility and discrimination. I have been denied opportunities for being assertive. The spaces that I have been and worked in have been majorly represented by the privileged communities. This created a hostile environment for me to engage on issues related to caste and marginalisation. That did not stop me from continuing my work whether caste or marginalisation. Nevertheless, there were like-minded individuals who were extremely supportive. Also, I was keen and committed to issues related to caste, gender and marginalisation which kept me sailing through. Apart from being oriented and conscious of anti-caste and Ambedkarite movements since childhood, I was politically active and took part in various events as a student. I was part of United Dalit students’ forum at Jawaharlal Nehru University, which exposed me to student activism. For the last 10 years, I am also associated with several grassroots organisations that mainly focus on Dalits, Adivasis and women’s rights. My exposure to grassroots organisations transformed my perspective with regards to the ground realities of marginalisation, particularly in the context of gender. My experience in academia, activism, research and progressive spaces has made me who I am.

Do you think that your presence in the UN would shed more light on casteism? And can we expect your effort to highlight the role of caste in India and other South Asian countries?

I strongly feel representation brings immense difference in highlighting the issues related to marginalised communities. I have worked extensively and focused on the subjects related to descent and occupation based discrimination and anti-caste movement both in academics and activist space.  Today, caste as factor of discrimination is no more confined to the South Asian sub-continent. Caste has become a global phenomenon affecting millions across the globe. I as a Dalit woman have lived experiences of discrimination and exclusion. This experience can never be ignored in the work I will pursue at the UN. The institutionalised form of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, caste and similar forms of discrimination continues to affect millions. Since the Durban Conference, caste has been a subject of discussion at the UN and many other global platforms. As an academic and an activist, I will certainly work on highlighting the issue of caste and the need to internationally recognise it as an aspect of discrimination. 

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