It has been decades since India has seen the emergence of new Dalit leaders. The few that did show their faces long after Independence were either a chip off the old Brahminical block and were quickly coopted by the system playing politics according to the well laid rules of the maharaja and praja game. This has been evident in the style of functioning of most, including Bahujan Samaj party chief Mayawati who started her career by sitting on the high chair while all her party leaders and even Ministers sitting at her feet. Instead of abolishing the system that had led to the subjugation of the Dalits, these leaders used their politics and support to basically sit on the high table with the ruling elite.

Today, the difference is remarkable. Two Dalit leaders have emerged within a year---one in Gujarat, the other in Uttar Pradesh---both states where oppression has seen invincible heights. Jagnish Mevani has just completed a ten day Freedom March (Azadi Kooch) through the interiors of Gujarat (covered extensively by The Citizen), pushing ahead doggedly despite government efforts to stall the movement. Cases are piling up against Mevani, as indeed those who are with him, but along with these the support too is growing. He emerged from the Una atrocity, and since then has worked relentlessly to unite the marginalised sections of society on a platform founded on economic and social rights.

The second leader is Chandrashekhar, who is currently in jail with serious cases slapped on him, who came into the spotlights in Saharanpur where his Bhim Army played a major role in preventing the violence from taking on a Dalit versus Muslim hue. Chandrashekhar, at a subsequent meeting at Jantar Mantar where thousands turned up to listen to him, made it clear that any one who opposed the BJP government these days was branded a terrorist, a Naxalite.

He is in jail now with the Bhim Army struggling for his release.

The courage shown by these leaders is exemplary, as has been their effort to link with other new leaders and movements. There is a directness about their communication that is fearless, simple, and yet highly political. This leadership has left the surviving Dalit leader---well just about--- Mayawati, floundering. Her little drama of resigning from the Rajya Sabha because she was not allowed to speak on the concerns of the Dalits, is a case in point. It is clearly a move to get her little spot in the sun, given the fact that she does not travel or meet people, she does not lead struggles, she does not visit incident spots, she does not mingle with the Dalits per se. Why? As this is not what leaders do,and at best she is managing a party left behind by Kanshi Ram and does not have the ability to add to what she has virtually inherited from him. Instead as the recent elections demonstrated she is fast losing ground, and in Saharanpur it was the Bhim Army that was in charge with little to no sign of the BJP.

Mevani and even Chandrashekhar, though he is in jail, represent a challenge to this old order. And instead of support they can be sure that they will receive flak from not just the BJP, but also the Opposition that instead of embracing the movements sees in these a threat to its own domain. These new leaders also regard the established Opposition as something of a liability, corrupt, without ideas, and with baggage that in some cases stinks. And so both are keeping a distance from each other, but clearly there will have to be a reaching out and a meeting of sorts if either wants to make an impact in the next general elections. Two years, actually less, is not sufficient time for either Mevani to acquire a strong organisational base or for the Opposition parties to find a new leadership that can communicate like these new leaders can. They have to be given respect and space, along with the support but then perhaps that is too much to expect from the Congress and the regional parties who are currently busy eating themselves from within.