I wrote this article on Dattopant Thengadi for Swarajya. You can read a version of the article below:
In the 1950s, one-third of the world was besotted with communist ideology. The famous slogan in India then was Lal kile pe lal nishan, maang raha hai Hindustan (India wants to see the red sign at Red Fort). The Left ideology dominated the labour movement in India at that time. It was at this juncture that Dattopant Thengadi successfully made inroads into worker and peasant movements in India and established the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) in 1955. Today, BMS is a leading workers' organisation in the world and represents the country at bodies like the International Labour Organization.
Rise In Public Life
Dattopant Thengadi was born on 10 November 1920 in Vardha, Maharashtra. After completing BA and LLB, he became a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharak in 1942. At the age of 15, he joined Vanar Sena in Vardha to fight for the freedom of the country. As an RSS pracharak, he was sent to Kerala where he stayed for two years and was later transferred to Bengal. In 1949, he was assigned the task of organising workers and labourers. Six years later, he established the BMS which later became the largest labour organisation in India.
Thengadi entered Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS) under the directive of the RSS and worked as an organising secretary in Madhya Pradesh and in the south India. He was a member of Rajya Sabha from 1964 to 1976, where he raised demands of workers and peasants. When Nanaji Deshmukh and Ravindra Verma, the secretaries of Struggle Committee against Emergency were arrested, Thengadi took up the mantle and directed all his efforts towards the foundation of the Janata Party. But, he did not like politics and returned to his first love - workers and peasant movement.
He was the founder of many other organisations like the Swadesh Jagran Manch, Samajik Samrasta Manch and others.
As an author, he wrote more than 80 books and booklets, most of which dealt with the hardships of workers and the downtrodden. His books include Labor Policy, Karykarta, Destination, Focus, The Hindu View of Arts, The Perspective, Our National Renaissance, Third Way, Ambedkar and Social Revolution.
Saurashtra University, Gujarat, conferred a doctorate on him for his contribution to the labour and peasant movement in India.
Workers, Unite The World
With the consent of Guru Golwalkar, Thengadi had been organising workers since 1949. He applied Deendayal Upadhyay’s philosophy of integral humanism to the cause of workers and peasants and replaced the idea of class struggle with class coordination and cooperation. He was the first person in Indian history who established a worker's movement that was not inspired by Marxist ideology or any other political party and factored in the Indian value system. He was of the view that with time and space, ideas and their relevance changes. At the first all-India workshop of BMS on 27 October 1968 in Maharashtra, he said, “If there exist different societies in different conditions in same time period, then there could be no one 'ism' for them. Similarly one idea cannot be considered appropriate for one society over different time periods. Nor a single 'ism' can be a panacea of all ills because time and conditions change and any ideology or 'ism' takes shape out of the knowledge pool of that time.'
Thengadi was clear that the fight had to be against injustice and not against any class. He gave the call, ‘workers, unite the world’ in place of ‘workers of the world, unite’.
Earlier, chanting Bharat Mata ki Jai and Vande Matram at rallies and programmes of workers was unheard of. BMS broke this silent taboo and started hoisting a saffron flag and chanting nationalist slogans.
Thengadi wanted to free the labour movement from the clutches of the Left that looked to the then USSR and China for inspiration. So he gave the slogan - Lal gulami chhod ker, bolo Vandematram. (Leave Red slavery, chant Vande Matram).
The movement from red flag to saffron had a deep impact and even today the indigenous labour movement, BMS, use a saffron flag.
The core philosophy of BMS entails nationalisation of workers, industrialisation of nation and labourisation of industries (Shramikon ka Rashtriyakaran, Rashtra ka Audyogikikaran aur Udyogon ka Shramikikaran).
In Moscow, Thengadi floated the idea of an apolitical labour confederation at an international meeting of World Federation of Trade Unions. This forum was supported by Leftists and his resolution was rejected. He, along with others, floated a new labour federation at the intentional level and named it 'General Confederation of World Trade Unions' and provided it with a white coloured flag in the place of the trademark red one.
In 1985, for the first time, a nationalist labour organisation was invited by the Communist Party of China and a BMS delegation participated under the leadership of Thengadi. Every year now, a BMS delegation takes part in the labour conference in China.
After membership verification in 1989, the Labour Ministry of the government of India declared BMS as the largest labour organisation in the country.
A great scholar, organiser and a greater leader and activist, Thengadi walked the path that none before him had taken. Over the years he became a huge source of inspiration for millions of activists striving for the welfare of workers and peasants.
Search For The ‘Third Way’
Thengadi worked under the ideological guidance of Dr Hedgewar and Guru Golwalkar. He himself became margdarshak (patron) of many organisations and asked juniors to lead these. He believed that a senior should assume the role of a patron and a junior should lead the movement.
He studied both the dominating ideologies of the world and also visited capitalist and socialist countries, and reached a conclusion that there is a need for a third way. He was of the firm belief that the third way could emerge only from the Indian soil.
In one of his lectures at Bengaluru, he claimed that we should not imitate the West blindly. He declared that Westernisation is not modernisation. “We do not think that modernisation is westernisation: Due to over a century of brain washing through Macaulay system of English education, majority of Indians are habituated to believe that anything west is always best. To be modern our lifestyle and thought style should necessarily be western. However this is only a mental blockade. We must come out of it at the earliest and be prepared to think free of western biases. We must accept that modernisation is not westernisation and westernisation is not modernisation.’
He described swadeshi economy through four features - one with free competition without manipulated market, where movement is towards equitability and equality, where nature is milked but not ravaged, and where there is self-employment and not wage employment.
He always fought against economic inequality and opposed social inequality at every level. He worked with Dr B R Ambedkar during the Lok Sabha election in Bhandara, Maharashtra and understood his feelings both towards the marginalised sections of society and nationalism. On 14 April 1983, he established the Samajik Samrasta Manch (Social Harmony Forum) on the birth anniversary of Dr Ambedkar. Ambedkar Aur Samajik Kranti (Ambedkar and Social Revolution) was his last book where he elaborated the idea of social justice and nationalism propounded by Babasaheb.
He was of the firm view that national rejuvenation is possible only through people who strongly believe in the traditional knowledge system of India.
Dattopant Thengadi worked with labour movements but never compromised on the idea of cultural nationalism and national reconstruction. In 2011, workers of the Communist, Centre Of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) joined BMS in chanting Bharat Mata ki Jai and Vande Matram at a workers' rally. The ideas that Thengadi had sown, had come to fruition five decades later.