Once a group of some Dalit leaders, associated with the Scheduled Caste Federation of Babasaheb Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, asked him as to why he has appointed a Brahmin, Dattopant Thengadi, as general secretary of the Federation. Hearing this, Baba Saheb said: “The day anyone of you becomes a bigger Dalit than Thengadi, I will make you general secretary of the Federation.” These words reflect his trust in Dattopant Thengadi, who closely worked with him particularly from 1952 to 1956. This incident was shared by Thangadiji himself with former organising secretary of BMS Shri Krishna Chandra Mishra at Bhubaneshwar airport. Thengadiji had come in contact of Babasaheb through Shri Haridas Babu Avale, Shri Rajabhau Khobargade, Shri RS Gawai and Shri Haraba Gondane.
Dattopant Thengadi, the founder of India’s largest labour organisation, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, enjoyed close relations with Babasaheb. He was the person who saw him closely, understood him deeply and had serious and long discussions on some significant issues with him. “We had formed a joint front of Bharatiya Jana Sangh, Scheduled Caste Federation and Socialist Party for the elections of 1952 in Madhya Pradesh. In that election, we found evidences of tampering with the ballot boxes in some cities of Vidarbha. Later, we lodged complaint to the Election Commission, and the Election Commission found our complaint valid. The people of Scheduled Caste Federation and Socialist Party were also with us in that fight. Babasaheb got complete information about the episode. When he came to Nagpur, he called me. From that day to the last moment of his life I had close association with him. Then I was very young. We maintained relations that a matured person has with a young and energetic guy. He treated me like a kid of his family,” Dattopantji writes in his book ‘Dr Ambedkar aur Samajik Kranti Ki Yatra’, published by Lokhit Prakashan, Lucknow, pg. 170-171.
A few days before his deeksha to Buddhism in 1956, Thengadiji had a long and detailed discussion with Babasaheb particularly on why he was going to embrace Buddhism. Thengadiji recalls that discussion thus: “A few days before his deeksha I told him that it is correct that some atrocities must have been perpetuated in old days, is it in your knowledge that we some youth are trying to create a new social order by correcting the old mistakes and doing repentance?’ Babasaheb said, ‘You mean RSS?’ because he knew that I am an RSS Pracharak. He said, ‘Do you think I have not given thought to it?’ I said, ‘How can I say it? You must have thought over it.’ Then he asked—‘When was the Sangh formed? How many years have passed?’ I said, ‘The Sangh was formed in 1925. Now 27-28 years have passed.’ He said, ‘I know it. But tell me one thing? What is the total strength of you people?’ I replied —‘I cannot tell at this moment.’ He said, ‘Don’t reply like press conference. Be certain.’ ‘I really don’t know,’ I again said. Then he said, ‘Suppose, your number is around 27-28 lakh. It took 27-28 years for you to bring these people with you. How much time will you take to unite the entire society?’ I wanted to say something, but he continued, ‘Don’t say anything. I know that arithmetic and geometric developments do not take place together. Howsoever a frog expands, it cannot become a bull. It will take a long time. Will the situation wait till then and I should sit silent. The question before me is that I have to give a direction to the society before I die; because this society has so far been a victim of exploitation. There is awakening among the people and it is natural for them to have some anguish and irritation in their mind; and such a society becomes fodder for communism. It is cannon fodder for Communism. I don’t want the Scheduled Caste society should become fodder for the communism. Therefore, it is in national interest to give them a direction. You the Sangh people are working with national perspective, but keep in mind that between Scheduled Castes and Communism, Ambedkar is the barrier and between caste Hindus and communism Golwalkar (because he is a Brahmin) is the barrier.’ ‘Is it not correct’, he asked. That is why if I fail to give them a direction, a big section of the society will attract towards communism. Then bringing them back to the national mainstream will not be easy for you people; because the question is not what you are telling is correct or not. You all are upper caste people, our society will not listen to you. That is why I have made this arrangement before I die.” (‘Dr Ambedkar aur Samajik Kranti Ki Yatra’, Lokhit Prakashan, Lucknow, page 155-156)
Thengadiji underlines a significant fact here. He says Baba Saheb had announced his decision to convert in 1935, but he did it at the end of his life in 1956. During these 20-21 years he made so many efforts to ensure justice to the untouchables and bright future for them. He had to take the decision of changing his way of worship due to compulsion. In this fight, 1935 proved to be a turning point in his life. After the passing away of his wife Smt Ramabai on May 27, 1937 he turned towards spirituality and had even started distancing himself from politics.
Babasaheb had complete information about the RSS. He had visited the first RSS Sangh Shiksha Varga of Maharashtra Prant at Pune in 1935. Then he also met Dr Hedgewar. Babasaheb was in Dapoli on a personal visit. Then he visited the local Sangh Shakha and had a candid conversation with the swayamsevaks. In 1939 also Babasaheb had visited Sangh Shiksha Varga in Pune and had interaction with the swayamsevaks along with Dr Hedgewar. Babasaheb had also played a key role in lifting the ban illegally imposed on the RSS after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. Shri Guruji in September 1949 met him to formally express thanks for the support. Later in 1953, Shri Moropant Pingle, Shri Balasaheb Sathey and Prof Thakar called on Babasaheb in Aurangabad. During that meeting, Babasaheb told Moropantji, “I have visited your Sangh Shiksha Varga. The strength that you people have does not seem to be increasing with the desired speed during all these years. The speed is slow. My society will not be able to wait for long.” (‘Dr Ambedkar aur Samajik Kranti Ki Yatra’, page 153-154)
About the efforts of Babasaheb to curb untouchability, Thengadiji said the removal of untouchability is basically the work of uniting the Hindu society and making it strong. The so-called untouchables are integral part of the Hindu society. Therefore, removal of untouchability is the national cause. Babasaheb had cautioned both the upper-class Hindus and the so-called untouchables to be careful of the Muslim mentality in this regard. Many people have written the life sketch of Babasaheb and they have mentioned the insult that he experienced in his life. The general people in society have been experiencing such bitter experiences since generations. But what made Babasaheb great was that while experiencing the insult he did not sit silent, but he started working to change the situation. He firmly believed that the problem of untouchability has to be addressed by the entire Hindu society collectively, as it is the question of the entire society and not a particular section. That is why when he started Bahiskrit Hitkarini Sabha on July 20, 1924 he accommodated some people from upper classes also in the team.
In the elections of 1946, the Scheduled Caste Federation received a humiliating defeat. It was a major setback to the struggle of Babasaheb. But sitting at home with disappointment was not in his nature. He inspired his followers through a message thus: “I do not share this defeatist mentality. To win seats in elections is not the ideal of the Federation. To win seats for the Federation is only a means to an end. The end is to serve the people for whom it is established.” Even after the loss in elections, Babasaheb was for value-based politics. Thengadiji remembers an incident of 1954 by-election held in Bhandara (Maharashtra). Both Babasaheb and Ashok Mehta who fought in Bombay were in the fray again. The number of untouchable voters was huge in Bhandara, but winning the election was uncertain on the strength of the votes from untouchables alone. Everybody knew that the untouchables would vote for Ashok Mehta, but Babasaheb will not get any vote from the party of Ashok Mehta. In that condition, there was no other option but to poll the second vote in favour of Ashok Mehta. If that happened, the defeat of Babasaheb in Bhandara also was certain. “Keeping all these equations in mind a meeting of SC Federation was held. The workers decided that they would not cast their second vote. The meeting was going on. Babasaheb suddenly entered the room. He asked what was being discussed. He was told that they have decided not to cast the second vote because if it is not done, you would not win. Hearing this Babasaheb got angry and said, ‘I am ready to face defeat, but I will not permit you to leave your second vote un-polled. I have prepared the Constitution of Bharat. I cannot accept such an irresponsible step in the political system” (‘Dr Ambedkar aur Samajik Kranti Ki Yatra’, page 170). What Babasaheb said in 1954, now raises the question over the malady that has emerged in our country in the name of NOTA today.
If Babasaheb is not ready for allowing to leave the second vote unpolled, then what should be the remedy? This question nagged the minds of all the people attending the meeting. Some people suggested that they should field an upper caste candidate and the second vote should be cast in his favour. Thengadiji recalls, “Since I was also attending that meeting, some people proposed my name also. Babasaheb told me to contest the election. Being a Sangh Pracharak it was not possible for me to contest the election. I said, ‘I don’t have funds and other means.’ Babasaheb said: ‘We will arrange everything’. But then I said, ‘I will have to seek permission from the Sangh Adhikaris’. I discussed this whole matter with Shri Guruji who said, ‘It is a good opportunity, but if you contest we will not get the desired benefit. Because all our workers will work for Babasaheb with full dedication, even then the people would say that since you are contesting, only then the Sangh people are working for Babasaheb. Therefore, ensure that neither you contest the election nor allow anyone from us to contest. Rather, you work for Babasaheb with full dedication taking all the Sangh workers of Bandara together. It should come to the notice of Babasaheb and the untouchables that the Sangh people are working for Babasaheb. It will help us in strengthening social harmony in the country” (‘Dr Ambedkar aur Samajik Kranti Ki Yatra’, page 170-171)
Thengadiji points out that all the Sangh workers of Bhandara campaigned in favour of Babasaheb. Although Babasaheb lost, he found that he got much more votes than the total votes of the untouchables in the constituency when he analysed the votes polled. It extremely satisfied him. “Babasaheb expressed this feeling on next day of his deeksha when some SC Federation leaders met him at Shyam Hotel of Nagpur. Babasaheb said, “You have interest in politics, but I have greater interest in dharma. It does not hurt me that I lost the election of Bhandara, as it was expected. But what satisfied me was that the division seen among the untouchables and upper classes vanished. Apart from the untouchables, I got the votes of upper-class voters also. We need to change our thinking now. Instead of mobilising only the untouchables and backward classes, we should try to mobilise the entire society,” Thengadiji said adding that we could do that because of the guidance of Shri Guruji. Unfortunately, Babasaheb did not get the opportunity to start new social mobilisation, as he passed away in 1956 itself. If it could happen, it would have changed the face of Indian politics. Even after strong opposition by Congress, he was worried about social harmony till the end.
Babasaheb came closer to trade union movement following the strike of Mumbai cloth mill workers. The union that called for the strike was led by communists. The strike was for the demands of all the workers, but some particular demands pertaining to the untouchable workers did not find mention in their agenda. Babasaheb always believed that the communists used the labourers and the trade unions for their political interests. He had the same opinion during the Mumbai cloth mills strike also. Presiding over a meeting of the workers on April 29, 1929 at Damodar Auditorium of Mumbai he said the call for strike is not good. The problems of workers that he experienced in those days helped him resolve many issues of the workers from 1942 to 46 when he was Labour Minister in the Viceroy Council. During that period he passed about 25 laws for the benefits of the workers.
It is because of his association with the visionaries like Bharatratna Babasaheb Ambedkar that Thengadiji did many miracles in his life. His vision to look at the things and happenings was different from the ordinary people. That is why he thought out-of-the-box and laid the foundation of many organisations that later dominated their respective fields.