Thengadiji leading an agitation against privatisation in New Delhi
The ideological life that Thengadiji lived would continue to shed light through the works of lakhs of dedicated people who are in the process of rebuilding the nation. History will remember him as the greatest leader of Bharatiya trade union movement
Dattopant Thengadiji was a Sangh Pracharak of versatile personality manifested as master organiser, ideologue, non-compromising idealist etc. Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) was fortunate to get the benefit of all these qualities which he possessed. Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh was a late arrival in the labour movement, born at a time when big central trade unions like INTUC, CITU, AITUC, etc. were dominating it. Born in 1955, BMS became the biggest cadre-based organisation of workers in just 34 years because of the extraordinary organising capability and guidance provided by Shri Dattopant Thengadi. His subsequent evolution as the doyen of Indian labour movement is an example to emulate for all those who work in the labour field.
It was at the instance of Shri Guruji Golwalkar that Thengadiji, working as a Pracharak of RSS in 1949, turned his attention towards creating a labour organisation based on Bharatiya values and tradition. Instead of immediately starting an organisation, Thengadiji decided to undertake a deep study of labour movement and for this purpose he joined a few organisations.
First, he joined the INTUC. In a short time, he became an office bearer of around 10 unions working under INTUC. In October 1950, he became a member of the National Executive of INTUC. Also, he became the secretary of the INTUC in the erstwhile Madhya Pradesh State. Besides this, in the period between 1952 and 1955, he worked as the State organising secretary of AIBEA, an organisation of Communist bank employees. During 1954-1955, he was president of the central circle of RMS Employees Union (Postal) consisting of old Madhya Pradesh, Vidarbha and Rajasthan. He was also president of the INTUC-affiliated employees' unions of LIC, Railways, Textiles and Coal. He acquired first-hand information about the functioning of trade unions and their agitations during this period. He also used the opportunity to learn more about Communism and gained sufficient knowledge about the functioning of communist organisations. In Shri Guruji's words, Thengadiji 'single handedly' completed the task assigned to him.
In the midst of this process, Thengadiji came across many kinds of obstacles. He had cited one such incident when his own people mistook him for working in communist organisations. While working with a Communist trade union, Thengadiji used to come back to Nagpur Sangh Karyalaya in the evening after participating in agitations holding red flag. One day a few swayamsevaks told Thengadiji directly that it was not proper for a person who is working with Communist movement to sleep at RSS Karyalaya. However, when Guruji came to know about this, he asked Thengadiji to come and sleep at his place. Then only the other swayamsevaks realised their mistake. It was during this period, when Thengadiji was staying with Guruji, that he helped Shri Deendayal Upadhyaya in preparing the format of 'Integral Human Philosophy'.
BMS was founded on July 23, 1955 in Bhopal in the presence of 35 persons invited from different parts of the country. From the beginning, Thengadiji was keen to maintain democratic ideals among its workers. In this respect, while giving guidance to workers, he had cited one example. During the formation of the organisation, Thengadiji and others had decided to name the new organisation as 'Bharatiya Shramik Sangh' and hence prepared a report on that basis before coming to the meeting. But at the meeting, a person from Punjab pointed out that they pronounce the word 'Shramik' as 'Sharamik' and suggested that it would be better to use the word 'Mazdoor'. Then the senior representative from Bengal said that though there is no word called 'mazdoor' in Bengali, in view of the feelings of the Punjabi-speaking people, 'Mazdoor' would be acceptable to him. Dattopantji changed his view and thus the organisation got the name 'Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh'.
The people who joined BMS in the initial days were mostly social activists with hardly any experience in the field of trade union activities. There was not a single union or a member during that period. In the first 12 years, there was not even an official national executive. Just an informal five-member committee that functioned at the national level. Thengadiji regarded himself as the general secretary and travelled the length and breadth of the country building unit by unit. Besides, he gave an ideological foundation to the new organisation.
During this period, Thengadiji had the blessings of Shri Guruji who was in constant touch with him. He advised Thengadiji to love the workers like a mother loves her children. In 1960, when Gulzarilal Nanda was the Home Minister, the Government tried to crush the strike organised by government employees. Shri Guruji asked Thengadiji to give the opinion of the BMS about the strike. Thengadiji replied that the BMS has no union among government employees. Then Guruji said that even so, the stand of the BMS on the issue should come to light through the newspapers like 'Panchjanya' and 'Organiser'. Thengadiji said how Guruji also gave a clear message in this respect: “the right to strike from work is inherent in the right to work. Only when an alternative way is found other than strike, the concept of strike will lose its relevance”. These words reveal the deep understanding that Guruji had of the labour issues.
Thengadiji had faced several difficulties while being part of the labour movement. Once Thengadiji was asked to deliver the welcome speech at a united rally of trade unions in Bombay attended by veteran HMS leader NG Gore. At the last minute, NG Gore announced that he would not sit on the same dais where an RSS Pracharak was present. Since the proceedings had been predetermined, Thengadiji delivered his welcome speech and left the venue immediately without showing any displeasure. Years later, during the Emergency, Thengadiji was once tasked with taking Gore into safe hiding. Within a short time of the meeting, Gore expressed his regret about the earlier incident.
In all executive meetings, Thengadiji used to repeatedly ask workers to maintain the distinct organisational identity of BMS. He would even cite communist experiences from the autobiography of the veteran communist leader, AK Gopalan. He said that such experiences could happen to us as well if we are not cautious. His instruction about not to make 'compromises on basic ideology' still resonates in the ears of Sangh workers. He had always tried to make friendship with people beyond the organisation and political philosophy. He had many friends among the Congress and Communist parties and had relationship with people working in different trade unions. When the clashes between RSS workers and CPM men increased in Kerala, he came to Kerala with CITU leader P Ramamurti and tried to put an end to it. Though many positions and power came to him, he rejected all of them with utmost humility. He retired from parliamentary work after being a Rajya Sabha MP for 12 years. In 1955 itself, he decided that the BMS must remain an organisation without any political affiliation. Thengadiji's presence and constant guidance had ensured that the basic philosophy remains the same till now. Though he was the secretary of the Lok Sangharsh Samiti during the Emergency, he refused the demand that the BMS should be made an affiliated organisation of Janata Party, which came to power immediately after the elections. It was Thengadiji who taught the trade unions to react on the basis of the policies of the Government and not on the basis of the colour of the Government. He called this 'Responsive Cooperation'.
In 1984, at the Hyderabad meeting, he declared war against multinationals and foreign agents. Thus he conceived Swadeshi Jagaran Manch that was formed later in 1991. He had visited many countries of the world as part of trade union work and otherwise.
Since 1991, when Narasimha Rao government came to power, the labour policy and economic policies of all the governments, irrespective of the political affiliation that ruled both at the Centre and in different States were almost the same. The Communist trade unions, which opposed these policies during the Congress regime, became inactive during the tenure of Deve Gowda and Gujral governments, which they supported. Those who thought that the BMS, which opposed the economic policies since 1991, would slow down when the NDA government came to power, were proved wrong. Both in the 1999 Nagpur meeting and in the April 16, 2001 rally as well as in the subsequent agitations, Thengadiji came down heavily on the policies of the NDA government, which became a rare event in the history of modern politics and trade union movement.
The working of the Second Labour Commission took an anti-worker shape almost surprisingly. When Thengadiji was informed of this, he asked us to prepare a dissent note and come to Pune immediately. He remained awake at 11 o’ clock at night expecting the arrival of myself and an Advocate Dharap for this purpose. At Pune, in the presence of senior advocate Dharap, Thengadiji attentively listened to the note and suggested necessary modifications. This dissenting note became a part of the report of the Second Labour Commission. Hence once again, Thengadiji's guidance played a vital role in upholding the dignity of BMS in the history of labour movement.
The ideological life that he lived would continue to shed light through the works of lakhs of dedicated people who are in the process of rebuilding the nation. History will remember him as the greatest leader of Indian trade union movement.
(The writer is national president of Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh)