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Dattatreya Bapurao Thengadi: The Man who Walked Ahead of His Time

C. K. Saji Narayanan

C. K. Saji NarayananOct 07, 2021, 06:00 AM IST

Dattatreya Bapurao Thengadi: The Man who Walked Ahead of His Time
Dattatreya Bapurao Thengadi jee

Dattatreya Bapurao Thengadi was many things rolled into one: He was visionary, organisation builder, philosopher, political scientist and economist. He was called the Rashtra Rishi. His 101st birth anniversary falls on October 10 


Shri Guruji Golwalker who became the second Sarsanghchalak of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1940,during his extensive organisational tour from 1940 to 1942, gave a call to the youth activists at every place to come out as pracharaks to spread the work. He said: “Today for Bharatmata pooja, we require flowers which are untouched, not smelled, not dried up, and not worn in the head; at the same time filled with fragrance, honey and charm.” Shri Guruji adopted an aggressive organisational strategy to reach all walks of national life. On his call, hundreds of youths from various sakhas of RSS came out leaving their homes, parents, wealth, jobs, friends, villages, towns, etc. They went to places which they have not seen or even heard of, happily with full self-confidence of conquering it. The first batch of pracharaks was ready in 1942 to go to the nook and corner of the country to spread RSS work. The young Thengadiji was one among them who responded to the call given by Shri Guruji and became a pracharak of the great organisation.

Shri Dattatreya Bapurao Thengadi alias Dattopant Thengadi was born in 1920 in Arvi town in Wardha district of Maharashtra. Just as many of the great personalities, he was also very much influenced and oriented by his spiritually inclined mother Smt Janakibai. Even during school days, Thengadiji showed his intellectual and multifaceted brilliance. After completing studies in law in flying colours,Thengadiji became a pracharak of RSS with which he was associated from school days. His father, being a well-known lawyer, wanted his son to join his lucrative profession, but Thengadiji had already made up his mind to dedicate his life for the Nation through RSS work.

On a fine morning in 1942, Shri Guruji Golwalker sent Thengadiji to Kozhikode, Kerala, to start RSS work with an introduction letter to a well-known lawyer there. Kerala was unknown to him, and the only advantage Thengadiji had was that he could speak fluent English. Thengadiji met the lawyer, and after hearing about the assignment, the lawyer affectionately advised him to return at the earliest, since such work is not suited to a place like Kerala. However, the young pracharak did not get disappointed; he stayed back and in a short time built a strong foundation of RSS work in Kerala. From 1944 to 1948 he worked as State pracharak in Bengal including the Assam area. 

In 1949, Congress leader and the then Home Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shri Dwaraka Prasad Mishra while supporting the lifting of the ban against RSS, invited Thengadiji as a pracharak to work in INTUC to strengthen it organisationally. Shri Guruji Golwalkar asked Thengadiji to accept it as it is an opportunity to gain first-hand experience to createlater a labour organisation based on Bharatiya values and tradition. At that time, the trade union movement was mostly in the hands of communists. In October 1950, he became a member of the national executive committee of INTUC.  Interestingly between 1952 and 1955, he worked as the state organising secretary of AIBEA, a communist organisation for bank employees. He worked with unions in sectors like postal, banking, LIC, railway, textile and coal and was an office-bearer of several unions. Thus in Shri Guruji's own words, Thengadiji 'single-handedly' completed the task assigned to him when he started Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh in 1955.

For several years after the formation of BMS, Thengadiji continued as the National Executive Committee member of Bharatiya Jan Sangh. He is remembered by some as the organising secretary of Bharatiya Jan Sangh for Madhya Pradesh during 1952-1953 and south India during 1956-57. He was associated with the formation of many Sangh created organisations like ABVP, Bharatiya Jan Sangh, Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, Akhil Bharatiya Grahak Panchayat, Samskar Bharati, Akhil Bharatiya Adhivakta Parishad, Samajik Samrasata Manch, Bharatiya Vichar Kendra the forerunner of Prajna Pravah etc. Thengadiji himself founded many. His organisational vision directly benefitted BMS the most. In 1984, at the Hyderabad Conference of BMS, he declared war against multinational companies and foreign agents. Thus he conceived the idea of Swadeshi Jagaran Manch that was formed later in 1991. He declared struggle against govt.'s new economic policies initiated in 1991. Within the BMS, he founded Sarva Panth Samadar Manch for harmonious relations between different religions and Paryavaran Manch for environmental activities.

CPI founding member SA Dange also went to the extent of telling the people openly: "spoil your votes but don't vote Dr Ambedkar". Thus when both Indian National Congress and Communist Party of India treacherously tried to defeat him in elections, Dr Ambedkar turned to RSS at the fag end of his life

As Rajya Sabha Member

He was elected as Rajya Sabha member for two terms during 1964-1976. During this period, he developed intimate relationships with leaders of all parties and various labour organisations. He had many friends in Congress and Communist parties. K Damodaran, one of the early theoretical builders of the Communist party in Kerala, was a regular visitor to Thengadiji. K R Malkani, the famous journalist and former editor of Organiser weekly in his reminiscence during the 61st birth anniversary of Thengadiji, writes in his usual investigative style: “I feel that I am not cheating by disclosing a secret, in the year 1969, when all the left-wing including the opposition unanimously proposed the name of Dattopant Thengadiji for the post of deputy speaker in Rajya Sabha…..The proposal was rejected by the then ruling party.” 

When CITU General Secretary P Ramamurty completed and celebrated seventy-five years of his life, along with other Communist party leaders, he invited Thengadiji. After the Emergency when Communist youths started joining RSS in states like Kerala, there was a fiery reaction from CPI(M) to prevent it, indulging in the murderous attack on RSS workers. Pained by this Thengadiji and P Ramamurthi jointly tried to bring an amicable solution. However, later Ramamurthi said, he did not have any control over his cadre. 

In Delhi, whenever there was some rally or programme, workers from other parts of the country used to come to his MP quarters in 57 South Avenue and sleep inside and on the lawn outside even in his absence. There were occasions, when he returned at 2 am at night, he could not find space, so he opted to sleep in some corner without any objection. 

The Emergency was imposed on June 25, 1975, and RSS was banned on July 4.  During the dark phase of Emergency after the arrest of Nana Ji Deshmukh and later Shri Ravindra Verma who were Secretaries of Lok Sangharsh Samiti, Thengadiji fearlessly took over charge from February 1976 onwards as its Secretary. His responsibility as General Secretary in BMS was handed over to Ram Naresh Singhji who came out after NSA arrest. For 19 months, Thengadiji led the underground movement and toured throughout the country in disguise. He organised people against the tyranny. He frequently met opposition Chief Ministers like Shaikh Abdullah, Karunanidhi, Babu Bhai Patel, etc., and leaders of Sarvodya, Akali Dal, Lok Dal, Congress(O), socialist and labour organisations to associate in the strategic planning. His efforts led to a unified fight against Emergency while many other political leaders were afraid and gradually withdrew from activities. On January 18, 1977, Indira Gandhi suddenly declared elections for March. By that time, Thengadiji had built up the ground for apolitical fight, and he played a significant role in the formation of the Janata Party immediately on 23rd January. Thengadiji, along with Shri Ravinder Verma, drafted the constitution of the new party and its organisational set up. He remained one of the few underground leaders who could not be arrested under MISA till Emergency was lifted on 23rd March 1977. Many have rightly said, Thengadiji is the real hero of Emergency. 

The Life of a Rishi

In Valmiki Ramayana (2.19.20), Kaikeyi asks Rama to leave for the forest at the earliest. Rama pleasantly accepts it saying he is not after worldly wealth; he always wanted to live like a Rishi (ऋषिभिस्तुल्य) entirely devoted to Dharma alone (केवलंधर्ममास्थितम). India’s history is the creation of a long chain of such sacrificing Rishi like figures who reigned in different walks of social life. Shri Dattopant Thengadi is the latest shining link in the chain. Hence he is honoured by the term “Rashtra Rishi”.

Thengadiji's book on Dr Ambedkar aur Saamajik kranti ki yatra describes the close relationship of Dr Ambedkar with RSS.In order to realise Ambedkar’s dream, Thengadiji founded Samjik Samrasta Manch in 1983.When Arun Shourie wrote a book against Dr Ambedkar, it pained Thengadiji

Though many positions in power and awards came to him, he rejected all of them with utmost humility. After Emergency in 1977,many seniors requested him to become minister or MP in the Janata Party regime. However, he rejected all such requests as he had decided to leave political and parliamentary life forever. From that time, Thengadiji freed himself from all the post seven in BMS and worked for the organisations till the end only as a guide without any portfolio. He continued to inspire thousands of activists.When he was awarded Padma Bhushan in 2003, then also he respectfully refused to accept it. 

He regularly toured the country to address RSS swayamsevaks in meetings and training camps. He maintained contacts all over India through “person-to-person, heart-to-heart and door-to-door”. Senior activists took his guidance on organisational and other matters. He continued to be the most revered ideologue in Sangh organisations after the demise of both Deendayal Upadhyayji and Shri Guruji.

In the Kanpur conference of BMS in 1970, Thengadiji declared Communism would soon disappear from the world. Within 20 years, the world witnessed the fall of Communism in all the Communist countries in the world.Similarly in his book ‘Third Way’ (1995 edition P.114) he wrote:  “The days of capitalism are numbered; it will not last even up to 2010 AD. The search is already going on for 'The Third Way.'” In the mid-September of 2008, when a global financial crisis started from Wall Street and spread to all streets, many proponents of capitalism termed it as the “demise” of capitalism. While the famous prophecies of Karl Marx were proved false by the passage of history, Thengadiji’s true vision transcended time and place. He was a “Drashta” (visionary seer) in the real sense. 

As an ardent RSS swayamsevak, wherever he worked, his life was his message. To cite an example, once, Thengadiji came to Tatanagar to attend a BMS meeting. He stayed in the quarter of a labourer. On the same day, the well-known Communist leader Shri S.A. Dange also came to attend another meeting in the same area and stayed in a luxury hotel. Dange’s communist followers questioned their leaders on this issue. Thengadiji usually felt no difference in travelling in the second and third class compartments of trains as well as in flights. Such live examples have contributed to the growth of our organisation immensely.

He authored innumerable books of originality and high intellectual content which emanated not only from his ideological conviction but also from his first-hand experience of relevant issues. His forwards written to many books were also evidences of his intellectual mastery. Three books authored by him during the last phase of his life, namely Third way, Karyakarta and Dr Ambedkar aur Samajik kranti ki yatra are his masterpieces. He profusely quoted the ideas of personalities ranging from A K Gopalan of the communist party, Charu Mazumdar of CPI (ML) up to Khalil Gibran. He abundantly quoted from world literature also. He was able to speak fluently in Marathi, Hindi, English, as well as Malayalam and Bangla. His declared position, “no compromise on fundamentals” might have displeased some.  

He had extensively travelled almost all parts of the world except the Pacific region. On 28th April 1985, in his visit to China as a part of BMS delegation, the Beijing Radio broadcasted his speech for twenty minutes in Hindi with Chinese translation.A World Trade Union Conference was held in Moscow in November 1990 in which Thengadiji participated. It highlighted the failure of the market economy as well as communism and raised the big question, what the third alternative is. Thengadiji had already turned to consolidate the ideas of a third alternate, which later came out as the famous book the ‘Third Way’.In his Washington speech in 1993, Thengadiji said,human being everywhere prefers to be status-quo-ist and self-complacent. However, the international economic order will be provoked by circumstances to turn to Indian ideas. 

Dattatreya Bapurao Thengadi

During the elections in 1952, Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was so annoyed when Jawaharlal Nehru put up a candidate against him but did not put up a candidate against communist party’s A K Gopalan so that he will win uncontested. Such was the rivalry of Congress against Dr Ambedkar. Similarly, CPI founding member SA Dange also went to the extent of telling the people openly: “spoil your votes but don’t vote Dr Ambedkar”. Thus when both Indian National Congress and Communist Party of India treacherously tried to defeat him in elections,Dr Ambedkar turned to RSS at the fag end of his life. In 1952 election in Madhya Pradesh, Bharatiya Jan Sangh, Dr Ambedkar's Shwetkari Federation and Samajwadi Dal had formed a joint alliance. In the Bhandara Lok Sabha constituency by-election held in April 1954, Dr Ambedkar chose RSS pracharak Thengadiji as his election convenor after getting Sri Guruji Golwalkar’s approval. But the association with RSS was short-lived for two years till Dr Ambedkar’s death in 1956. Thengadiji’s book on “Dr Ambedkar aur Saamajik kranti ki yatra” describes the close relationship of Dr Ambedkar with RSS. In order to realise Ambedkar’s dream, Thengadiji founded Samjik Samrasta Manch in 1983. When Arun Shourie wrote a book against Dr Ambedkar, it pained Thengadiji.

End of a Lifelong Tapasya

During the final years of his life in the midst of his increasing illness, he took two years to complete the book on Dr Ambedkar. After finishing the work in July 2004, he was seen relaxed and expressed his immense happiness. The last message of Shri Thengadiji to BMS activists at Surat baitak was: “In future, ardent tapasya is required to face the challenges”. He was reminding us that at a time when recognition and honours pour upon the organisations, our tapsya should not be at stake. 

The parents of Dattopant Thengadiji were the devotees of God Dattatreya having temple at Ganagapur, Gulbarga district of Karnataka and Thengadiji was born out of the prayer of his parents to God Dattatreya. Thus the child was named Dattatreya Thengadi. Thengadiji did not utter words till the age of four. The worried parents visited the temple in Karnataka, tonsured the head of the child as a part of the religious offering. The relatives recall that during the return journey, the boy started talking. 14th November 2014 was the Sharad Navaratra, the day of God Dattatreya. As a divine coincidence,the soul of Thengadiji departed his body on that day at the age of 84 in Pune, while taking a bath. Thus till the end of his life, Thengadiji had the blessings of God Dattatreya. Important personalities from all walks of life paid tributes to this great Rishi. Recalling him as a great labour leader, organiser and great patriot, the Rajya Sabha paid rich tribute to him.

A question naturally arises, will a void be created by the demise of people like him? Shri Thengadiji himself had answered it at the time of the death of Badebhai Ram Naresh Singhji, a stalwart of BMS. Thengadiji said, when Ganga is flowing continuously, we take a bucket full of water. We may think that there will be a vacuum in Ganga. However, the moment bucket is raised, in no time, water from surroundings will fill the gap and Ganga will continue to flow uninterruptedly. Even if you and I are gone, the great divine organisation will go on uninterruptedly, he said. The ideal life that he lived would continue to shed light through the activities of lakhs of dedicated workers inspired by him, who will fill the void left by him.

The entire world now wants to get an insider view of RSS which has built the edifice of a strong nation today and which is deeply rooted in all walks of social life including politics, labour, religion, etc. Said achievement of RSS is due to the inspirational lives of personalities like Thengadiji. We can pay off his rishi rina (debt) by propagating his legacy further. 


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Easwaran Namboodiri T K
on Oct 09 2021 19:19:27

A big salute to The Rashtra Rishi,Thengadiji.

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