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The story of Usha Mehta and Congress Radio

The movement was launched on August 8, 1942, with Mahatma Gandhi’s famous speech in Bombay’s Gowalia Tank maidan: 'Do or die'.

- By Arjun Sengupta

Usha Mehta

Usha Mehta remained a staunch Gandhian till the very end. (Image Courtesy: Express Archive)

Amazon Prime released Ae Watan Mere Watan on Thursday (March 21). The historical biography tells the story of Usha Mehta, played by Sara Ali Khan, and Congress Radio — an underground radio station in 1942, during the Quit India Movement.

The movement was launched on August 8, 1942, with Mahatma Gandhi’s famous speech in Bombay’s Gowalia Tank maidan: “Do or die. We shall either free India or die trying”. The movement saw mass civil disobedience, massive public protests, sabotage and even setting up of parallel governments in certain regions.

The beleaguered British, already stretched due to World War II, arrested tens of thousands. All of Congress’ brass, including Gandhi, Nehru, and Vallabhai Patel, were behind bars by August 9 itself. The party was banned. It is in the context of this brutal repression that younger leaders stepped up to take the lead.

Power of radio

Mehta was 22 when the Quit India Movement began. A law student in Bombay, she was in awe of Gandhi, and like many peers, quit studies to join the movement.

“We were drawn to the (Quit India) movement,” Mehta later told Usha Thakkar (Congress Radio: Usha Mehta and the Underground Radio Station of 1942, 2021).

Rather than lead public protests, Mehta wanted to contribute in other ways. “Based on my study of the history of revolutions in other countries, I suggested… a radio station of our own,” Mehta told Thakkar. “When the press is gagged and news banned, a transmitter helps… in acquainting the public with the events that occur.”

But, setting up a radio station was, thus, going to be difficult. Alongside Mehta, Babubhai Khakar, Vithalbhai Jhaveri and Chandrakant Jhaveri were key figures in organising Congress Radio.

Their first task was to procure funds for the enterprise. But the biggest challenge proved to be sourcing technical expertise — and equipment. At the War’s advent in 1939, the British had suspended all amateur radio licences across the Empire. Operators were to turn in all equipment to authorities, with severe punishment for those who failed to do so. Moreover, with radio transmission still in its infancy, only a handful in India could operate the equipment. Fewer still were Indians.

Nariman Printer, who held an amateur transmitting licence prior to the War, provided a solution. He had managed to hold on to various parts of his transmitter despite the ban. However, he held no ideological affinity to the national movement, and had agreed to help for purely financial reasons.

Nonetheless, Printer did put together a working transmitter by the end of August on the top floor of Chowpatty’s Sea View Apartment. On September 3, at 8.45 pm, Mehta went live for the very first time, announcing: “This is the Congress Radio calling on [a wavelength of] 42.34 metres, from somewhere in India.”

From its very first broadcast, Congress Radio was a hit. It became the most favoured news source for Indians, denied information on the national movement and the War by colonial censors.

As Mehta told Usha Thakkar: “We were the first to give the news of the Chittagong bomb raid, of the Jamshedpur strike and of the happenings in Ballia. We broadcast the full description of the atrocities in Ashti and Chimur. Newspapers dared not touch these subjects under the prevailing conditions; only the Congress Radio could defy the orders and tell the people what was really happening.”

The underground station also broadcast political speeches, addressing groups such as students, workers, and peasants. Broadcasts were both in English and Hindustani. “… The Congress Radio’s broadcasts captured the mood of the times — the exhilaration and enthusiasm generated by a country caught up in the fervour of the Quit India movement,” Thakkar wrote. In doing so, it kept firm people’s resolve for independence.

In its November 9 morning broadcast, it proclaimed: “Remember, Congress Radio runs not for entertainment, not even for propaganda, but for giving certain directives to the Indian people in their fight for freedom”.

A glorious end

The Congress Radio team went to great lengths to avoid detection, changing transmission locations every few days. But authorities knew about its existence from early September itself, and put in significant resources to apprehend those behind it. The operation was finally busted after Printer’s capture, who, in return for immunity, disclosed the location of what would be Congress Radio’s final broadcast on November 12, 1942.

Mehta recalled the “memorable day”: “When I was putting on the ‘Vande Mataram’ record, I heard hard knocks on the door… I saw a big battalion of policemen headed by the deputy commissioner of police entering the room with triumphant smiles… the police chief said… [to] stop the record… mustering all the courage at my command, [I] firmly replied, ‘The record will not stop. This is our national song. So, all of you stand at attention’.”

The trial of the five accused — Mehta, Babubhai Khakar, Vithalbhai Jhaveri, Chandrakant Jhaveri, and Nanak Gainchand Motwane (who sold equipment parts to the team) — generated much excitement. Vithalbhai and Motwane were acquitted, but Mehta, Babubhai, and Motwane received stern sentences.

When Mehta was released from Pune’s Yerawada Jail in March 1946, she was hailed in the nationalist media as “Radio-ben”. While her poor health kept her out of active politics in independent India, she remained a staunch Gandhian. Conferred the Padma Vibhushan in 1998, Mehta died after a brief illness in 2000.

Courtesy: The Indian Express, dt. 24.3.2024