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Radioactive — How Ushaben’s broadcasts transmitted the message of freedom

P Anima | Updated on August 15, 2021

Firm stand: Usha Mehta refused to defend herself in court after her arrest in the Congress Radio case   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The spirited 22-year-old woman, who earned the sobriquet Radioben, was an integral part of the underground radio service during the Quit India movement

* Ushaben was asked in court what she had to say on the evidence against her. She said, ‘Nothing’

* Mehta, the only woman to be arrested in the case, spent nearly four years in Yerwada jail

* “She always said, ‘Usha, that was my finest hour’”

***

“This is the Congress Radio calling on 42.34 metres from somewhere in India.” For a little over two months — August 27 to November 12, 1942 — when the Quit India movement raged across the country, a handful of youngsters operated an underground radio to transmit the message of freedom. With newspapers banned and press censorship in place, devoted listeners tuned in every night at 8.45 to their only channel of information on the movement. The venue of broadcast shifted rapidly as the plucky operators moved places to evade the police. Among them was Usha Mehta, popularly known as Ushaben, a spirited woman of 22, who played a key role in setting up the radio and the broadcast. On the night of November 12, after Mehta relayed the programme and put on the ‘Vande Mataram’ record to wind up the broadcast, she was arrested along with her colleague Chandrakant Babubhai Jhaveri.

Quit India: The Congress Radio was Mehta’s response to MK Gandhi’s call to ‘Do or Die’ made during the AICC session in 1942   -  IMAGE COURTESY: GANDHI SMRITI

 

Usha Thakkar, Gandhian scholar and president of Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya, Mumbai, brings out the riveting story of the short-lived Congress Radio and Mehta in her book Congress Radio: Usha Mehta and the Underground Radio Station of 1942, published by Penguin/Viking, to be released on August 16. Thakkar tracks the events leading up to the setting up of the radio and its operation, the arrest of Mehta and the others, as well as their trial and imprisonment.

Congress Radio: Usha Mehta and the Underground Radio Station of 1942 / Usha Thakkar / Penguin-Viking / Non-fiction / ₹ 699

 

Thakkar, a student of Mehta at the Department of Civics and Politics at University of Mumbai, where the freedom fighter and Padma Vibhushan awardee was faculty, remembers the diminutive yet feisty woman who stood firm during the trial. “Ushaben was asked in court what she had to say on the evidence against her. She said, ‘Nothing’. She was then asked if she wanted to make a statement, and she said, ‘No’,” recalls Thakkar. Vithaldas Madhavji Khakar, Nanak G Motwane, Chandrakant Jhaveri and Vithalbhai Jhaveri, were the other accused along with Mehta, in the Congress Radio case.

The arrest and jail

On that eventful night, Mehta and her colleagues had known arrest was imminent. Many radio dealers in the city had already been picked up, and word had gone around about the chief operators of the Congress Radio. Leaders who were underground such as Ram Manohar Lohia, Achyut Patwardhan, Aruna Asif Ali and Jayaprakash Narain were the radio operators’ support and guidance. A raid was on in Khakar’s (known as Babubhai), office. Mehta quietly went in and asked Khakar: “What shall I tell Doctor (Dr Lohia) about Mother’s (transmitter’s) health? He replied: “Tell him I cannot come today even though I know that Mother is serious. He may decide whether to change the prescription or continue with the same medicine.” The unusual and cryptic exchange between the two piqued the police; Khakar assured them that the girl was his neighbour and her mother was unwell. Mehta, meanwhile, had rushed to Lohia bearing Khakar’s message, who instructed the young woman that work must go on come what may. That evening Mehta walked into the broadcasting station, accompanied by Chandrakant Jhaveri, knowing well how the night would unfold. “How can I allow you to walk straight into the tiger’s open jaws,” Jhaveri had asked.

Mehta, the only woman to be arrested in the case, spent nearly four years in Yerwada jail. “Six of those were in solitary confinement,” observes Thakkar. In prison, she was denied reading material and it was only after the principal’s wife at Wilson College, where she was a student, stepped in that arrangements were made to get her books from the library. “She decided to do her PhD during those years in prison,” says Thakkar.

While serving her sentence rumours went around that Mehta might tender an apology in exchange of freedom. Her distressed mother, upon hearing the rumour, had rushed to the prison for an audience with her daughter. She was denied a meeting, but allowed to send home-cooked food. Mehta would find among the chappatis a tiny chit with a warning. “…in case you do this, you will find the doors of our house closed for you.” “Ushaben often recalled how proud she was of her mother that day,” says Thakkar. Years later, Mehta’s courage would acquire a legendary status, and she was known as Radioben in Mumbai’s Gujarati circles.

To Do or Die

The Congress Radio was Mehta’s response to MK Gandhi’s call to ‘Do or Die’ made during the AICC session in 1942. Though the radio was an effective way to reach people, it was hardly a safe proposition. Yet Mehta and her friends had gone ahead knowing that their act of patriotism was a criminal offence in the eyes of the British. “Many nameless people came together to make the radio work. They had a network of students, volunteers, and home-makers in place to collect material for the bulletins,” says Thakkar.

When Thakkar resolved to tell the Congress Radio story, Mehta helped with case files and interviews. A tribute to her mentor who passed away in 2000 at the age of 80, the book, Thakkar says, is also an ode to those who dare to dream. “Those young people had no resources or expertise. Yet they made an underground radio possible.” As Thakkar went through the bulletins, she was struck by their idealism and spirit of sacrifice.

As the country turns 75, Thakkar says it’s imperative to remember the sacrifices of Mehta and the others. “Those young people challenged the set norms and sacrificed their careers. They didn’t know whether they could find success or attain freedom in their lifetime.”

What stays with Thakkar though is the glint in Mehta’s eyes whenever she talked about the Congress Radio: “She always said, ‘Usha, that was my finest hour’.”

Published on August 15, 2021

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