“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.
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 to be released on Monday. The book 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.
Thakkar, a student of Mehta at the Department of Civics and Politics at the 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.
Mehta, the only woman to be arrested in the case, spent nearly four years in Yerwada jail. The Congress Radio was Mehta’s response to Gandhiji’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. Leaders who were underground such as Ram Manohar Lohia, Achyut Patwardhan, Aruna Asif Ali and Jayaprakash Narain were a great support,” says Thakkar.
The finest hour
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 dared 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. She recalls the glint in Mehta’s eyes every time she talked about the Congress Radio: “She always said, ‘Usha, that was my finest hour’.”