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The fiery Indian student who ran a secret radio station for independence

Usha Mehta

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Usha Mehta was just 22 when she went “underground” to run a secret radio station during India’s fight for freedom from British colonial rule. BBC Gujarati’s Parth Pandya and Ravi Parmar report.

“Do or Die. We shall either free India or die in the attempt,” Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi told fellow leaders on 8 August 1942.

The now-famous speech launched the Quit India movement – and catapulted one young woman in the crowd, 22-year-old Usha Mehta, into the history books.

Moved by Gandhi’s words, Mehta – with the help of other young independence activists – launched an underground radio station within a week.

“When the press is gagged and all the news banned, a transmitter certainly helps a good deal in… spreading the message of rebellion in the remotest corners of the country,” she said in an interview in 1969.

They spent the next few months broadcasting news about India’s fight for freedom, urging people to join the resistance. Her stint behind the microphone may have been short but its impact was powerful.

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Gandhi’s iconic speech in 1942 launched the Quit India movement

Gandhi and many other leaders were arrested within hours of his speech in the hope that it would leave the movement rudderless. Instead, civilians and the underground press stepped in to galvanise people across the country.

The Quit India movement quickly spread, sparking massive protests and waves of civil disobedience that lasted for two years.

And a band of young people, led by a feisty woman, played their part.

Who is Usha Mehta?

Resistance was not new to Mehta. She was born in a village called Saras in what is today the western state of Gujarat. Not only was it Gandhi’s home state, it was also the site of his iconic salt march in 1930.

She was just eight years old when she took part in her first protest. It was against a committee of Englishmen led by Sir John Simon that was tasked with recommending constitutional reform in India.

“The first slogan I shouted against the British was ‘Simon Go Back’,” she said in an interview in Naveen Joshi’s book, Freedom Fighters Remembered.

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Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya

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Usha Mehta was 22 when she started the radio station

She was a teenager when she responded to Gandhi’s call to defy the salt tax. “I had the satisfaction of breaking the law and doing something for the nation even as a young child,” she said of the moment in an interview years later.

She took part in all sorts of civil disobedience campaigns – from picketing and protests to spinning cotton as a way of rejecting British imports.

“There was no need for any inspiration. The whole atmosphere was so charged that no-one was left untouched,” she once said.

In 1933, after her father retired as a judge, the family moved to Bombay, now Mumbai.

And it was there – nine years later – that Mehta heard Gandhi speak at that historic meeting of the Congress party.

The secret Congress radio

“This is the Congress Radio calling on 42.34 from somewhere in India.”

This is how the broadcasts would always begin – Mehta later revealed that they were all recorded in Bombay.

She managed to get the station up and running with the help of two other activists, Chandrakant Babubhai Jhaveri and Vithaldas K Jhaveri, along with Nanka Motwane, whose family owned a telephone company called Chicago Radio. Nariman Printer, an amateur radio operator, also helped.

Their first broadcast was on 14 August 1942.

In the beginning, they were broadcasting twice a day, in Hindi and English. But they reduced it to just once in the evening between 7.30 and 8.30 pm.

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The Quit India movement sparked huge protests

But they kept moving to throw the police off their trail – Mehta said they would have moved locations six to seven times in the three months they broadcast.

The station carried all sorts of news, from merchants refusing to export rice to arrests of leaders and civilians.

“We got news from all over India by special messengers. Also, the office of the All India Congress Committee, which was in Bombay then, used to supply us with important news.” she said in an interview.

“When newspapers dared not touch upon these subjects under the prevailing conditions, it was only the Congress radio which could defy the orders and tell the people what actually was happening.”

Many prominent leaders also delivered radical speeches in these broadcasts, which unnerved the British.

“(Police) vans used to chase us regularly and very often it was merely a question of touch and go,” Mehta said.

In November 1942, the police raided radio shops in Bombay, including one owned by Chicago Radio. They arrested Nariman Printer, who is believed to have tipped them off about the whereabouts of the radio station.

A final broadcast

On 12 November, Mehta recalled in an interview, that police raided Babubhai Khakkhar’s office while she was also in the building.

She said she took the broadcast material she had, and rushed to the recording studio, which was elsewhere. Two of her colleagues were busy preparing a program for that evening.

With the help of one of Printer’s assistants, Mehta said they set up a new transmitter for a final broadcast.

“We played Hindustan Hamara, then we relayed some news bulletins and a speech. Just when we were at the end of the program, playing ‘Vande Mataram’, we heard hard knocks on the door.”

She said authorities broke open the door to enter.

“They ordered us to stop playing ‘Vande Mataram’. We did not oblige them.”

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Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya

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Mehta died in 2000

She said they seized the equipment and 22 cases containing photos and sound films of the Congress party sessions.

She and four others were arrested, and the investigation lasted for months.

Mehta said it was “real mental torture”. She recalled that they even offered to send her abroad to study if she turned over more people but she refused.

Three of the five, including Mehta, were convicted. She was sentenced to four years in jail and released in April 1946.

“I came back from jail a happy and to an extent a proud person.”

After her release, she pursued her PhD and went on to teach at Wilson College in Bombay University for 30 years.

She was conferred the Padma Vibhushan, one of India’s highest civilian honours in 1998.

She passed away on 11 August 2000 after a brief illness. She was 80.

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