When Mahatma Gandhi called on all Indians to ‘do or die’ as he launched the Quit India Movement on 8th August 1942, it sent a wave of panic through the British leadership. Britain was smack in the middle of the Second World War and the last thing they needed was another uprising in India. So within hours of the Mahatma’s historic speech at Bombay’s Gowalia Tank Maidan, the British imprisoned the entire top leadership of the Indian National Congress. But even the might of the empire failed to silence a young collegian, who just couldn’t keep her mouth shut! This simple college girl was Usha Mehta, who launched a clandestine radio station that gave hope and strength to the people of India in this moment of chaos. In no time after the wave of arrests, Mehta and her Congress Radio became the voice of anti-imperialism. As her words floated across the airwaves from “somewhere in India”, she rallied Indians to the Mahatma’s cause. Not only was her mission successful, but even the police van patrolling the streets of Bombay to track down Mehta’s radio signal couldn’t find her.
This was a time when all news that went in and out of India was censored and the print media had been gagged. So with Mehta in the lead, a group of freedom fighters including Ram Manohar Lohia, Achyutrao Patwardhan, Purushottam Trikamdas, Chandrakant Babubhai Jhaveri and Vithaldas K Jhaveri came together and, within a week of the Congress leaders’ arrests, started plotting a broadcast plan. Although Indians had been listening to the radio since the 1920s, it was the British government in India that decided what they were allowed to hear, and private radio stations were permitted to air only music, talk shows and general news. This was the first time radio became a vehicle of the freedom struggle. But if Mehta and her colleagues had the gumption to take on an imperial power, they knew little or nothing about radio technology. So Nanik Motwane of the Bombay-based Chicago Radio (now Motwane Pvt Ltd) came to their rescue. The company dealt with radio, telecommunications and loud-speaker equipment, and for the cause of his country’s freedom, Motwane supplied radio equipment and even technicians to the underground radio station. But there was one more detail to be taken care of – a portable radio. Mehta convinced a teacher of radio mechanics to build a portable radio for her. The entire venture was funded by wealthy traders, merchants, business houses, trade associations and cotton merchants in Bombay. All set, the first broadcast went on air on 27th August 1942, from the rented top-storey flat in Sea-View building in Chowpatty in Bombay. Named ‘Congress Radio’, it started with patriotic songs like Saare Jahaan Se Achha and ended with Vande Mataram. In between, the broadcasters read out news that Indians had no way of accessing. For instance, it was Mehta’s underground radio station that reported the brutal violence perpetrated by the army in Ashti and Chimur in Maharashtra and the Chittagong bomb raid. Ram Manohar Lohia, Achyutrao Patwardhan Moinuddin Harris and Coomi Dastur read the news in English, while Usha Mehta read the news in Hindi.
Besides keeping Indians informed of key events relating to the freedom struggle, Congress Radio also carried the message of rebellion to the remotest corners of India. Despite the arrest of their leaders, the radio station urged people to stay strong and continue the protest. It also propagated secularism and Hindu-Muslim unity. Mehta’s underground radio station was soon referred to as ‘Freedom Radio’ and attracted a large national and international audience. At exactly 7.30 every evening, groups of people across India would gather around a radio set and wait to hear Usha Mehta announce, “This is the Congress Radio calling on (a wavelength of) 42.34 meters, from somewhere in India.” Naturally, the British government was furious and wanted to quickly shut it down. However, the operators kept changing location to evade police raids, and kept the recording and broadcasting locations separate. The police even stationed a signal-detection van in Bombay. But since the van allowed for a transmission radius of as much as 3-4 km, the broadcasters were able to give them the slip every single time. Often, they would have a close shave. Yet, Congress Radio never missed a broadcast.
But the administration stepped up its vigilance from 8th October 1942, and the Special Branch of the Crime Investigation Department started monitoring the radio broadcasts even more closely. They were even recorded by police stenographers. When the police did catch up with Mehta and her colleagues, it was because of a mole in their midst. This was a certain Mr Printer, one of the radio station’s technicians, who had given the police the information they needed to round up Mehta and her colleagues. The station broadcast its last bulletin in early November 1942 and the operators spent five months in jail before being tried and sentenced in April 1943. Usha Mehta was sentenced to four years in prison. It lasted but a fleeting moment in the nationalist movement but Congress Radio played its part in keeping the flame of freedom lit during those turbulent times. This clandestine radio station was a powerful social media tool, just like the digital ones we use today, with just one difference – Usha Mehta wasn’t a bored youngster thumbing her youth away; she was a teenager whose social broadcasts rallied Indians in one of the country’s darkest hours.|