In 1942, just after the Quit India Movement was launched, a college girl in Bombay informed her father that studies would have to wait, and walked out of the house. Usha Mehta, later known as Ushaben, disappeared from public view for nearly a fortnight. When she resurfaced, it turned out Usha had helped set up an underground radio station – Secret Congress Radio.
Born on March 25, 1920, in Saras, Gujarat, Dr Usha Mehta was a Gandhian freedom fighter. As a child Ushaben met Mahatma Gandhi and decided to become an ardent follower of Gandhian principles. From picketing liquor shops to raising the “Simon Go Back” slogan when she was just eight, Ushaben was an ardent believer and follower of the Father of the Nation.
Even though the underground radio managed to function only for a few months during the Quit India Movement of 1942, Ushaben went on to play a major role as Mahatma Gandhi’s advisor. She was central to the three major broadcasts from the secret radio.
Secret Congress Radio
It was the Secret Congress Radio that helped spread the word of Mahatma Gandhi’s call to their countrymen to join hands in the first ever rallying cry to the British to end their rule in India. In the 88 days of its existence, the heroic venture left the British almost helpless and helped to create a distinguished role for Bombay in India’s freedom struggle.
The very first broadcast was made on August 27, 1942 on 41.72-metre band. On March 6, 1943, the secret radio’s broadcasts stopped functioning, coming on air one final time on January 26, 1944.
The broadcasts resonated with national songs and stirring speeches from Dr Ram Manohar Lohia and Achyutrao Patwardhan. The radio was solely funded by donations from cotton merchants, grain dealers, business houses and trade associations in Bombay.
During a time when press censorship was at its peak, Ushaben’s initiative urged people to protest and resist the heinous atrocities perpetrated by the foreign government and it had a fervent effect on its listeners. From an account of the underground activities that made the freedom struggle a reality to the work of individual freedom fighters, this radio was the harbinger of hope in the times when the pot of political insurgency was ready to boil over.
Ushaben and her group carted their equipment from one location to the other in Bombay, never transmitting from the same place for more than once in order to avoid detection. The British officials patrolled the streets in a detention van in the hopes of tracking the signal, but could not manage for the longest time.
When the British finally caught up with her and arrested her for broadcasting on Congress radio, she described it as both her finest moment and her saddest moment because it was an Indian technician who had betrayed their location to the British police. Mehta refused to answer the judge’s questions and was jailed for four years.
Ushaben, who was awarded the Padma Vibhushan for her contribution in the Indian struggle for freedom, died on August 11, 2000.
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