A buzz in the air: An excerpt from ‘Congress Radio: Usha Mehta and the Underground Radio Station of 1942’

In the heady days of 1942, the underground Congress Radio carried the voices of Gandhi and other leaders to the farthest corners of India

August 14, 2021 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

Rural India’s radio love

Rural India’s radio love

August 1942. Mahatma Gandhi launches the Quit India Movement at the Bombay session of the All-India Congress Committee. Responding to his call, a 22-year-old student of Wilson College, Usha Mehta, starts an underground radio station to counter the propaganda disseminated through All India Radio, the British government’s mouthpiece. The clandestine Congress Radio brings messages from Gandhi and other leaders to the masses, reports the ‘unofficial’ side of events, and fights disinformation for three months till the arrest and imprisonment of its members in November of the same year.

Usha Thakkar narrates this compelling story of passion and daring in Congress Radio: Usha Mehta and the Underground Radio Station of 1942. In the Foreword extracted here, Thakkar talks about how the project materialised with the extraordinary Ushaben.

The story of the underground Congress Radio is a fascinating but yet to be explored segment of history that demands attention because of the integral role it played in India’s freedom struggle. It is the story of a zealous group of young patriots who operated the Congress Radio, passionately propagating the message of freedom and disseminating information about the struggle against the coercive rule of the British government. The account of their enterprise is both compelling and inspiring, for not only did they make history within a brief span of time, but they also transmitted reliable news to the people, generating confidence among them and unnerving the British. Equally impressive was the power of the Radio to kindle the flame of freedom in the hearts of its listeners and inspire them during those bleak and difficult times. At the same time, it communicated to the youth the immense value of ideals and dreams and how significant voluntary and arduous efforts were to make these seemingly impossible dreams a reality.

The contribution of the courageous and empathetic Professor Usha Mehta (Ushaben), the only woman in the group, is particularly important. Born on 25 March 1920 at Saras village in the Surat district of Gujarat, she grew up to be a bright student in Bombay

Usha Mehta

Usha Mehta

(now Mumbai) and carved a niche for herself as a freedom fighter in India’s history. Despite being awarded the prestigious Padma Vibhushan by the government of India and known as a scholar of eminence, she never lost touch with people at the grassroots level. She had imbibed Gandhian values early in her life: her friends and well-wishers were charmed by her simplicity, humility and warm-heartedness. Her contribution to the operation of the underground Congress Radio in 1942 was exceptional.

‘The times of 1942 were exhilarating; those days were so wonderful! How do I describe them?’ Ushaben said, her tiny frame erect, her hair neatly tied in a bun and her large shining eyes overwhelmed by memories of those electrifying days. Recapturing the quintessence of those times she murmured her favourite lines from William Wordsworth:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive

But to be young was very heaven.

* * *

I would often ask Ushaben about her participation in the operation of the underground Congress Radio. On many afternoons we would have cups of hot milky chai (Mumbai’s mounting temperature and humidity never interfered with our routine of having tea in the afternoon) and biscuits. Years of imprisonment had blunted her appetite, and she survived mainly on two or three cups of tea and/or coffee and a few eatables limited to some biscuits, Cheeslings or khakhra (Gujarati cracker). A string of questions would come gushing to my mind: How did the Congress Radio come into existence? Who operated it? Where? How? Who helped? What

A story in ‘Blitz’ on April 20, 1946 about the radio station

A story in ‘Blitz’ on April 20, 1946 about the radio station

did it broadcast? How long did it last? How were the operators arrested? How was the case conducted? What was the incriminating evidence against them? What was the judgment? In hindsight, the idea of operating an underground radio in the troubled India of 1942 is indeed adventurous and exciting. But how was it made possible? Who were the doers and where? Many pieces of this jigsaw puzzle needed to be put together — the actual operation which lasted for almost two and a half months, the management of regular programmes, the content of the written reports and the records, and the places for operation, etc. Often, during our discussions, Ushaben in her characteristic manner would say, ‘Oh, yes, those were the days! People braved through!’ Or ‘Oh, you were not fortunate like us. You did not live in our times to take part in the freedom struggle.’ I would nod my head saying, ‘Yes, but we are at least fortunate to have a person like you amidst us,’ and would continue to urge her to talk about the days of 1942. And she would talk, becoming nostalgic about those days filled with the romance of nationalism and fired by the spirit of patriotism.

One day, she casually showed me a bunch of carefully preserved files, consisting of papers, neatly wrapped in old newspapers, and asked, ‘Would you like to see these?’ I eagerly took the bundle in my hands and slowly opened it. The reading and re-reading of

Making waves: The book cover

Making waves: The book cover

those precious papers at my own easy pace transposed me to the times when the atmosphere reverberated with Gandhi’s mantra of ‘Do or Die’, and when the nation’s freedom was of utmost importance for many, such as this group running the Congress Radio. The amber hidden in those pages that had faded with the passage of time had not lost its fire. Unfortunately, Ushaben passed away soon thereafter and I was left with those precious documents and even more precious memories. Juxtaposing the contents of those pages with the ones I had collected from the archives and Ushaben’s narrations have helped me to put the pieces of this narrative together. Slowly the story, exciting and real, vibrant and intense, unfolded, giving glimpses of the defiant mood of the freedom fighters and the bold resolve of the team that was involved in the operation of the Congress Radio.

Glimpses of the roles played by persons like Ushaben in 1942 makes us realize that the Quit India movement is a chapter in our history brimming with sacrifice and the suffering of people determined to achieve independence. The chronicle of the movement is stirring and gripping — much had taken place, much has been written about it, and a few things still remain partly hidden, elusive but alluring.

As the story unfolded, I realized that though situated in Bombay, the Congress Radio reverberated far beyond the city’s shores; it inspired freedom lovers in various parts of the country. A re-exploration of the working of the Congress Radio is both educating and energizing; it is like a fresh breeze blowing the ideals of freedom and selfless work into our uneasy and despondent times.

From the Foreword toCongress Radio: Usha Mehta and the Underground Radio Station of 1942by Usha Thakkar, published by Penguin Viking.

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