India’s Unsung Women Freedom Fighters – Dr. Usha Mehta

M Venkaiah Naidu

India's Lesser Known Heroes - Dr Usha MehtaDr. Usha Mehta: The freedom fighter who used the power of radio to arouse the masses

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

This daily clandestine announcement rattled the British Raj during the early days of the Quit Movement in 1942. Realizing the potential and power of mass communication, a handful of courageous freedom fighters began secretly broadcasting speeches of leaders, news that was prohibited from publication, appeals and instructions to the people.

As the nation approaches the landmark 75th anniversary of its Independence in 2022, I have been trying to explore and highlight about the courage, commitment and extraordinary role played by ordinary Indians in the freedom movement.

In my series of Facebook posts on freedom fighters, today, I offer my tributes to the veerangna from Gujarat, Dr Usha Mehta.

Born in March 1920 in a village near Surat, she was greatly influenced by the freedom struggle from a very young age. As a young girl of eight years, she participated in demonstrations against the Simon Commission and shouted: “Simon Go Back”.

She used to mobilize friends and organize Prabhat pheris along with them dressed in national tricolour. They also used to picket liquor shops. She met Mahatma Gandhi as a young girl and took a vow to wear khadi life long– a commitment she kept till she breathed her last in the year 2000. She was a true Gandhian and led a Spartan life.

Usha Mehta was pursuing her higher education in Philosophy from the Wilson College in Mumbai when the Quit India resolution was passed on 8th August 1942 in Mumbai. Soon most of the prominent leaders were arrested by the Britishers. However, several committed young leaders and workers came forward to sustain the movement.

Among them were dedicated youth like Usha Mehta, who under the guidance of leaders like Ram Manohar Lohia and Achyut Patwardhan, decided to spread the message of Gandhi ji and other leaders among the masses and communicate with revolutionaries.

To bring their plan to fruition, she and her colleagues planned to set up a secret transmitter. In spite of difficulties, they raised the resources and approached a technician friend, who was running classes in radio mechanics. He agreed to their request and the transmitter was ready by August 13, 1942.

The next day, they made the first announcement; “This is Congress Radio, calling on 42.34 meters from somewhere in India.”

For the clandestine operation of the Congress Radio, they not only had set up a transmitter but a transmitting station and a recording station as well.

It used to broadcast special messages of the leaders, their speeches, reports of mass protests, police atrocities, and major strikes from all over the country, that were censored on official radio and newspapers. The radio used to coordinate closely with Congress office at Bombay to gather news about the movement from different parts of the country.

The Chittagong Bomb Raid, Jamshedpur strike and running of parallel governments in Bihar and Maharashtra were some of the major developments that the secret Radio broadcast to the masses. It became extremely popular with the people and the news on various developments used to spread like wildfire among the people. Such was the credibility of this secret Radio.

It used to air specific programmes for different sections—students, lawyers, workers and women.

The announcements were made in English and Hindustani. Initially, they were made once daily only in the morning. But later, they were made in the evening too. To avoid being tracked by the Government agencies, the transmitter used be shifted frequently from place to place. Usha Mehta and her group also tried to jam the broadcasts on the official radio.

With the goal of having a network of broadcast stations in different parts of the country, they continued the operation of the Congress Radio for three months until 12th November 1942 when the police raided the hideout from where they were operating in Bombay after one of the technicians betrayed them.

Usha Mehta and her colleagues were arrested. She was lodged in jail for four years and was released in March 1946 on the orders of Shri Morarji Desai, who became the new Home Minister of Bombay after elections. After India gained Independence, she did her PhD on Gandhian thought and taught at the University of Bombay. She continued to spread the Gandhian ideals and was honoured with Padma Vibhushan in 1998.

The nation will be ever grateful to Dr Usha Mehta and her colleagues for their selfless dedication and commitment towards promoting the cause of India’s independence. The crucial role played by them in the freedom struggle must find a place in our history textbooks