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Saturday, February 1, 2020

the woman who operated ham radio opposing the British

In the modern media frenzy World with hundreds of TV channels, ever imagined or heard of Amateur radio – known as ‘ham radio’! – it is the use of radio frequency spectrum for purposes of non-commercial exchange of messages, wireless experimentation, self-training, private recreation, radio-sport, contesting, and emergency communication. The term "amateur" is used to specify "a duly authorised person interested in radio-electric practice with a purely personal aim and without pecuniary interest. 

30th Jan is remembered for the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi ~ and that would also bring remembrances of Noakhali riots – the riots were preceded by attacks on the place of business of Surendra Nath Bose and Rajendra Lal Roy Choudhury, the former president of the Noakhali Bar and a prominent Hindu Mahasabha leader. The Noakhali riots were a series of semi-organized massacres, rapes, abductions and forced conversions of Hindus to Islam and looting and arson of Hindu properties perpetrated by the Muslim community in the districts of Noakhali in the Chittagong Division of Bengal (now in Bangladesh) in 1946, a year before India's independence from British rule.  The massacre of the Hindu population started on 10 October, on the day of Kojagari Lakshmi Puja and continued unabated for about a week. It is estimated that 5,000 were killed, hundreds of Hindu women were raped and thousands of Hindu men and women were forcibly converted to Islam.  Neither the British nor the Congress did anything for those affected.  Gandhi did tour the affected areas but appealed peace by the victims asking them to forget reprisal.

I have heard notions that Congress usurped the freedom and projected only themselves as those who had fought the British rule – numerous martyrs and their roles in the struggle including the likes of VoChidambaranar, Veer Savarkar,  Bhagat Singh, Udham Singh, Nethaji and many many more were forgotten or were sidelined.  In our history books, we read Congressmen being arrested, placed in judicial custody – writing letters to their family and the like but not of those who were tortured by the British in cells and those who lost their lives fighting for the freedom of the country.  I never imagined that those sidelined could include some who were associated with Congress too !

Congress Radio was a clandestine and underground radio station, which operated for about three months during the Quit India Movement of 1942, a movement launched by Gandhi against the British Raj for independence of India. Congress Radio was the broadcasting mouthpiece of the Indian National Congress, and functioned from different locations from Bombay, currently known as Mumbai. It was organized by a woman  Usha Mehta (1920–2000), a veteran freedom fighter of India with the help of ham radio operators. Her other associates for organizing the Congress Radio included Vitthaldas khakar, Chandrakant Jhaveri, and Babubhai Thakkar. The technicians and the equipment were supplied by Nanak Motawani of Chicago Radio, Mumbai. Eminent personalities like Ram Manohar Lohia, Achyutrao Patwardhan, and Purushottam Trikamdas were also associated with the Congress Radio.
this pic Credit : CNN

Congress radio came on air with Dr. Usha Mehta herself broadcasting this announcement:  "This is the Congress Radio calling from somewhere in India."   The radio’s first broadcast was made on Aug 27, 1942, on the 41.72-metre band. On Mar 6, 1943, the secret radio’s broadcast stopped. It came on air one final time on Jan 26, 1944, which was chosen the Independence Day by Congress in its Lahore session a more than a decade earlier. The radio was funded by local cotton merchants, grain dealers, business houses and trade association in Bombay.

History has it that the frail woman Usha Mehta, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi ran a secret radio station with her friends during Gandhi's Quit India movement in August 1942, despite disapproval from her father, who worked as a judge under British rule. "When the press is gagged and all news banned, a transmitter certainly helps a good deal in furnishing the public with the facts of the happenings and in spreading the message of rebellion in the remotest corners of the country," she reportedly  said in an interview in 1969.

Her life too was not bed of roses as in the year she went on air, she   and her friends were arrested.  Her staunch refusal to respond to months of police interrogation in 1942 led to her being locked up for four years in Yerwada jail in the west of India,  alongside 250 other female political prisoners.  The life history of Usha Mehta [25.3.1920 – 11.8.2000] has not found the rightful place it deserves, perhaps eclipsed intentionally by the same party !  In 1998, the Government of India conferred on her Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award of Republic of India.

Usha was born in Saras village near Surat in Gujarat. In 1928, eight-year-old Usha participated in a protest march against the Simon Commission and shouted her first words of protest against the British Raj: "Simon Go Back." She and other children participated in early morning protests against the British Raj and picketing in front of liquor shops. Usha's father was a judge under the British Raj. He therefore did not encourage her to participate in the freedom struggle. However, this limitation was removed when her father retired in 1930. In 1932, when Usha was 12, her family moved to Bombay, making it possible for her to participate more actively in the freedom movement. She and other children distributed clandestine bulletins and publications, visited relatives in the prisons, and carried messages to these prisoners.

She made an early decision to remain celibate for life and took up a spartan, Gandhian lifestyle, wearing only Khādī clothes and keeping away from luxuries of all types. Over time, she emerged as a prominent proponent of Gandhian thought and philosophy. She graduated in Mumbai in 1939 with a first-class degree in philosophy. She also began studying law, but ended her studies in 1942 to join the Quit India Movement. After her arrest in 1942 and her steadfastness in not revealing anything, CID Police   interrogated her for six months. During this time, she was held in solitary confinement and offered inducements such as the opportunity to study abroad if she would betray the movement. After the trial, she was sentenced to four years' imprisonment (1942 to 1946).  At Yervada jail in Pune, her  health deteriorated and she was sent to Bombay for treatment at Sir J. J. Hospital. In the hospital, three to four policemen kept a round-the-clock watch on her to prevent her from escaping. In  1946, she was released, the first political prisoner to be released in Bombay, at the orders of Morarji Desai, who was at that time the home minister in the interim government.

Although the Secret Congress Radio functioned only for three months, it greatly assisted the movement by disseminating uncensored news and other information banned by the British-controlled government of India. Secret Congress Radio also kept the leaders of the freedom movement in touch with the public.  After Independence, her failing health prevented her association in active politics.    She later re-commenced her education and wrote a doctoral dissertation on the political and social thought of Gandhi, earning a PhD from the University of Bombay. She retired from the University of Bombay in 1980.  It is stated that with passage of time, Usha grew increasingly unhappy with the developments taking place in the social, political, and economic spheres of independent India.

She died peacefully at the age of 80.  I read her story for the first time only recently ~ have you heard of her earlier  ?     –   don’t  you feel that she deserved more recognition ?

With regards – S. Sampathkumar

30th Jan 2020

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