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The secret Congress radiowoman

One fine day, 55 years ago, a frail Bombay college girl arrived at a decision which had been troubling her for months. She informed her father about it, said her studies would have to wait, and walked out of the house.

She went underground. Within a fortnight, Usha Mehta (or Ushabehn, as she was to be known) had set up India's first radio station -- the Secret Congress Radio.

The year was 1942, and the Quit India movement was finding eager takers all over the country. Usha, assisted by Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, Achyutrao Patwardhan, Purushottam Trikamdas, Chandrakant Babubhai Jhaveri and Vithaldas K Jhaveri, was to disseminate Mahatma Gandhi's call to her countrymen.

The heroic venture, which for the 88 days of its existence left the British hapless, distinguished Bombay's role in India's freedom struggle. It functioned on three occasions. The first broadcast was on August 27, 1942 on 41.72 metre band, then between February and March, 1943 and, later, for a week during January, 1944.

These were the years when press censorship was at its peak. The radio had a profound effect on its listeners.

The radio gave an account of the underground activities as well as the freedom struggle, right from the NorthWest Frontier Province to Bihar and the foot of the Himalayas to Kanyakumari each morning and evening. To avoid detection, Usha and her group had to cart the equipment all over Bombay, never transmitting from a place more than once.

The radio exhorted the people to resist the heinous atrocities perpetrated by the alien government against a nation under bondage. It said this was a final struggle for independence and must be fought to a decisive conclusion.

For about three months, the recorded voices of Gandhi and other leaders were beamed all over India. The police wireless monitoring unit of Bombay kept ceaseless vigil on the broadcasts and recorded every word of it. It created much consternation among British officials who roamed the streets in a detention van trying to track the signal.

From March 6, 1943, the secret radio stopped functioning. It was back on air again on January 26,1944 (the day which was being celebrated as Independence since 1930) with a couple of national songs and stirring speeches from Dr Lohia and Patwardhan.

The source of funds for this extremely costly enterprise remained a mystery till Dr Lohia's arrest. It revealed the operation was dependent purely on donations -- from cotton merchants, grain dealers, business houses and trade associations in Bombay.

Today, 55 years later, we have radio equipment and programmes comparable to the best in the world. But how many of us know the humble beginning?


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