Here is a mantra, a short one that I give to you. You may imprint it on your hearts and let every breath of yours give expression to it. The mantra is ‘Do or Die.’ We shall either free India or die in the attempt; we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery. Every true Congressman or woman will join the struggle with inflexible determination not to remain alive to see the country in bondage and slavery.
These words spoken by Gandhi on 8 August 1942 launched the Quit India movement. Although Gandhi and many other leaders were arrested within hours of his speech, with the expectation that without their leadership the resistance movement would be rudderless, the effect was the opposite. Thousands of Indians, young and old, heeded this call and plunged into the movement, each contributing in their own way.
Among the crowd that directly heard the words from Gandhi on that day was a 22 year-old woman who took on the onus of spreading his message far and wide through unconventional means—secret radio broadcasts. This was Usha Mehta.
Usha Mehta was truly a daughter of the freedom movement, growing up as Gandhi led India each step forward on the road to independence. She was born on 25 March 1920 in a village called Saras near Surat in Gujarat. She first saw Gandhiji when she visited his ashram as a five-year old. She was just eight years old when she took part in her first protest. This was against the Simon Commission, when the young girl joined in the shouts of “Simon Go Back”. She mobilised her young friends and organised prabhat feris (dawn marches with songs and slogans). As a teenager she responded to Gandhi’s call to defy the salt tax, and joined in the various acts of civil disobedience from picketing of British goods to spinning cotton. She also took the vow of wearing khadi, and continued to do so all through her life.
Usha’s father was a judge in the British Raj and did not support his daughter’s nationalistic leanings and activities. In 1933 her father retired as a judge and moved to Bombay, where Usha continued her schooling. It was in 1942 when Usha was studying in Wilson College in Bombay that she heard Gandhiji speak at the historic meeting of the Congress party. Moved by Gandhi’s words, Mehta – with the help of a few other young independence activists – planned to set up an underground radio station which would share news about the real situation on the ground, and spread Gandhi’s message far and wide. In the face of many challenges, the group raised some resources, and for technical help they contacted a friend who was running classes in radio mechanics. The transmitter was ready by 13 August, and the first broadcast was on 14 August 1942 opening with the words: “This is the Congress Radio calling on 42.34 from somewhere in India.”
In a time when the press was supressed, and news censored, these radio broadcasts spread the message of Quit India to the remotest corners of the country, urging people to join the mass civil disobedience movement. The broadcasts carried all sorts of news, especially news that was censored or banned to be spread by the regular media, such as merchants refusing to export rice to arrests of leaders and civilians. The broadcasts reported on police atrocities, mass protests and strikes. Prominent leaders also gave radical speeches on the broadcasts. The team got news from messengers across India, as well as from the office of the All India Congress Committee.
In the beginning, the broadcasts were once a day, in Hindi and English; then they were increased to twice a day. Usha and her fellow broadcast conspirators (along with their transmitter) had to constantly evade the police who were on their trail. As Usha recalled in an interview many years later (Police) vans used to chase us regularly and very often it was merely a question of touch and go. It is believed that the team moved locations six to seven times in the three months that they broadcast.
The broadcasts on 42.34 became extremely popular with the people across the country. There were also specific programmes for different groups like students, women, workers and lawyers.
On 12th November 1942, based on information leaked by one of the technicians, the police raided the hideout from where the radio station was operating in Bombay. Usha Mehta was in the building when the police came. She quickly took the broadcast material and rushed to the recording studio which was elsewhere, and with the help of some colleagues set up a new transmitter for a final broadcast. As Usha Mehta recalled that day: We played Hindustan Hamara, then we relayed some news bulletins and a speech. Just when we were at the end of the programme, playing ‘Vande Mataram’, we heard hard knocks on the door. The authorities broke down the door and entered. They ordered us to stop playing ‘Vande Mataram’. We did not oblige them.
The authorities seized all the equipment and photos and film footage of Congress party sessions. Usha along with four of her colleagues, was arrested, kept in solitary confinement, and intensely interrogated for almost six months, but she refused to betray her colleagues. Usha and three of her colleagues were sentenced to four years in jail. She was released in March 1946. As she said: I came back from jail a happy, and to an extent, a proud person because I had the satisfaction of carrying out Bapu’s message, ‘Do or die’, and of having contributed my humble might to the cause of freedom.
After India became independent the following year, Usha Mehta went back to her old Wilson College to pursue a doctorate in Gandhian thought; and spent the remaining years as an academic, teaching in her own college for the next 30 years, and continuing to spread the Gandhian ideals through her writing and talks. Like a true Gandhian, she led a spartan life, waking at 4 am every morning and working late into the evening. Her diet, dress and habits were simple and frugal.
Usha Mehta was honoured with Padma Vibhushan in 1998. She continued to spread the philosophy of Gandhi until she passed away in August 2000 at the age of 80.
Today, more than ever, we need to be reminded of such feisty women whose lives were driven by a passion for a cause, and who demonstrated their commitment with courage and conviction.