Usha Mehta (25 March 1920-11 August 2000) was a renowned Gandhian, and freedom fighter of India. She is also remembered for operationalizing the Congress Radio, also called the Secret Congress Radio, an underground radio station, which functioned for few months during the Quit India Movement of 1942.
She was born in Saras village in Surat (Gujarat, India) on 25th March 1920. Her initial schooling was in Kheda and Bharuch, and then in Chandaramji High School, Bombay. She took the school final examinations of the University of Bombay in 1935 and secured a position among the top 25 successful students. She continued her further education at Wilson College, Bombay, graduating in 1939 with a first class degree in philosophy. She also completed graduation degree in law. However, she quit studies at the call of Gandhi pursuant to the Quit India Movement of 1942, and missed completing her master’s course. Thereafter, she got involved with the freedom movement.
Her association with the freedom struggle dated back when she was just a girl of eight years. She was participating in a protest march against the Simon Commission, and her first words of protest shouted against the British Raj were: “Simon Go Back”. This was in 1928. The little children could not comprehend the significance of their action except that they were participating in a movement to secure freedom for their country under the leadership of Gandhi. At that, she along with many children participated in morning rounds of protests against the British Raj and picketing in front of liquor shops. The children also did a little spinning. All these activities ingrained inside her a desire to remain active in the freedom movement.
During one of the protests marches against the British Raj, the policemen charged the children and a girl carrying the Indian flag fell down and with her the flag also fell down. This incidence created a feeling of rage among the children, and they sought the advice of the elders. They were advised to buy khadi clothes of colors of the tricolors, white, green and red, and to stitch dresses made of the same and wear the same during the next day’s procession. During midnight, the children got opened the shops and with the help of their elders stitched the uniforms of white, green and red colors. In the morning they carried the protest march shouting at the policemen: “Policemen, you can wield your sticks and your batons but you cannot bring down our flag”.
She had the first glimpse of Gandhi when she was just a girl of five years on a visit to Gandhi’s ashram at Ahmedabad. Shortly thereafter, Gandhi organized a camp near her village, and she was highly influenced by Gandhi. She became a follower of Gandhi, took a decision to wear clothes made of khadi and remain a celibate all her life. She kept the promise until her death. Over a period of time, she emerged as an active follower of Gandhi and an exponent of Gandhian thought and philosophy.
Her father was a judge under the British Raj, and he did no favor Usha Mehta to join actively the freedom struggle. However, after retirement of her father in 1930 and shifting of her family to Bombay in 1932, she could join the freedom movement actively. At that time she was a girl of twelve years, and she along with other children distributed clandestine bulletins and publications; visited relatives in the prisons and carried the messages to them.
During the Quit India Movement of 1942, she came to the forefront, and moved clandestinely from Delhi to Mumbai where she hoisted the tricolor on 9th August 1942 at Gawalia Tank Ground, which was later renamed as the August Kranti Maidan. At that time, almost the entire leadership of the Congress Party was interned in prisons.
During the Quit India Movement, she remained very active and went underground. Within few days of the of launching of the movement, she activated the Secret Congress Radio, a clandestine radio station organized by her and some of her close associates, went on air on the 14th August 1942, and the first words broadcast by the radio in her rich and resonant voice were: “This is the Congress radio calling on [a wavelength of] 42.34 meters from somewhere in India”. Her associates included Vithalbai Jhaveri, Chandrakhant Jhaveri, Babubhai Thakkar and Nanka Motwani, owner of Chicago Radio, who supplied equipments and provided technicians. Many leaders including Dr. Ram Manohar Lodia, Achyutrao Patwardhan and Purushottam Trikamdas also assisted the Secret Congress Radio. The radio beamed across the Undivided India the recorded messages of Gandhi and other prominent leaders. The police authorities continued to track down the radio station’s location, which the organizers continued to shift almost daily for security reasons. Ultimately, the police raided the premises on 12th November 1942, and arrested the organizers including Usha Mehata and all were imprisoned. Reminiscing those days, Usha Mehta had described her rendezvous with the Secret Congress Radio as her “finest moment”, as also her saddest moment as an Indian technician had betrayed them to the police authorities.
Although the Secret Congress Radio could function only for three months, it had an impact on the freedom movement as the medium disseminated the news censored and banned by the-then government of India under the control of the Great Britain. The leaders of the freedom movement could remain in touch with the public.
The Criminal Investigation Department (CID), a wing of the Indian Police, put her on interrogation, which continued for six long months. She was put into solitary confinement, and sometime authorities of the CID even tried to brainwash her, promising her scholarships to pursue higher studies in reputed universities abroad. However, she chose not to reply to any of the questions, and during her trials, she asked the Judge of the High Court whether it was mandatory for her to answer the questions. When the judge confirmed that answering was not mandatory, she declared that she would not reply to any of the questions to save her. The trial resulted into a sentence of imprisonment for four years from 1942-46. Two of her associates were also convicted.
She was imprisoned at Yeravda Jail (Pune, Maharashtra, India) where her health deteriorated, and she had to be brought to Bombay for treatment where she was admitted to J. J. Hospital. In the hospital three to four policemen kept a round-the-clock watch on her to prevent the “5 feet tall young lady of 22 from escaping”. When her health registered a little improvement, she was again shifted to Yeravda Jail. In March 1946, she was released from the jail, the first political prisoner to be so released in Bombay, at orders of Morarji Desai, who was at that time a home minister in the interim government and who eventually rose to became Prime Minister of India.
The day India gained independence, Usha Mehta was confined to bed and could not attend the official function in New Delhi. However, she remained in touch with the development through the radio. She felt bad at the partition, and her failing health forced her to opt out of active politics. However, she re-commenced her education, and did a doctoral dissertation on the political and social thought of Gandhi, earning a Ph. D. from the University of Bombay. She had a long association with the university in many capacities as a student, as a research assistant, a lecturer, a professor, and finally as the head of the department of civics and politics of the university of Bombay until her retirement in 1980.
Even after India’s independence, she continued to be socially active, particularly in spreading the Gandhian thought and philosophy. She was elected as the president of Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, a trust dedicated to the perseverance of the Gandhian heritage. The Nidhi acquired Mani Bhavan in Mumbai where Gandhi used to reside during his visits to the city, and converted it into a Gandhi memorial. She is also a member of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi. She also actively participated in the affairs of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. The Government of India associated her with a number of initiates during the celebrations of India’s 50th anniversary of freedom.
Over the years she had authored many articles, essays, and books in English and Gujarati, her mother tongue.
After India’s independence, she felt not so happy at the developments taking place in the social, political, and economic spheres of independent India. Once, in an interview to the India Today, she expressed her feelings in these words: “Certainly this is not the freedom we fought for.” She added that the freedom fighters of her generation were of the fact that “once people were ensconced in positions of power” the rot would set in. However, in her words, “we didn’t know the rot would sink in so soon”. However, she did not deny the achievements of free India since the independence: “India has survived as a democracy and even built a good industrial base”, she said. “Still, it is not the India of our dreams”.
The Republic of India conferred on her Padma Vibhushan in 1998, the second highest civilian award of India.
She had participated in the anniversary celebrations related to the Quit India Movement in August Kranti Maidan (that is, the August Revolution Ground), and returned home after a tiring day and suffered from fever. Two days later, She died peacefully on 11th August 2000 after a brief illness at the age of 80, survived by her elder brother and two nephews, one of them Ketan Mehta, a noted filmmaker of the bollywood.
“We have to transform swarajya (self governance) into surajya (good governance)”.