The AICC session on 7 and 8 August 1942 was unparalleled in the history of the nation. The leaders’ patience had reached its limit and the mood of the people was at boiling point. The Mahatma’s call for “Do or Die” had fired the minds of the people, and the thousands sitting in the pandal at Gowalia Tank firmly resolved to sacrifice everything including life for the nation’s independence. If the government was geared up for atrocities and oppression, the people were ready for the inevitable suffering and sacrifice.

Ushaben [Mehta] and her friends were present on both the days and were “electrified”, absorbing the speeches and infused with the spirit of “Do or Die”. She would often share with us how this political meeting had filled the hearts of young persons like her and her friends with excitement. They felt energised and decided to contribute their bit to the freedom struggle.

It was during this time that they decided to take up the adventurous initiative of reaching people through the medium of the radio. The trigger for the inception of the Congress Radio had thus been pressed.

In Ushaben’s words:

“The die was cast. The patriotic urge moved the people to challenge the authority of the government in all conceivable ways. Sometime before the Quit India struggle started, some of my colleagues and I were thinking of what to do in case the movement was launched, because it was our hearts’ desire to contribute our humble might to the freedom movement. Demonstrations and public meetings did not appeal to us much from the very beginning. 

“During the Dandi Satyagraha, some of my friends and I had done the work of distributing the illegal Congress bulletins by going from house to house. Now we began discussing how best we could contribute to the Quit India struggle. Babubhai Khakar, a businessman and a co-student in the rashtra bhasha (national language) class, joined us in the discussion. 

“Based on my study of the history of revolutions in other countries of the world, I suggested that if we could establish a radio station of our own, it would help us very much in keeping the people informed about the latest developments in the movement. A perusal of the history of the campaigns had convinced us that a transmitter of our own was perhaps the need of the hour. 

“When the press is gagged and news banned, a transmitter helps a good deal in acquainting the public with the events that occur. We had realised the tremendous propaganda value of a transmitter, and the idea that with a powerful transmitter we could reach foreign countries thrilled us. So, Babubhai, I and other colleagues decided to work for a Freedom Radio.

“We began discussing ways and means for raising the necessary finances. Most of us were students and young individuals who had not yet settled in life. We discussed for many long hours but could not find a solution. Our only income then was the pocket money we used to receive from our parents and that was hardly adequate for financing our project. 

“Just when we were on the point of dispersing in a dejected mood, my old aunt who was a widow and one who had participated in earlier freedom struggles and who was listening to our discussion from the adjoining room came out along with Manu, a close relative, with a box in her hands, and boosted up our morale by saying, ‘Children, do not worry. Here is my stree dhan, the box containing my jewellery gifted to me at the time of my marriage, which I have preserved all these years with great care. You sell it and use the money for your work.’ 

“When we hesitated, she said, ‘I am not sorry to part with my jewellery. What better use could I make of it than by putting it as an offering at the feet of Mother India?’ All of us were so deeply moved that we did not even say ‘Thank you’ to her; we only bowed down to her, returned the box saying that we would take it when it became absolutely necessary for us to do so and asked for her blessings.”

The Launch of the project

Once the decision of launching the radio station was taken, Babubhai (Vithaldas alias Babubhai Madhavji Khakar) got busy garnering the resources required for the underground enterprise. According to the history sheet prepared by the Bombay police, he was the chief organiser of the Congress Radio enterprise and was said to be directly responsible to Ram Manohar Lohia for the success of the scheme. He also received the necessary funds from the latter.

The most formidable challenge was getting the technical expertise until Nariman Adarbad Printer (Printer) appeared on the scene as the answer. For Printer it was financial gain that was the motivating force, and he was willing to take whatever risks to attain it. His track record was not above board, but the members of the group for the project of the underground radio believed that under the circumstances he was perhaps the best available person.

It was reported that this accused had no sympathies for the Congress as such. He was, however, an “unscrupulous individual and will not hesitate to engage in unlawful activities for the sake of profit if he thinks he can get away with it.”

Before the outbreak of the war, Printer held an amateur transmitting licence in connection with his activities with the Bombay Technical Institute. This licence was cancelled when war broke out in 1939 and he dismantled the transmitter. He had, however, kept some parts of the transmitting apparatus with himself.

In his search for a lucrative business, he invented a mechanism called “Kerogas” for running motorcars on kerosene in August 1941, obtained a patent for it and advertised for its sale. Babubhai and Ravindra A Mehta (RA Mehta) approached him and obtained the sole selling agency for India, Burma and Ceylon. Their office was on the third floor of Noble Chambers at Sir Pherozshah Mehta Road.

The sole agency continued till the beginning of 1942, when the government of India prohibited the sale of Kerogas due to the scarcity of kerosene. Consequently, the selling agency came to an end, and according to Printer, he had transacted business worth Rs 20,000 during that period.

Printer next invented Hydrogas, borrowing Rs 3,000 from Babubhai and RA Mehta to conduct his experiments since they were to be his partners. That invention, however, failed, but Printer was not deterred. He then asked them to join him in his business of manufacturing calcium carbide and procured another advance. But in July 1942 or so, they expressed their inability to join him in the business as they were uncertain not only about the political future of India but were also afraid of losing their investment.

Babubhai thereafter started Nigos Corporation with a partner in Noble Chambers, but when the partnership dissolved, he started B Madhavji & Co. in the same space. That was around the end of July 1942. Printer had been in touch with Babubhai, and according to him, that company did not transact any business though the office was used as a meeting place for Babubhai, RA Mehta, Ushaben and others.

Printer used to go there twice or thrice a week “to seek financial help” and used to have frequent conversations with them. Sometimes he used to accompany Babubhai to a Hindi class held near the Congress House. Vithalbhai Kanthadbhai Jhaveri (Vithalbhai) also used to be there. He also knew Ramchandra Mohanlal Killewala (Killewala), who used to teach Hindi to the military and naval officers.

It’s a matter of speculation as to what must have transpired between Printer and Babubhai and who approached whom. Driven by financial concerns, Printer could have approached Babubhai. Later, the judge observed that it was immaterial who started the idea; probably Printer wanted to make some money by using the parts lying with him.

In due course, Babubhai made the proposal for starting the radio and Printer agreed; he was in need of money and Babubhai and his team needed technical help. Printer thereafter asked his assistant Rustom Cowasji Mirza (Mirza) to clean the parts in his possession and to check whether any were missing. Mirza reported that some minor parts were missing, and these were purchased by Babubhai and Printer from places like India Radio Services and JW Mehta & Co. Printer then assembled the transmitter and it was ready for trial.

Printer fitted an aerial in one of the classrooms in his own house, and invited Babubhai, Vithalbhai, RA Mehta and some others for the demonstration one evening. He had also asked some friends to receive the messages which were to be transmitted on wavelength 41.78.

Unfortunately, the experiment proved to be unsuccessful and the station could not be heard anywhere. But this did not discourage Printer, who made attempts to rectify the mistake. That night and on subsequent nights, when RA Mehta tuned his radio receiver to 41.78 metres, he heard the radio broadcast at 7.45 pm. This happened around the end of August. Soon after, Printer wanted the station to be shifted elsewhere as soon as possible, as he did not want to keep it in his house.

The required special equipment and parts were bought around this time. Later, during the proceedings of the case against the persons involved with the Congress Radio, questions were raised in court as to who bought them, for how much and for whom. One of the most important evidences were two bills-cum-receipts from Chicago Radio Company, because they mentioned how the apparatus and articles/parts were bought, pointing to the possible involvement of Babubhai and others in the transactions.

On 14th August 1942, Printer had purchased the amplifier, one pick-up and one volume controller from Chicago Radio Company (for Rs 599-8-0). Babubhai had accompanied him. According to Printer, the bill was made in Printer’s name because the salesman Vishvanath D Deshpande knew him; however, the original bill was given to Babubhai as he had made the payment.

A week or so later, Printer found that the microphone was not working satisfactorily, so on 24 August 1942 he asked Babubhai to get a new one. As it was late in the evening, he told Babubhai that the only place to get one was Chicago Radio Company. Babubhai asked him to go in his car with Killewala.

According to Killewala, on that day Babubhai said that he was busy and did not want the Hindi lesson. Instead, he asked him to go with Printer who wanted to buy something. Since Printer did not have any money, Killewala agreed to pay even though he too did not have much money. They made a stop on the way so that Killewala could pick up money from his sister who stayed in Kandewadi, Girgaum.

When they reached Chicago Radio Company, Printer gave Killewala a note giving the details of the article he wanted. Killewala went inside and brought the microphone. Printer remained in the car as he did not want to expose himself too often.

However, the judge stated that Killewala’s story could not be believed since it was difficult to believe that Killewala would pay Printer Rs 250 without taking any documents from him, especially when he himself had had to borrow the funds from his sister. Moreover, if Killewala had bought the microphone for Printer, he would have either given his own name or Printer’s name as the purchaser.

Besides, on the cash memo it showed that the purchase had been made in the name of Messrs Babubhai & Co, Laxmi Building, Fort, Bombay, but no such company was found in existence, and it was also significant that Babubhai was also the name of the accused Babubhai. According to the judge, Killewala could not even remember the exact amount he paid for the microphone (the cash memo showed that the amount was Rs 250, but Killewala said that he paid only Rs 200).

If he had really borrowed the amount from his sister and if, as he claimed, it was returned to him by Printer, two or three days later, he would not have forgotten the amount. This indicated that money did not go out of Killewala’s pocket, but that Babubhai must have given it, as alleged by Printer.

To conclude, it is to the credit of Babubhai, Ushaben and their friends that despite all the obstacles and difficulties, the project of the Congress Radio was launched soon after they had decided to start it.

Congress Radio

Excerpted with permission from Congress Radio: Usha Mehta and the Underground Radio Station of 1942, Usha Thakkar, Penguin India.