How radio stations in India and Germany ignited the fire of revolution and propelled India to independence
An eight-year-old girl from the village of Saras in Gujarat, Usha Mehta, was among the youngest protesters during the independence movement’s protest march in 1928.
She shouted “Simon, go back” and threw the first brick at the Raj’s British compound.
Years later, she became the voice of an underground radio station which played a small but instrumental role in reaching people in their struggle for Indian independence from the British Raj.
When Mahatma Gandhi launched the Quit India movement in August 1942 at the Bombay session of the All-India Congress Committee, a young student, Usha, was in the crowd and took Gandhi’s motto to heart.
Just five days later, his voice was heard on the radio, resonating in the minds of millions of people calling for independence. At that time, All India Radio, officially known as “Akashvani” since 1957, was the mouthpiece of the colonizers’ government.
“This is Congress Radio calling 42.34 meters from somewhere in India,” Usha Mehta’s voice sounded rebellious and clear across the country on a phantom transmitter.
Risking everything for the country, Usha and her co-revolutionaries filled the airwaves with the sound of revolution.
The silent station – Congress Radio – broadcast recorded messages from Gandhi and other leaders to supporters of the freedom struggle. The radio station moved to dodge authorities and fought British propaganda and disinformation.
The young radio-revolutionaries were caught after a three-month game of cat and mouse and were arrested and imprisoned the same year.
India today marks 75 years of independence, a struggle fought with the blood and sweat of millions across the country and abroad. Just as the story of freedom is incomplete without freedom fighters and revolutionaries, it is only half told without emphasizing the role of radio and public address systems in the movement – the only channels of communication with the masses at the time.
Chicago Radio – The Voice of Freedom in India
Nanik Motwane, a young volunteer with the Indian National Congress Party, watched Mahatma Gandhi struggle to make his voice heard at large public independence rallies in 1929.
Gandhi walked from platform to platform in the same place and repeated the speech in his low voice to hundreds of thousands of people gathered to listen to their leader. It was then that Motwane had an epiphany.
The 27-year-old decided to amplify the national hero’s voice. Two years later, Motwane was ready with a public address system at a Congress rally in Karachi, a bustling city in present-day Pakistan.
In one of the earliest photographs, Motwane is seen wearing Gandhi’s trademark white cap with Gandhi standing next to him, speaking into a microphone with the trademark “Chicago Radio”.
For a company founded in Bombay, Chicago Radio was a rather curious name. Perhaps the Motwane family was fascinated by a foreign name, given their global business networks.
At the start of business, Motwane imported speakers, amplifiers and microphones from the US and UK, and engineers in India reverse-engineered them for local use.
As they continued to improvise and beef up the PA system, at one point Motwane had 100 PA sets ready all over India to rush to any Congress meeting.
Motwane also helped run an underground radio station, Congress Radio or AIR, “anti-India radio” as the imperialists would call it. He was among five people arrested, along with Usha Mehta, the voice of Congress Radio.
Motwane was detained for allegedly helping the station with equipment and technical assistance. Interestingly, Chicago Radio was never on the police radar.
The name Chicago Radio became synonymous with public gatherings and was used at meetings or when foreign officials came to India.
In 1963, the late Lata Mangeshkar sang Aye Mere Watan Ke Login (Ye People of my Land), an ode to fallen soldiers, beamed over Chicago Radio’s loudspeakers to a tear-eyed audience.
However, when Indira Gandhi came to power in the 1970s, her office wrote a stern letter asking Motwane to change the name of the foreign brand. But Motwane resisted. VShicago Radio is still there but much smaller. The company now sells public address and intercom systems.
Azad Hind Radio in Germany
After establishing Free India Center in Berlin, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose launched Azad Hind Radio as part of the German radio service, which first broadcast on January 7, 1942.
The German-funded operation’s programs aimed to show solidarity with Indians living abroad, as well as those still living in the subcontinent. Broadcasting from Germany, Bose celebrated Japanese victories over the British and spoke passionately about India’s Quit India movement.
Netaji used the radio to declare war on the British on October 23, 1942.
When India gained independence from the British, Poornam Vishwanathan cleared his throat, restrained his emotions and announced India’s freedom to the outside world on a radio broadcast.
It was 5:30 a.m. on August 15, 1947, when a young Vishwanathan became the first Indian to broadcast from India to East Asia. “India is a free country,” was the first sentence. This was followed by the repetition of Nehru’s date with the speech of fate.