Congress Radio, the power of revolutionary change: Lessons from ‘Ae Watan Mere Watan’, the film

Usha Mehta, a fiery satyagrahi, mesmerised by Gandhi, is the protagonist of this timely film; she with her two young colleagues, conceived and ran the underground ‘Congress Radio’ from Mumbai to both inform and unite fellow Indians left leaderless after the British crackdown on the Congress leadership following the historic quit India Rally at Gowalia Tank on August 8, 1942; “Karo Ya Maro” (Do or Die) was the powerful cry from the Indian people that day and Congress Radio, epitomises this unique contribution to the freedom struggle; it re-ignited the ‘Quit India Movement’ that challenged the oppressive British regime
Image: Amazon MGM Studios/Dharmatic Entertainment

A Sabrangindia Special

“We used to begin with Saare Jahan se Accha, Hindustan Hamara and end with Vande Mataram… When the newspapers did not dare touch upon these subjects, it was only the Congress Radio which could defy the orders and tell the people what was happening, most crucially not to lose hope and keep up the struggle.”

– Usha Mehta

The movie ‘Ae Watan Mere Watan’, directed by Kannan Iyer and produced by Karan Johar, was released on Amazon Prime Video on March 21, 2024. This Sara Ali Khan-led movie is based on the life on Usha Mehta, a 20-year -old freedom fighter[1] who believed in Gandhi’s way of non-violence and peace and played a crucial role in re-igniting the ‘Quit India Movement’ in the year 1942 after the British government had arrested all the leaders of the Congress party and banned the party. The film carries a powerful message on the crucial role that both technology and communication plays, in bringing change. While in the film we see the power of such communication in positive change, a post truth world, especially in New India has lived through a decade of the denial of information, communication and the transmission of pervasive propaganda. That is why this powerful depiction, set in the Bombay of the early 1940s portrays the ingenuous use of recently introduced radio technology by these intrepid young freedom fighters and how their simple and courageous idea was tumultuously effective in communicating, and arousing, Indians from Kandahar to Kanyakumari.

The movie shows us the birth of an underground ‘Congress Radio’, also known as ‘Azad Radio’. The idea comes to Mehta and her two young colleagues and friends after they experience the violent crackdown on the Gowalia Tank Quit India Rally of April 8, 1942 and are concerned with the agitation dissipating with a leaderless population, worried and fearful after the crackdown.

The cost of the choice made by these three young persons, who jostle personal revolts within the family and risk their lives is matched by the raw courage that such a project demanded—radio was banned by the British government! The challenge in collecting funds for the almost unattainable project (the Rs 4,000 in gold is gifted by Usha Mehta’s ‘bua’ (aunt) when she observes her niece’s fledgling project floundering) and running it night after night at 8.30 p.m., often changing locations to avoid detection, is the stuff of your gripping, favourite thriller, except more haunting.

Historically, this radio station, ran for three months from August 27, 1942 through November 1942, before being shut down after a brutal and violent crackdown and the operators being arrested. Usha Mehta served five years rigorous imprisonment and on her release from the Yeravada prison found a passionate throng of 20,000 waiting to greet her!

This movie comes as a breath of fresh air in the current environment, where history is being continuously distorted, from manipulating facts and events to releasing propaganda movies, all undertaken with the single-minded objective—furthering the ideology of the present regime, that of the Hindutva right wing that has played a peripheral role, in India’s struggle for independence.

The movie serves then as a reminder, besides opening welcome channels of information for a generation less familiar to the enduring legacies and roles of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Maulana Azad and Jawaharlal Nehru, Ram Manohar Lohia among so many others, in obtaining freedom.

Gandhi, who has been target of most vicious attack by the ultra-right wing, Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) and its octopus like fraternal organisations is depicted as the mesmerising leader he was. Gandhi not only inspired millions like Mehta and her idealistic colleagues to join the battle for ‘Azaadi’ but also –often at deep personal cost—adopt the vows of abstinence (Brahmacharya!). The movie has poignant moments depicting this. Not just leaders, but ordinary Indians, from all walks of life, gave of their selves, from Dargahs to temples, Indians and their places of work and worship contributed to the cause, for freedom. ‘Karo or Maro’ was the sentiment that vibrated on India’s streets, in towns and farflung villages.

This article is not a typical film review in which we dissect or examine the performances by the actors, which include Sara Ali Khan, Sachin Khedekar, Emraan Hashmi, Anand Tiwari, Sparsh Shrivastava, Madhu Raj, and Abhay Verma. It is about the era and the message that the film brings us today.

Today, there is almost a sense of hopelessness, many of us silently watching (and bemoaning) the crass erosion of Constitutional values and fundamental freedoms. Deeply rooted values of co-existence, sharing, fraternity and tolerance are slowly being replaced by an ideologically imposed intolerance, religious fanaticism and majoritarianism. To ground this malevolent project begun in 1925 when the RSS was founded, the legacy of revered freedom fighters, such as Gandhi, Maulana Azad, Subhas Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru, is also being twisted and manipulated. To replace these icons, a manufactured, non-existent history is also being politically promoted. In this version of distorted history, Muslims, communists and socialists have no role or part in the freedom struggle of India. With ‘Ae Watan Mere Watan’, one gets to see and hear young freedom fighters, including Mehta, rise and live by Mahatma Gandhi’s slogan of ‘Do or die’ and see the unveiling of a revolution under the nose of a tyrannical government.

The plot:

The storyline of ‘Ae Watan Mere Watan’ is rooted in a true life account of the Congress (Azad) Radio run by, among others Usha Mehta. Revolving around the courageous actions of Usha Mehta, which is played by Sara Ali Khan. Since the start of the movie, a minor Usha Mehta  is shown as someone who is willing to stand up against the oppressive acts of the Britishers. The same was depicted through a scene where Mehta is seen protecting her teacher, a supporter of Gandhi, from the state police’s brutal beatings when he is found sharing with the young, stories of Gandhi’s Dandi March, Salt Satyagraha (Surat, 1930).  The film then transitions to Mumbai in 1942, where Usha, now a masters student at Wilson College, can be seen enthusiastically participating in protests led by the Congress party, albeit without the knowledge of her father, a Judge under the British. Her benevolent aunt (bua) appears to silently observe the transition in Usha. After attending several meetings, eventually, Usha becomes a member of the Congress party.

Mehta’s resilience, grit, and valour is not limited to battling against the Britishers, but also family ties, especially her doting father. Usha’s father (played by Sachin Khedekar), a judge in British India, expresses disdain for those Indian fighting the rule of the Britishers, deeming Indians to be incapable of ruling a country. Mehta’s ideals are really challenged when her own father, a Winston Churchill fan, asks her to stay away from a Congress protest against Britishers. The few scenes of clash between the father-daughter, are poignant and beautifully scripted (Darab Faruqui is the dialogue and script writer) especially the lines when Usha says that her father’s love is a shackle and burden for her larger, more passionate goal, her country’s freedom. The poignant depiction of the personal cost of a larger political battle.

After the brutal crackdown on the August 6, Quit India Rally where the resounding cry of “Karo or Maro” (Do or Die) rent the air, all major leaders of the Congress are arrested and Indians are left rudderless. Mehta and her young colleagues observe the growing dissipation of the fervour among the people and after intense discussions, identify the cause. Spot on. Communication and binding of people to a common cause through such communication is what is missing. Radio had been recently introduced to the elite echelons in India and her Judge father listens to broadcasts from then prime minister, Great Britain, Winston Churchill on this contraption. Radio it has to be. But how? Usha Mehta and her friends have also observed a Parsi couple (the Engineers) using music on the radio for dance classes and thereafter persuade Firdaus Engineer (for a cost) to design the transmitter for their underground radio broadcast. Congress Radio is set for transmission.

So, it is after the arrest of leaders such as Gandhi and Azad, that Mehta and her companions – Kaushik (Abhay Verma) and Fahad (Sparsh Shrivastava) sets out to revive the dissipating, Quit India movement. The trio chooses the medium of radio to spread Gandhi’s message of non-violence and self-dependence as they recognise that the newspapers fall under the control of rulers and are only catering to the agenda of the ruling regime. It becomes important for them to get access to a medium that is independent, out of control of an oppressive regime. Armed with Engineer’s (played by Anand Tiwari) designed transmitter, Usha establishes an underground radio station, for vibrant, everyday method of mass communication.

Soon enough, the underground radio starts connecting those who had gone underground and receives support from the likes of Ram Manohar Lohia (played by Emraan Hashmi). As the radio starts gaining audience and momentum, with Lohia’s speeches also being transmitted, the British intensify a high-stakes game of cat and mouse to ‘destroy’ the Congress Radio and discover those behind this radio show. John Lyre (played by Alexx O’Nell), portrayed as the antagonist, is tasked with apprehending Usha and shutting down the radio station.

The content transmitted on Congress Radio?

“Recorded speeches” of the Congress leadership, other broadcast messages linked to freedom, secularism, and internationalism. Congress Radio regularly spoke up on the atrocities committed by British soldiers and administrators. In one broadcast, the broadcast addressed the topic of mass rapes by British soldiers, calling them the “most bestial thing that one could imagine” and asking for citizens to stand up to rape; other broadcasts discussed the plights of one woman raped in a police van and another who had been carrying food to political prisoners before being sexually assaulted, both in the Central Provinces. Another broadcast touted the values of secularism and spoke about the need for unity between the Hindu and Muslim communities.[2] The station also carried messages to workers and peasants, Indian soldiers, and students, directing their participation in the Quit India Movement. The station also took the message of the Indian movement beyond the country and preached internationalism.

Crucial for us to remember that independent radios had been banned by the Britishers during World War II. The film then shows Mehta taking multiple risks to keep the Congress Radio running. Towards the end, when it is certain that the Britishers will be able to locate the radio and arrest those running it, Mehta makes a conscious choice to still run the radio and its final telecast. For her, getting Lohia’s message to the Indian people for a mass uprising and acts of civil disobedience was more important than her own life and liberty. By the last minute of the transmission, when Lohia’s message and call is finally delivered, it has an electrifying impact, Countrywide attacks and protests against offices of the British empire are unleashed. Mehta gets discovered and is arrested. Even facing arrest, she does not let the British officers stop the song ‘Vande Mataram’ from playing on her radio. Enduring violence and assault while she is arrested, slogans of ‘Bharat chhodo’ and ‘Karo ya Maro’ never leave her lips. Usha Mehta does not divulge the whereabouts of Ram Manohar Lohia to her oppressors.

Behind great leaders and movements are the footsoldiers, creative and courageous as Usha Mehta and her real life colleagues, Vithalbhai Jhaveri, Vithaldas Khakar, Chandrakant Jhaveri and Babubhai Thakkar.

Takeaways from this movie:

While watching this movie, one cannot stop ourselves from drawing certain parallels to the current political scenario of India. To watch a group of young people challenge the oppressive British regime, which had supressed all “mainstream media”, by countering the misinformation and false narrative being spread amongst the citizens, the very act of conception and running of Congress Radio was and is a emancipatory act. It is acts such as these, courageous and many that a mass revolutionary movement make. The film brings alive to us today, the harsh realities that India and Indians lived through in their fight for Independence and democracy. The simple objective that Mehta and her companions had was to motivate Indians to unite in their contribution to the freedom struggle. To act and raise their voices against atrocities by the British.

Alongside the themes of expansive and inclusive nationalism, other messages resonate. At a point when young Fahad praises Ram Manohar Lohia, a founder of the Congress Socialist Party, to the point of idolatory,  Mehta calls him out for indulging in ‘andh bhakti’. She also cites Lohia’s own example of criticising Jawaharlal Nehru even while he looks up to him by stating “He (Lohia) idolises Nehru but wouldn’t hesitate to criticise him if the need arises”. The film consistently promotes the message of questioning everything and everyone, especially those that we hold in high regard.

This movie also reminds us of the importance and power of dissent. Today, the right to express dissenting opinions has come under increasing pressure due to governmental reactions to criticism, non-violent activities and opposition. In addition to direct suppression by the state, a concerning trend has arisen whereby individuals and groups may choose to self-censor rather than risk the consequences of speaking out. The movie also shows the importance of unifying strength and solidarity to fight against oppressive forces.

The main task that faced the Congress Party, including Mehta and Lohia, was to bring people together in uncertain times and re-ignite their trust into the freedom struggle and the Congress Party. Mehta and her colleagues’ broadcasts through the ‘Congress Radio’ helped boost the morale of the Indian populace and freedom fighters by informing them about the movement’s progress and encouraging continued resistance against British rule.

Mehta realised that it was only when resistance resonated in unison and mass participation of people transcending boundaries of class, caste, and creed, took place, could the pursuit of freedom be realised. The freedom of India was a result of collective rebellion.

One particular scene from the movie, where Fahad explains his reason for joining the Congress Party after having left the Muslim League is enduring. In that scene, Fahad, who suffers from polio, reveals that he does not resonate with the objective of the Muslim league anymore (he was once a member) as his goal is independence of India and not the division of India into two parts. Today, when certain people claim to selectively blame sections and communities, they do so out of ignorance, even malice. People of all traditions, faiths Adivasis, Dalits and farmers gave their life for the struggle for India’s independence. Today there are also consistent attempts to erase the role that Muslims and Muslim leaders played in attaining India’s independence. With its unbiased depiction of the times of Gandhi and the Indian freedom struggle, this movie sets the record straight.

Usha Mehta’s underground radio remains a poignant reminder of the struggle for Indian independence, highlighting the innovative methods adopted by freedom fighters to challenge colonial rule and inspire their fellow citizens. Mehta, an ‘unsung hero’ remains a beacon of hope for Indians struggling against colonial oppression, and her legacy lives on as a reminder of the power of courage, determination, and dedication. Her life story provides an inspiration to all who are, even today, fight for justice and freedom in the face of adversity.

By bringing in this precious vignette of a long drawn out struggle for freedom from colonial yoke, that too through such a powerful narrative, this film very tells us of myriad roles (here it is the three-month long transmission of Congress Radio) that make change happen. Behind the actions (and successes) of towering leaders are actions of hundreds of thousands of unsung heroes.

Towards the end of the movie, there is a message that is particularly poignant: One doesn’t fight a tyrant to win; one fights them because they are tyrants.

As Mehta says in the film, not every fight will result in victory, but that should not stop one from fighting the (right) fight.

(This piece was written by Tanya Arora and then contributed to by the Sabrangindia Team)

[1] Usha Mehta was actually 22 years old when she ran this operation with her colleagues

[2], The Mahatma’s Hams



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