Dr Usha Mehta was born on 25th March 1920 in Saras village near Surat (Gujarat). Her role in India’s freedom struggle was unique. As a little girl of five, she first saw Gandhiji during his visit to the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. When Gandhiji arranged a camp in her village, she enthusiastically participated by attending sessions and trying her hand at spinning. She was so highly influenced by Gandhiji, that she became one of his followers. She ultimately emerged as a prominent proponent of Gandhian thought and philosophy and also completed her Doctorate in the same from the University of Mumbai. She adopted a Gandhian lifestyle by wearing only Khadi clothes and shunning luxuries of all types.
Eight-year-old Usha was a Gandhian at heart. From picketing liquor shops to raising the slogan “Simon Go Back”, she threw herself into the freedom movement. It is said, that during one of the protest marches, the policemen charged at the children, and a girl carrying the Indian flag fell along with the flag. When the children reported this incident to their elders, the latter bravely responded by dressing up their children in the colours of the flag. Initially, Usha’s father discouraged her from participating in the freedom struggle, as he was working as a Judge under the British Raj. However, when he retired in 1930, all limitations ceased, and the twelve-year-old Usha could now actively be a part of the freedom struggle. Her family’s migration to Bombay made it much easier for her to contribute to the fight for freedom. She used to visit the relatives of prisoners and carry messages from them to those who were languishing in the jails.
Dr Usha Mehta, popularly known as Ushaben, is well known for organizing the Congress Radio. It was on 14 August 1942, that Usha and some of her close associates began the Secret Congress Radio, a clandestine radio station that went on air on 27 August 1942. The radio broadcasted recorded messages from Gandhiji, nationalistic songs, and stirring speeches by revolutionaries and other eminent leaders from across India. To avoid being detected by the authorities the organizers kept shifting the station’s location almost daily. Though the underground radio station functioned only for three months, it raised awareness about the 1942 Quit India Movement by spreading uncensored news and other information banned by the British authorities.
However, things did not go according to plan, and the police traced them on 12 November 1942. The organizers, including Usha Mehta, were arrested. Though the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the Indian Police interrogated her relentlessly for six months, she did not speak a word during her trial, not even to save herself. She was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment and jailed at the Yeravda Jail in Pune. While in jail, her health deteriorated, and she was admitted to the J J Hospital. She was kept under guard while in the hospital, as the authorities felt she would attempt to escape from there.
In March 1946, she became the first political prisoner to be released in Bombay on the orders of Morarji Desai, who was the Home Minister in the interim government. Even after India gained independence, Dr Usha Mehta was actively involved in the dissemination of Gandhian thought and philosophy. She was the President of the Gandhi Peace Foundation in New Delhi and had a role to play in the affairs of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. In 1998, the Union of India conferred her with the Padma Vibhushan. In August 2000, Dr Usha Mehta, though unwell, participated in the anniversary celebrations of the Quit India Movement at the August Kranti Marg. Two days later, this crusader for India died peacefully at eighty.