The Mahatma's Hams
Indian HAMS' role in 'Quite India movement'
Owen Williamson, AC5OE
Few present-day radio amateurs know about the essential contribution made by two Amateur Radio operators, “Bob” Tanna, VU2LK, and Nariman Abarbad Printer, VU2FU, who risked their own personal safety and freedom to help Mahatma Gandhi win India’s struggle for independence. While Gandhi’s life and work have long been admired in America and around the world, almost nothing has yet been published about the important role Amateur Radio operators played at a crucial moment in his struggle. Since his death in 1947, Gandhi’s philosophy of homespun self-reliance has often been espoused by those who mistrust high technology. However, when Gandhian leaders were being jailed and shut out of the media, it was Ham operators who stepped forward and offered their expertise with the highest available technology of the day to provide crucial radio communications equipment and know-how for the Mahatma’s nonviolent freedom movement.
At the outbreak of World War II in Europe in 1939, all Amateur Radio licenses were suspended “for the duration” throughout the British Empire. In that era, India had less than fifty licensed amateur operators, the majority British nationals involved with the colonial administration. All received written orders to turn in their transmitting equipment to the police, both for possible use in the war effort and to prevent transmitters from falling into the hands of Axis collaborators and spies.
However, Tanna, the owner and operator of Bombay’s Tanna Radio Acoustics, and Printer, a freelance inventor and Principal of a Bombay technical institute, opted to hide or disassemble their rigs rather than turn them in to British colonial authorities. Printer later claimed in court that he intended to use the components of his transmitter for classroom teaching purposes only. Tanna, an active member of Bombay’s nonviolent Gandhian underground , found a more immediate and urgent use for his equipment: working for the freedom of his country.
By the time of the Second World War, British imperial rule over India was thoroughly unpopular, and its future prospects after the war were in serious question. From the first outbreak of hostilities, Gandhi and his leadership were determined to take every possible advantage of world events to promote Indian independence and neutrality from both Allies and Axis. In 1940, young Tanna spontaneously seized the spirit of the moment to put “Azad Hind Radio” (Free India Radio) on the air, briefly using his 40-meter AM transmitter to broadcast Gandhian protest music and uncensored economic news from his former Ham shack, loading his wife’s clothesline as an antenna. However, he was quickly arrested, briefly jailed, and his transmitting equipment seized.
In mid-1942, the situation facing the British in India had become critical, with domestic popular discontent at a boiling-point, and Japanese air-raids battering the deep-water port of Chittagong and elsewhere along India’s eastern border. A land- or sea-based invasion of the Indian subcontinent was now an imminent military threat. On the home front, a dissident faction of Gandhi’s movement had broken with the Mahatma and his nonviolent philosophy, and was engaged in active material sabotage against the British “raj,” cutting phone and telegraph lines, stoning troop-trains, and pulling up railway tracks.
One popular former Gandhian leader, “Netaji” Subhash Chandra Bose, had even gone to Berlin, and there received Adolph Hitler’s help to establish a totally different, Axis-sponsored “Radio Azad Hind” network, which bombarded India with violent anti-British propaganda from Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Japanese-held Singapore, Rangoon and Saigon. Within India, popular support for “Netaji” (Hindi for “the dear Fuehrer”) was growing. Under his command, a puppet “Free Indian Army” was being recruited and trained in Japanese-occupied Southeast Asia, and would soon join Imperial Japanese forces in a joint attack on British India’s remote and vulnerable northeastern Manipur front.
On 9 August 1942, after Gandhi’s “Quit India” campaign brought yet another strong wave of nonviolent pro-independence protest, frantic British colonial authorities ordered sweeping arrests, including that of Mahatma Gandhi himself and his top leadership. All news of the Indian National Congress (Gandhi’s umbrella-organization) was summarily banned from India’s press and (state-monopoly) broadcast media. Gandhian activists who remained free saw a real danger that their movement could soon end up splintered and derailed into violent anarchy and terror, or else fall by default into the Axis orbit, unless something was done quickly to reestablish broken communication links between underground Congress leadership and the movement’s grass-roots supporters.
In Bombay, clandestine Congress leader Vitalbhai Javeri and student activist Usha Mehta decided to secretly sound out the few ethnic Indians in the Bombay area who were Amateur Radio operators, among them Tanna and Printer, with a view toward establishing an underground Gandhian broadcasting station. Both Hams readily agreed, but Tanna was immediately betrayed to colonial authorities by a still-unidentified, pro-British radio engineer, whom he had quietly approached to construct the transmitter. On 31 October 1942, a fully-working HF transmitter was delivered to Tanna, but only to serve as “bait” in a British sting-operation. The Tanna family home was searched, unearthing two old, non-working UHF transceivers, and Tanna was promptly re-arrested and charged with possession of wireless telegraphy apparatus. He was held briefly, but then set free on bail.
Printer, who a colonial judge later described “a mainstay of the conspiracy,” succeeded in reconstructing his old homebrew 40-meter amateur transmitter, after replacing several parts including a microphone. Though not a member of the Gandhian movement, he immediately agreed to sell the working transmitter, a 50-watt AM unit with microphone and “electrically driven gramophone pick-up,” to activists. This was to become “Congress Radio,” which began broadcasting 2 September 1942 on 7.12 MHz. With Printer’s ongoing technical assistance, the station broadcast messages of nonviolent resistance at 8:30 a.m. and 8:45 p.m. daily through the high point of Mahatma Gandhi’s “Quit India Movement,” in October, and November of 1942.
Despite sporadic British jamming, the crystal-controlled signal of Congress Radio was audible on the then-unoccupied 40-meter band throughout the Indian subcontinent, and as far away as Japanese-occupied Burma. The station transmitted recordings of the Mahatma’s sermons and his calls for nonviolence, uncensored news, pro-independence music, instructions for Gandhian activists, and political declarations by the movement’s underground leadership. For security, programs were recorded on 78 rpm disks at a remote location and then played at the transmitting site, which was shifted randomly between apartments rented for the purpose in different areas of Bombay. Leaflets were secretly distributed by neighborhood-level Congress activists, with times and frequencies of transmissions.
The station was detected by colonial authorities almost immediately, and Printer and the Gandhian activists involved with the clandestine broadcasts had several “close calls” when British direction-finders nearly succeeded in triangulating the location of the transmitter. On 11 November 1942, Tanna and one of his employees were arrested once again, even though no evidence could be found to directly connect them to the clandestine Congress Radio broadcasts. On November 12, Printer was arrested, and subsequently agreed to cooperate fully with colonial authorities.
It is unclear what caused his sudden change of heart, but court documents of the time show that Printer was heavily in debt, and may have been threatened with serious fraud charges connected with alleged mismanagement of his technical school. In a 1988 interview with German journalist Peter Ruhe, former Congress Radio announcer Usha Mehta suggested she still strongly lamented Printer’s “betrayal,” even though contemporary court records show that his cooperation with prosecutors, though complete, may not have been fully voluntary. Other Congress Radio defendants allegedly received harsh treatment at the hands of colonial jailers (including being forced to sleep lightly-clothed on blocks of ice), so Printer’s decision to turn “Crown’s evidence” may have been extracted by external factors.
On 12 November 1942, Printer led colonial police to Javeri’s office, where the underground Gandhian leader was arrested, and later to the Congress Radio transmitting site, where Mehta and another nonviolent activist were also taken into custody. On 14 May 1943, after a secret trial in a “Special Court,” Mehta was sentenced by a “Special Judge” to five years “rigorous imprisonment.” Two other Congress Radio defendants were sentenced to shorter prison terms, while Javeri was acquitted, thanks to strong efforts by his defense attorney. Prosecution efforts to link Tanna to Congress Radio were unsuccessful, and he also walked free.
Nariman Printer was offered and accepted full immunity from prosecution in return for his testimony for the Crown. Printer dropped from sight after the Congress Radio trial, and his expired call sign, VU2FU, was re-issued to a different Indian amateur operator after the war. Today, even elder members of Bombay’s small and tightly-knit Parsi community, to which Printer belonged, profess to remember neither his name nor his story, and no further records of his life or activities after 1943 have been located.
Usha Mehta was freed, along with all other Gandhian activists convicted of pro-independence activities, when independent India finally achieved its freedom in 1947. She later earned her PhD, and received numerous honors as a national hero and noted Gandhian scholar. She passed away from natural causes on 11 August 2000.
After independence, Bob (as he is still known on the air), VU2LK, was once again licensed as an Amateur Radio operator. He received official recognition as a nonviolent Freedom Fighter and was named a national hero for his underground radio work in the Gandhian movement. As of this writing he is, at 86 years of age, the oldest active licensed radio amateur in India (and one of the most honored). He is currently in seclusion following the death of his beloved wife of 67 years, but he has not given up on either Ham radio or the ideals that led him to risk his life and freedom a half-century ago, when he offered his technical know-how to aid the Mahatma’s nonviolent struggle for his country’s freedom.