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 Indias struggle
for independence. While Gandhis 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,
Gandhis 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 Mahatmas nonviolent
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 Bombays 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 Bombays 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 wifes 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 Indias 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 Gandhis
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
Hitlers 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 Indias remote and vulnerable northeastern Manipur
On 9 August 1942, after Gandhis 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 (Gandhis umbrella-organization)
was summarily banned from Indias 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 movements 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 Printers 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
Gandhis Quit India Movement, in October, and November
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 Mahatmas
sermons and his calls for nonviolence, uncensored news, pro-independence
music, instructions for Gandhian activists, and political declarations
by the movements 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 Printers
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 Printers
decision to turn Crowns evidence may have been
extracted by external factors.
On 12 November 1942, Printer led colonial police to Javeris
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 Bombays 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 Mahatmas
nonviolent struggle for his countrys freedom.
Congress Radio. Audio Cassette set. Berlin: GandhiServe, [n.d.]
JNA Wireless Association. <http://members.tripod.com/~VU2JNA/
> 30 January 2001.
Mehta, Usha. Congress Radio Calling. Reminiscences of
the Freedom Movement. Presented to the Honorable Prime Minister
Shri Rajiv Gandhi, to Commemorate 100 Years of the Indian National
Congress. [N.P.}: [ n.p.}, [1992}.
Printer, Mehernosh. Private e-mail communications to author.
Ruhe, Peter. Talk with Dr. Usha Mehta, December 17, `1988. Audio
cassette. Berlin: GandhiServe, 1988.
Sengupta, Syamalendu, and Gautam Chatterjee. Secret Congress Broadcasts
and Storming Railway Tracks. New Delhi: Navrang, 1988.
Tanna, Bhavsinh Morarji. VU2LK Private e-mail communications to
Venkatraman, Mohini. VU2KMV Private telephone communication to author.
Venkatraman, P. VU3PVN Private e-mail