When the farmers protesting against the Narendra Modi government’s three farm laws finally made their way to Delhi on 26 January, a faction broke away from the designated route and made their way to the Red Fort to mark their protest and hoist a Sikh flag — and in the process, damaged the ticket counter, two brass finials placed atop the ramparts, and an under-construction interpretation centre.
India watched in shock as television screens flashed images of farmers hoisting the Nishan Sahib flag, of the Sikh religion, atop a pole in the Red Fort’s premises — for many, including some farm leaders themselves, a line had been crossed. Never before had the Red Fort been breached on Republic Day.
The monument is more than a historic building.
Across centuries, the Red Fort has become a symbol of Indian power, sovereignty and independence.
It has, over the centuries, come to mean different things to different people – from being the abode of the last Mughal Bahadur Shah Zafar II and his waning power to being a symbol of rebellion for those who led the First War of Independence, and later as a mark of the British dominance in 1857. This is where India articulates its ambitions every year, but it is also the site of the fantasy of Pakistani Islamists who want to hoist their flag on it.
Indians guard the Red Fort’s autonomy and sanctity zealously, and bristle when they perceive a threat — be it the attack by terrorists in 2001, or even its adoption by the Dalmia Bharat Group in 2018.
So when actor Deep Sidhu went all out for ‘kila fateh’ on 26 January, for Sikh farmers, the reference to the Battle of Delhi (1783) between Sikh Khalsa and the Mughal Empire was unmissable.
It hit a nerve, leaving India ‘shaken’. It is for this reason that the Red Fort — an enduring symbol of India’s democracy — is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
The making of a symbol
The Red Fort stands tall in Old Delhi, drawing thousands of tourists every year because of its grandeur and historical significance.
But before the tourists, there was the Army. After a long bureaucratic tussle, the Fort’s complete possession was handed over to the Archeological Survey of India in 2003.
The Fort was built to exude power. Shah Jahan, the 17th-century Mughal emperor, commissioned its construction in 1639 when he decided to shift the empire’s capital from Agra to Delhi. Work was complete by 1648 — its tall, red sandstone walls protecting the 255-acre complex within.
Between Shah Jahan’s demise and the coronation of Bahadur Shah Zafar II in 1837, the Red Fort had seen many attempts at invasion and plunder — by Afghans and Marathas in 1757, and the Sikhs in 1783 — chipping away at its exterior.
But it was the famous revolt of 1857 — known as the War of Independence against the British — that cemented the Red Fort’s image as a symbol of authority. In May 1857, several cities in North India began to rebel against the British, who quickly quashed every emerging agitation.
It was only on 19 September 1857, when the British captured the Red Fort, that the revolt was put to rest.
Navina Jafa, historian, cultural activist and performing artist, told ThePrint: “Even as the Mughals’ rule was waning, the British were always in awe of their majesty, which they could not attain. There was always a sense of nostalgia and competition when it came to the imminence and grandeur that the Mughals represented. The Red Fort was a reminder of that, too.”
Once captured, the British destroyed two-thirds of the Fort’s inner structures, replacing harem courts and kitchens with British barracks for their soldiers.
But writer Giles Tillotson argued in his book Delhi Darshan that the Red Fort’s iconic status isn’t entirely the making of the Mughals, and that its colonisation by the British also had a role to play.
“The Mughals alone could not make the Red Fort stand for all of India. They got help of a kind — clumsy or at best unintentional — from the British,” Tillotson wrote, adding, “the vandalism carried out in 1857 after the suppression of the rebellion made it — if not at the time then later, as those actions were viewed retrospectively — into a site of national resistance.”
Red Fort through the ages
Apart from the occupation of the Fort, historians say the trial of the three Indian National Army (INA) soldiers at the Red Fort in 1945 — Shah Nawaz Khan, Prem Kumar Sahgal and Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon, who had been captured after waging war against the British — put the spotlight back on the Mughal structure.
On 16 August 1947, as part of India’s Independence Day celebrations, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru unfurled the Indian flag at the Red Fort and told the thousands that had gathered there, “We have gathered here on a historic occasion at this ancient fort to win back what was ours. This flag does not symbolise the triumph of individuals or the Congress but the triumph of the whole country.”
Every Independence Day since has been celebrated from the ramparts of the Red Fort. All 14 of India’s Prime Ministers have delivered their speeches from here — reifying the cultural significance of Nehru’s words in 1947.
“The whole idea was that both Parliament and the Lal Quila are symbols of democracy,” said Jafa.
So on 26 January, when a mob of protesters ransacked the iconic structure, leaving behind shards of broken glass and smashed security apparatus, they damaged more than just a structure.
When Gandhi was killed in 1948, the trial of Nathuram Godse, Gandhi’s assassin, took place in the Red Fort, this time to “highlight the secular credentials of the State, as it sought to posit Gandhi’s assassin as a communalist,” Kanika Sharma, professor of law and colonial history at SOAS University, wrote in a paper. “The Palace built by a Muslim King, and later utilised by the Christian ruling class, stood as a symbol of syncretic India, devoid of any religious overtones,” she added.
The Red Fort has also weathered polarised narratives by Right-wing groups that regard the Mughals as bloodthirsty, foreign invaders, maintaining its image and respect as a secular symbol.
Views are personal.