Seven cities, several centuries, scores of empires, Delhi has always been the seat of power, and hence, of tussle. The passing of power every time has been marked with tales of bloodshed, tales of heroism, of great battles and grand victories.
The most significant of these victories was achieved on August 15, 1947, when India turned from a British colony to a sovereign democratic Republic. Today, we take a look at five monuments in the Capital that stood witness to India’s long struggle for freedom.
If you’ve driven across central Delhi near Firoz Shah Kotla stadium, you’ve crossed this innocuous stone gate, bang in the middle of the road. The unassuming stone walls give nothing away of the gate’s gory history — six princes were killed here, and the heads of three hanged on the gate.
But while the sons of Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khanan and of Jahangir deserve their own stories, today we will speak of the sons and grandson of Bahadur Shah Zafar, who were beheaded here by a British commander during India’s first war of Independence in 1857.
Mirza Mughal, Mirza Khizr Sultan and Mirza Abu Bakr (grandson) had already surrendered to Major Hudson and were being taken to the Red Fort in a bullock cart on September 22, 1857. As they crossed the Khooni Darwaza, the cavalcade was suddenly surrounded by a lot of locals, who had tied white clothes — symbolising shrouds — on their head. Anticipating an attack to rescue the prices, a panicked Major Hudosn ordered the three to strip and beheaded them. Their bodies were taken to Chandni Chowk and left to rot in public view.
Even during partition, the bloody history of Khooni Darwaza continued, with many refugees killed here.
The Flagstaff Tower, built in 1828, is located in the ridge area near Delhi University’s north campus. When the mutineers stormed Delhi in May1857, the British holed up here, waiting for help to arrive.
According to historian William Dalrymple, “There were these pathetic scenes out there from about noon onwards of these memsahibs, who were increasingly nervous. Majority of them were women whose husbands had been massacred. And then towards about 4 in the afternoon, the mutineers sent up a bullock cart full of dead bodies of the massacred men and this created more hysteria, after which, they fled.”
However, by September, the British had recaptured the city, and it was at the Flagstaff Tower that the Union Jack was raised again. Close to the tower was also located the Telegraph Office, which managed to alert Ambala about the mutiny, helping quell it.
Shahjahanabad’s Bhagat Singh connection
The streets of Shahjahanabad are as full of stories as the number of centuries they have weathered. But today, we speak of one story — when a certain Bhagat Singh lived in hiding here, before bombing the Central Legislative Assembly in 1929. The family of his host, Mirza Naseem Changezi, still lives in the same house, a stone’s throw from Jama Masjid.
Naseem Changezi’s son, Mirza Sikander Beg Changezi, says: “My father was told a young student would come to Delhi and would need shelter. The student was Shaheed-e-Azam Bhagat Singh. Singh lived in this house for a while, but out of safety concerns, my father later moved him in the care of his friend, Daya Ram. Every morning, Bhagat Singh would tie a cloth on his face and go to recce the Assembly building. In the evenings, he would work at a pyau (watering spot). He would serve water to everyone, including British officers. Thus, he hid himself in plain sight. The pyau still exists in Daryaganj.”
MK Gandhi spent his final 144 days at what was then known as Birla Bhavan. Communal tension in Delhi was at its peak, and Gandhi felt he needed to be in the city to quell passions.
The house of the Birlas, where Gandhi held multi-faith prayer meetings, provided him with the space to reach out to the masses. It was here that Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse shot Gandhi dead on January 30, 1948. The place is now known as Gandhi Smriti, in remembrance of the man widely regarded as the ‘Father of the Nation’.
This imposing, enduring, grand mosque of Delhi has played a prominent role in not just its spiritual, but also political and cultural life for centuries. In the 1900s, Jama Masjid and its surrounding areas were the epicentre of activities related to the freedom struggle, and almost all the important leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad, gave speeches here.
A very significant speech here was by Swami Shraddhanand on April 4, 1919. While a Hindu saint spoke from the pulpit of the mosque, a Muslim leader, Saifuddin Kichlu, addressed the congregation at Golden Temple in Amritsar, on the same subject — the need for Hindu Muslim unity. Of Swami Shraddhanand, historian Rana Safvi writes: “He started his speech with a Vedic mantra, to which the congregation replied ‘Ameen’. He went on to exhort all Indians to purify their hearts with the ‘water of love’ of the motherland in ‘this national temple’, and become brothers and sisters.”
Two decades later, in October 1947, Maulana Azad again addressed a crowd from the Jama Masjid, appealing to Muslims to not leave India.