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An Expert Explains: Red Fort and Delhi — symbols and narratives of power down the ages

Republic Day violence at Red Fort: Many symbols came together in the images — a massive anti-government protest, a site intimately connected to an annual national event, and the pennant of a religious community. What did this act signify?

Written by Swapna Liddle | New Delhi |
Updated: January 30, 2021 10:18:50 pm
Nehru addresses the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort in 1947. (Express Archive)

Newsfeeds on Republic Day were dominated by scenes of protests on the ramparts of the Red Fort. The climax of what newspapers referred to as the “storming”, “breach”, or “raid”, was the raising of the Nishan Sahib on the pole normally reserved for the hoisting of the national flag by the Prime Minister on Independence Day.

Many symbols came together in these images — a massive anti-government protest, a site intimately connected to an annual national event, and the pennant of a religious community. What did this act signify? What are the narratives of power and its subversion that have lived on in the popular imagination, to come to the surface in a moment of conflict?

To unravel some of these strands of meaning, one must go back in history, to a time centuries before the Red Fort was even constructed.

‘Capital of Hindustan’

Before the 13th century, Delhi — or ‘Dilli’ — was, politically speaking, a moderately significant town. It was for long the capital of the modestly sized kingdom of the Rajput Tomar dynasty. By the mid 12th century it was conquered by the Rajput Chauhans who, however, ruled from Ajmer.

It was the conquest by Ghurid Turks in the late 12th century that put Delhi on the map as a centre of power. As the capital of the Sultanate, Delhi gradually developed an aura of power — in the popular imagination, it came to be associated with a dominant power in the subcontinent. Babur, having defeated Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat in 1526, headed for Delhi, which he described as “the capital of all Hindustan”, even though the Lodis had ruled from Agra for the previous two decades.

The Expert

Swapna Liddle is a historian of Delhi and the author of Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi.

Seat of Mughal power

During the first century or so of Mughal rule, Agra was the capital for longer than Delhi. Still, the Mughals continued to be seen as rulers of Delhi. A Sanskrit inscription from 1607 refers to Akbar as “Dillishvara”, the lord of Delhi, though he had ruled from Delhi for a very short time. In a Persian inscription dated 1621 on the Salimgarh Bridge adjoining the Red Fort, Jahangir, who never reigned from Delhi, was described as “Shahanshah e Dehli”, the emperor of Delhi.

It was only in the reign of Shah Jahan (1628-58) that the Mughal connection to Delhi was given concrete form, with the founding of the city of Shahjahanabad and the inauguration of its palace citadel, the Red Fort, in 1648. From that date to the end of Mughal rule in 1857, Delhi would be the formal capital of the Mughal empire.

There was another important feature of the Delhi of these two centuries. From the 13th century, the capital had been located at a number of different sites – Mehrauli, Kilugarhi, Siri, Tughlaqabad, Jahanpanah, Firozabad, and Dinpanah. Now it came to be settled permanently in Shahjahanabad, with the emperor’s seat being in the Red Fort.

Coveted political prize

The significance of Delhi and the Red Fort was thrown into sharp relief by political developments in the 18th century, once the Mughal empire started on the long road to decline. Erstwhile Mughal provinces such as Bengal, Awadh, and Hyderabad broke away, and new forces like the Sikhs and the Marathas arose. Not only did the Mughal territories shrink, the Mughal emperor became increasingly ineffectual even within them. Yet, such was his symbolic significance as the source of legitimate sovereign authority that many of these new states, including a newcomer, the East India Company, continued to rule in his name, and to issue coins in his name until well into the 19th century.

The control over the emperor and of Delhi was, therefore, a prize worth fighting for. Safdar Jang, the Nawab of Awadh, fought a civil war in an attempt to keep his position as Prime Minister of the Mughal emperor. The Sikhs had their ambitions, and came up to the walls of the city in 1783 before retreating. The Marathas met with greater success the following year, when Mahadji Sindhia became the power behind the throne. Finally, the East India Company defeated the Maratha forces in 1803, and went on to control Delhi and the emperor for the next 54 years.

In the popular imagination, legitimate rule was associated with the Mughal emperor to the extent that when the country broke out in revolt in 1857, the mutinous soldiers made their way to Delhi, seeking his leadership.

When the revolt in Delhi had been crushed, the British army occupied the Red Fort and the officers drank to their Queen’s health in the Diwan-e-Khas, where the Mughal emperors had held court. It was in this same hall that Bahadur Shah was put on trial, convicted, and exiled. Nearly ninety years later, in 1945-46, the memory of that trial foreshadowed another historic trial in the fort — that of the personnel of the Indian National Army, which generated an immense wave of nationalist sentiment in the run-up to Independence.

Symbol of the nation

With the coming of Independence, it was necessary that the site of the Red Fort, over which the British colonial government had sought to inscribe its power and might, be symbolically reclaimed for the Indian people. It was for this reason, that after the first hoisting of the national flag at India Gate on August 15, 1947, the next day, the Prime Minister hoisted it on the ramparts of the Red Fort — this was to then become India’s lasting Independence Day tradition.

In the context of a site marked by power and authority, and acts of challenging and reclaiming that authority, what is the significance of a group of predominantly Sikh farmers raising the flag of the Khalsa? History books tell us that when the Sikhs made an incursion to Delhi in 1783, they turned away from the walls, not entering the city. The incident is remembered very differently in Sikh hagiographies. Sikh legend says that the armed Sikhs occupied the Red Fort and unfurled the Nishan Sahib, demonstrating their victory over the Mughal throne. This account, itself contested, has fuelled more recent events such as the celebration of an annual Fateh Divas at the Red Fort since 2014, supposedly marking the anniversary of the events of 1783. The similarities between Fateh Divas and the events of January 26 may be deceptive. While one celebrated a victory over an empire that was seen by the Sikhs as oppressive, the other was clearly a challenge to the authority that controls the site today.

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