Millennium Post

Red Fort as symbol of anachronism

Many wonder why the  first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru chose the ramparts of Red Fort to hoist the national flag on the morning of 15 August 1947. The tradition, which was started by Nehru six-and-half decades back, continues as part of the Independence Day celebration drill though the ‘enthusiastic crowds’ have long stopped coming and the Prime Minister speaks from a bullet-proof glass enclosure to invited dignitaries, children from government schools conscripted for the function and, of course, the big posse of security personnel present to ensure an incident-free function.

With the Raisina Hill, in the past 65 years, firmly and rightly establishing itself as the seat of power, the fort has outlived its utility even as a national icon. According to some historians ‘the new state chose to use the same architectural symbol – the Red Fort – to showcase its power as its two predecessors ruling from Delhi because Nehru felt the fort was looked upon as an icon by all Indians; he sought to transform the Red Fort from a national icon to an icon of nationalism.’ The question is – having won the freedom from a colonial power, did we need to have a ‘symbol of might’ to express the sovereignty of the state.

The indifference which is shown towards the heritage site by one and all, other than the tourists, through the year explains the loss of magnificence of the fort in people’s perception. We now live in the era of greater architectural marvels than the medieval monolith – at best representative of the Mughal Empire in not its best times.

Aurangzeb, who succeeded Shah Jahan, the builder of the Red Fort, on Takht-e-Taus [the Mughal throne] was the last true emperor of the dynasty. He largely functioned from his headquarters in the Deccan, where he founded the city of Aurangabad. Aurangzeb’s successors did return to Delhi and the Red Fort more because the expanse of the empire shrunk with much rapidity. The Red Fort rather stood as a mute witness to the dismemberment of the great empire following several raids from invaders like Nadir Shah, Ahmed Shah Abdali, the Marathas and the Sikhs. It was also the venue for the abject surrender and trial of the last Mughal emperor, also a British pensioner, Bahadur Shah Zafar.

The Red Fort in the times of Zafar was a centre of lechery, debauchery and mal-governance. The British resident, Charles Metcalfe, encouraged these trends, especially in the inner apartments of the royals. Metcalfe encouraged white ladies well-versed in Persian and in court culture to interact with Bahadur Shah Zafar’s harem. The tottering old king’s middle-aged wife, Zeenat Mahal, presided over the harem and, to an extent, the Mughal court.

Metcalfe maintained a dialogue with Zeenat and kept her assured that her 16-year-old son, Jawan Bakht, would be declared successor to the king of Delhi, as the British knew Bahadur Shah and not emperor of India. Even at the height of the mutiny of 1857, the British remained firmly in command in the presidencies of Calcutta and Madras and in areas north of Delhi.

Objectively speaking, the Red Fort never quite fell to the mutineers. What did fall were the homes in the European colony of Daryaganj, of defenceless white traders, the sort who raised guns only to kill partridges. Even at the peak of the ‘Mughal control’ of Shahjahanabad after the mutineers arrived in May 1857, the British maintained a dialogue with the traders of Delhi for their supplies. The traders were being forced by the sepoys into selling on credit or facing loot. On the other hand, the British agents paid in cash. It led to a direct loss of goodwill for the Mughal administration.

 After the recapture, the first thing the British did was to create a garrison inside the Red Fort. This garrison remained with the Indian Army till 2003-04, when it was transferred to the Archeological Survey of India. The historians erred, as did Nehru, in concluding that British at any point of time thought of using the Red Fort as the symbol of their empire’s magnificence. How else they would have built New Delhi.

The fort was used ‘significantly’ by the British between 1857 and 1947only on two occasions – that too for the purpose of conducting trials. The first ‘spectacular’trial held by the British inside the fort was of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the former emperor. The venue of the former emperor’s palace was chosen to establish the colonial authority.

The second trial was of the Indian National Army members, which was held in the fort as it housed a garrison and INA trials were part of the general court martial proceedings. Jawaharlal Nehru, who donned the lawyer’s gown to defend the INA volunteers as member of the National Defence Committee, wrote after the second Red Fort trial in 1946, ‘Every stone in that historic setting tells a story and revives a memory of long ago. Ghosts of the past, ghosts of the Moghuls, of Shah Jahan, of Bahadur Shah, proud cavaliers pass by on prancing horses, processions wend their way.’

The aforementioned excerpt from Nehru’s foreword to Two Historic Trials in Red Fort lucidly explains as to why the first prime minister chose the Red Fort over any other venue, especially the magnificent monuments built by the British. For Nehru, the INA trials were ‘spectacular’ from the Indian point-of-view. Having long moved away from Nehruvian Socialism as our professed economic policy, it’s now time to give his idealism also a decent burial.

Sidharth Mishra is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and consulting editor, Millennium Post.
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