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Fortifying Freedom: The Red Fort

Central Delhi, Delhi

November 30, 2021

The Red fort or the “Lal Qila” was commissioned by Emperor Shah Jahan after he decided to shift his capital from Agra to Delhi in 1638 CE. Its design is credited to Ustad Ahmad Lahori who was also the chief architect responsible for the famous Taj Mahal. Known by different names throughout history such as Qila-i-Mubarak (the Fortunate Citadel), Qila-i-Shahjahanabad (Fort of Shahjahanabad) or Qila-i-Mualla (the Exalted Fort), the Red Fort became one of the most iconic representations of anti-colonial resistance and India’s struggle for Independence.

Just as the city of Delhi was experiencing a “renaissance”, the revolt of 1857 came as a tsunami on its lands. It started on 10th May 1857 in Meerut but quickly reached Delhi. Historian Eric Stokes writes that the rebel soldiers showed a “centripetal impulse to congregate at Delhi”. The 82-year-old Bahadur Shah Zafar 2nd, whose right as the last Mughal ruler was dismissed by the British, was once again proclaimed as the “Emperor of Hindustan” by the revolutionaries. Coins were struck and orders were issued in his name. Rebel troops arrived from Bareilly to Delhi, led by Muhammad Bakht Khan to join him and he became the symbol of resistance against the colonial power. Together, the rebels took control of the Red Fort.

As the rebellion spread to other parts of the country, the British launched a strong offensive in order to recapture the fort. They managed to suppress the rebellion and recapture the fort on 20th September 1857. Bahadur Shah Zafar who had left the fort about three days prior was apprehended and brought back to this very fort as a British prisoner. He was tried here in 1858 in the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Special Audience) in the fort and exiled to Rangoon. Following this, since the fort had become such a strong symbol for freedom that the British felt threatened and sought to demolish a large portion of it.

In the years post the Second World War, this fort again became the central point for echoing nationalist sentiments. The British had captured about 23,000 Indian National Army soldiers and charged them with treason. The INA was organised by Rash Behari Bose but revived with vigour under the leadership of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose with the aim of attaining full freedom from the British Raj.

The Red Fort became the venue for the trials of these soldiers, popularly called the “Red Fort trials” and in the month of November 1945, the first three senior INA officials, Shah Nawaz Khan, Prem Sahgal and Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon were tried. It was asserted that they went against the British crown by siding with the Japanese and fighting against the British in the war. Widespread protests occurred against these trials in February and March 1946 and the Royal Indian Navy along with the Royal Indian Air Force mutinied in their support.

“Never before in Indian history,” admitted Jawaharlal Nehru, “had such unified sentiments been manifested by various sections of the population”. According to historians several factors contributed to these unified sentiments and foremost amongst them was the fact that the trial took place at the Red Fort which appeared to be the “most authentic symbol of British imperial domination”. It was the place where the last Mughal emperor and the acclaimed leader of the Revolt of 1857 was tried and exiled. It became quite apparent that the British were ruling India on borrowed time.

On 16th August, 1947, Nehru hoisted the national flag from the Red Fort and marked the birth of a new nation. Today it is customary for the Prime Minister to hoist the National flag every year from here on Independence Day and address the nation. It is a historical marker for India’s determination and symbolises an independent nation.