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Salimgarh: Tales of Captivity and Freedom

Central Delhi, Delhi

November 30, 2021

The Salimgarh Fort is located on the north-eastern side of the iconic Red Fort of Delhi. This fort has witnessed a bloody and brutal past which involved forced incarcerations, killings, torture and unfair trials. As such, this formidable structure, together with its narrow corridors and cold interiors, seems to be a model of oppression and captivity. One of the most well-known episodes of such oppression was the confinement and trials of the soldiers of the Indian National Army by the British government.

Yet, oppression breeds resistance. This monument of captivity has time and again proved to be a space where revolutionary ideas were nurtured. Today, we view this monument, not so much as a prison, but as a memorial celebrating the spirit of resistance- the sacrifices, blood and sweat of our freedom fighters, that ultimately resulted in the independence of our nation.

The Salimgarh fort was built by Salim Shah Suri, the son of Sher Shah Suri, in 1546 CE. The fort, however, couldn’t house its original builders for long as the Surs lost power in Hindustan in 1555 CE. The fort then came under the control of the Mughals. Several Mughal rulers including Humayun and Shah Jahan are said to have camped at this fort. However, it was during the reign of Aurangzeb that the Salimgarh Fort developed its reputation as an infamous prison. By the time of Aurangzeb, the Mughal empire was past its zenith of prosperity and the emperor had a troubled relationship with many members of the royalty. Aurangzeb is said to have incarcerated his own brother Murad Baksh and daughter Zebunissa at the Salimgarh Fort. While Murad was subsequently executed, Zebunissa spent 21 years of her life as a prisoner in this fort until her death in 1702 CE.

The year 1857, however, brought the tidings of hope and revolution to Salimgarh. The air was abuzz with the talk of throwing the British oppressors out of Hindustan and restoring it to its rightful ruler-the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. It is said that the revolutionaries converged at the fort and held meetings on war strategy. After the revolt broke out, Bahadur Shah is said to have witnessed the revolutionaries fight the British from the ramparts of this very fort. However, the British ultimately managed to defeat the rebels and took hold of Salimgarh. The Emperor then moved to Humayun’s Tomb where he was captured.

The British after their takeover of the Salimgarh Fort are said to have used it as an army camp and a prison. After years of oppressive rule, the freedom movement of India gathered force during the first half of the 20th century. By the 1940s the sentiments against the British had reached a feverish peak and the country was restless to overthrow the foreign rulers. The ongoing World War II was seen as an opportunity to strike at the British while they were preoccupied with war efforts. The Provisional Government of Free India and the Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National Army)were formed (first under Rash Behari Bose and then revived under Subhash Chandra Bose), and war was declared on the British Indian Army and Allied Forces. Despite putting up a heroic front, the INA was defeated by Allied forces in 1945. Thereafter, many prisoners of the INA were incarcerated at the Salimgarh Fort. It is believed that the British subjected the soldiers of INA to unspeakable torture within the walls of this fort.

The Archeological Survey of India has ensured today that the Salimgarh Fort is not known merely for its brutal past. In 1992 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Quit India Movement, the ASI converted a few barracks of the Fort, where the soldiers of INA were imprisoned, into a memorial for these heroes. The uniform worn by Col. Prem Kumar, riding boots and coat buttons of Col. Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon, and photographs of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose are some of the prized articles displayed here.

Yet, the shadows of the bloody past of Salimgarh still lurk in the corners of this structure. There are apocryphal accounts of strange voices such as moans and groans, and the sounds of dragged chains interrupting the silence of the fort at night. It is believed that the souls of the tortured freedom fighters still haunt the place. There is, of course, no proof of such occurrences.

The Salimgarh Fort stands today as a reminder of the valiant struggle for Indian independence.