India Gate vs. India

August 15 marked the 65 anniversary of India’s Independence from foreign rule and colonialism. September 21 will mark the 155 anniversary of the recapture of Delhi by the British and the end of the first valiant rebellion against foreign rule.

Between May 11, 1857 and May 21, 1857, Delhi was free of the British. The rebel soldiers had chosen Bahadur Shah Zafar as their leader and since the Red Fort was where he lived, the Lal Qila came to be seen as the centre of the First War of Independence. Delhi was seen as the heart of India and Lal Qila was the heart of Delhi and that is why once the British recaptured Delhi they wasted no time in arresting Bahadur Shah Zafar and quickly moving into the fort.

The fact that the fort was seen as the centre of resistance was the reason that the British had to capture it and move in and it is from here that the mystique of the Red Fort began to grow. To capture the Red Fort and to free it of British control became the symbolic objective of the struggle for freedom for many decades. In speech after speech the desire to see an Indian Flag fluttering at the Red Fort was articulated as the desire of every Indian and became the clarion call to whip up patriotic sentiments. The Red fort was turned into a high security prison by the British and many famous freedom fighters were either kept in captivity here or were like the trio of the famous generals of the INA –Dhillon, Sehgal and Shahnawaz were tried here and defended by the likes of Barrister Asif Ali and Barrister Jawaharlal Nehru, both Dilliwallas of very long standing.

The British who constantly tried to present themselves as the inheritors of, and successors to, the glory of the Mughals brought back the capital from Calcutta in 1912 within 53 years of shifting it out of Delhi in 1958 and began to build the eighth Delhi. They wanted to build a city that was grander then the city that Shahjahan had built.

The city they built had no workers, no artisans, no traders — it only had servants of the empire and their masters. And in this city they tried to build a focus, a structure that could rival the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid or the Chandni Chowk as a centre of attraction and all they could do was build the India Gate, an imitation of the Arc de Triomphe of Paris, so much for the grand imperial imagination, except that the arc symbolised for the French the victory in a battle won by one of their celebrated rulers, while the India Gate was a marker in the memory of those Indians who died fighting for the empire in distant lands. A listing of cannon-fodder who helped sustain the empire in far off places. It was not a symbol of the triumph of India in a war against its enemies, it was not a symbol of our victory in our struggle for freedom. It was a symbol of our servitude.

The question that worries me is why India Gate was chosen to be a symbol of our martyrs. Just by lighting a flame under it and placing an inverted gun and a soldier’s helmet beneath the arch, does not help appropriate a symbol of imperial grandeur and make it a part of the heritage of a democratic republic.

Khooni Darwaza. Photo credit:Sushil Kumar Verma / The Hindu

If it was only a huge gate that could become a memorial to our martyrs I wonder why did we not choose the Khooni Darwaza? It was here that two sons of Bahadur Shah Zafar and a grandson were shot dead in cold blood by a mercenary called Hodson and it was here that scores of those who had fought the British in 1857 are reported to have been hanged subsequently.

Is it only a mere co-incidence that no one remembers the assassination of the princes, who had been as much a part of the struggle for freedom as anyone else, but Hodson who was promoted to command a cavalry unit named after him as a reward for the slaying of the princes continues to be remembered through the observance of the raising day of Hodson’s Horse. We continue to commemorate Hodson who had ensured that the severed heads of the princes were presented to the imprisoned Bahadur Shah Zafar the next morning.

I find it rather disturbing that we have without a murmur walked into the shoes of our imperial masters, accepting, adopting and trying to appropriate their symbols but in this effort are we not giving up the symbols that sustained us in the struggle for freedom.

Is it not a little disconcerting that we gather for our little or big fights for justice, against corruption, for civic rights, for freeing innocents being held captive etc and we do it with our little candles under a symbol of imperial might?

Red Fort. Photo credit: Sushil Kumar Verma / The Hindu

I wonder why we do not make the effort to travel to Delhi-6, to the Red Fort and gather there in the company of, or at least in close proximity of, those whose ancestors had fought for the freedoms that we take for granted. Or is it that now our struggles can only be fought under the comforting shadow of our erstwhile colonisers in places where there is ample car parking, places that are camera friendly, places that the fashion fraternity and film world do-gooders like and places that people like us like visiting?

(First published in The Hindu.)




13 thoughts on “India Gate vs. India”

  1. Oh yeah. I agree with the opinion that the India Gate is in no way eligible to be a monument of pride for Indians.

    But here’s the problem: probably one percent of India knows or cares about why in hell was the Gate built in the first place.

    I guess people in India (read ‘the educated class’) are not so curious as to read the Wikipedia article about the India Gate.

    Well, I wrote about the story of our freedom ‘struggle’, independence, etc.

    Twitter: @sachi_bbsr


    1. because for cultural nationalists, even the moghul era is one of subserviance. so even if india gate is inappropriate, so would khooni darwaza. instead, most want a new national war memorial


  2. By making this comment i do not want to enter into a debate about what are the really true symbol of a nation or the selective appropriation/nationalization of cultural spaces? Even if we discard the idea of history as progression we cant do away with the fact that every age tame some symbols in its external expression which are outwardly talks in terms of ‘motion of time’ like as you mentioned Arc de Triomphe of Paris but what political significance this have in relation to Napoleon will throw some light on the elevation of India Gate to a national monument/ symbol and Khooni Darwaza as a road side structure with most of people asking themselves why this structure is standing here?


  3. is it not even slightly appropriate that a struggle should begin and be carried on under the symbol of imperial might/opression? ironically appropriate i say.

    also. very inconsequential. where you fight is barely of relevance when the fight supersedes the place.

    and finally, it is a matter of convenience. and so long as our countrymen are willing to stand up for something. i think its best not questioned WHERE the stand. so long as they do.

    also, i dont mean to be disrespectful of Red Fort. I love the place. but it makes sense to gather at a place with parking, because movements require strength in numbers and just because red fort is more appropriate, sadly doesn make it perfect.


  4. When the edifices built by Edwin Lutyens to showcase British Imperial might such as the Viceregal Lodge and the Central Legislative Assembly can become the Rashtrapati Bhawan and the Sansad Bhawan of the Republic of India, what is wrong with converting India Gate into an Amar Jawan Jyoti, a memorial in honour of all the soldiers who laid their lives down for the nation?

    I suspect that Mr. Hashmi’ is probably suggesting that our British heritage is less important than our Mughal/Delhi Sultanate heritage. He should realise that our lingua franca, our democracy, our system of governance, justice, bureaucracy and education, inter alia, owe much more to the British than those who preceded them. It is the British who shepherded the transition of our ancient country into the modern age.

    >>>>>>”September 21 will mark the 155 anniversary of the recapture of Delhi by the British and the end of the FIRST valiant rebellion against foreign rule”……aren’t you forgetting the Santhal rebellion which preceded it?

    >>>>>>”The British who constantly tried to present themselves as the inheritors of, and successors to, the glory of the Mughals” ……..There is no need to present themselves; they were the de facto and de jure rulers of the subcontinent. It is a historical fact that the British were the most dominant power after Mughal power faded away following the death of Aurangzeb in 1707.

    >>>>>>”It was not a symbol of the triumph of India in a war against its enemies, it was not a symbol of our victory in our struggle for freedom. It was a symbol of our servitude”,,,,,,,by the same logic, so are the Qutub Minar and other Indo-Saracenic monuments . The British are as much a part of our composite culture as are those who preceeded them as rulers of our subcontinent and Lutyens’ Delhi is as Indian as Shah Jahan’s Lal Qila.


  5. I feel since Independence, Old Delhi in general has been neglected by the government of India. Mutiny of 1857 not only unified different factions of people albeit momentarily but its aftermath saw the most horrific destruction of the city in its long history.
    Somewhere in the scheme of things it seems to be loosing its historic significance, now only found on history books.


  6. What is British Heritage for Mr Narayan is a period of our Colonisation by British Imperialism

    It is a part of our history and like caste oppression, untouchability, religious bigotry, communalism, sati etc this too is nothing to be proud of.

    People choose what they want from history, Mr Narayan seems to have made his choice and so have others. fortunately most have not chosen to be acolytes of Imperialism.


    1. That’s right Sohail – and an artefact from “Mughal period” accurately represents the historical heritage of a person from Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra or Bengal because?

      You’re entitled to your cultural choices, as you note. The least you can do is to avoid presuming that we share them. And so, for instance, have you ever wondered whether a Dalit person necessarily feels about “period of our Colonisation by British Imperialism”? Who exactly is “Our” here, old chap? Have you received an affidavit from the nation to speak for it? I seem to have missed that memo.


    2. Spot on, Mr. Hashmi, some people are indeed selective about history like our western neighbours for whom history begins in AD 712 when a young Arab general called Muhammad bin Qasim invaded Sindh. Everything preceding that seminal event is non-existent as far as they are concerned. The Buddhas of Bamiyan were blown up since the vandals believed that it was not a part of their heritage.

      The British are not the only foreigners to rule us. Goa celebrates its Portuguese heritage and Pondicherry is proud of its French connection. Tranquebar was once a Danish settlement. Alexander the Great invaded over 23 centuries ago. Before him, the Scythians, the Parthians and the Huns. Pray enlighten me as to why one should denounce the British and praise the rest.

      If Lutyens’ Delhi is a symbol of slavery for you, so are the Red Fort and Qutub Minar for a considerable number of your compatriots. Imperialism is imperialism, doesn’t matter whether the invaders came from Europe or Central Asia. We have to accept the past and move ahead.

      Selective or sanitised history will take us down the path of perdition. English is as much our heritage as Sanskrit and Urdu (though Urdu was never the official language of the Mughals) and India Gate is as Indian as the Red Fort or synagogue in Kochi or the towers of silence of the Zoroastrians, Ajanta and Ellora or the prehistoric cave paintings of Bhimbetka. I wish you had countered my arguments instead of accusing me of being “an acolyte is imperialism”


  7. Mohammad Bin Qasim had to crop up in this conversation, sooner or later, I am grateful for the reminder.Why is the name of the blighter being bandied about? primarily because the author of this piece has to be put in his place by reminding him of an Arab “invader” of India.

    The problem with the discourse of Invasion is presupposition of borders, borders that are drawn or discarded at the convenience of the draughtsman.

    In this frame of reference India becomes a nation after the arrival of the Aryans because the Aryans are never described as invaders, but once we have defined our nationhood a la Golwalkar and other worthies of that ilk and have firmly planted a date in the hoary past when we anointed ourselves into a nation, all comers could be described as invaders,

    This frame of reference bestows nationhood upon itself but denies it to all its neighbours like Burma, Afghanistan and Srilanka by making them part of Akhand Bharat.

    It is this frame of reference that thinks that the Mughals were imperialists

    “Imperialism is imperialism, doesn’t matter whether the invaders came from Europe or Central Asia”. Unquote

    if you can sleep peacefully with this acute myopia you are very lucky. Sweet dreams dear friends, may nothing disturb your slumber


  8. The discussion, Mr. Hashmi, has nothing to do with your perceived sub-identities; you are as Indian as I am. Lets us discuss facts without resorting to invective like “myopic” and ‘acolyte of imperialism”.

    The scientific community is of the opinion that the species called Homo Sapiens emerged in Africa some 200,000 years back and colonised the rest of the world. So all of us are invaders, including the aborigines. Having said that, let’s come back to our argument.

    1. I was warning of the dangers of selective history and gave the example of Pakistan who consider AD 712 as the cut off point as far as history goes. Maybe some might select 1526 or 1857 or 1947. I prefer that we accept our history in its entirety. What about you?

    2. Is there no influence on our culture of the Portuguese and the French and the British?

    3. Are Uzbekistan and Turkey a part of “Akhand Bharat” too? If not how can we say that the Mughals did not invade India after the collapse of the Lodi dynasty?

    4. If you don’t believe in the existence of borders, then all the people of this world belong to the nation of humankind and geography doesn’t determine one’s identity; for someone with such a broad world-view, is there any scope for Imperialism or for “symbols of servitude”?


  9. Interesting that even a discussion on as inocuous a matter as the India Gate and its colonial antecedents, has to become a Hindu-Muslim issue and anybody bearing a Muslim name has to be made to bear the cross for the invaders of centuries ago. I dont’ think Sohail is denying the fact of invasion; rather his point is that the Red Fort and the last Mughal ruler became symbols of an aspiration of freedom due to the history of the 1857 rebellion. Why does that have to be taken back to 712 CE, if not for invoking his ‘sub-identities’, perceived or imposed? The fact is that 1857 was first termed the first Indian war of indepdendence by VD Savarkar – the grandfather of all those compatriots who believe that our history of enslavement began a thousand years ago. Even though Savarkar perhaps took that description from Marx (but maybe he was original in this formulation, as in his Hindutva formulation), the fact remains that it represented a larger body of opinion about 1857 and its place in Indian history. What precisely is the purpose then, of bringing in the Santhal rebellion here? Simply to say that Sohail has committed an oversight? Maybe. But clearly, that is not the purpose here. Subterfuge, Mr Narayan, is the word for what you are trying to do here in invoking the Santhal revolt.
    As for your last comment:
    “If you don’t believe in the existence of borders, then all the people of this world belong to the nation of humankind and geography doesn’t determine one’s identity; for someone with such a broad world-view, is there any scope for Imperialism or for “symbols of servitude”?”
    This is another subterfuge that simply uses, very deliberately I will say, the belief that Sohail espouses (against the existence of borders) to suggest that that is indeed how the world is! It is like saying Mr Narayan that if you do not believe in God (I don’t know whether you do) then where is the place for the riots and violence that takes place everywhere? Where did you see the Bamiyan Buddhas being destroyed? Neither they existed nor the Talibanese who apparently destroyed them!


  10. So Mr. Narayan doesn’t differentiate between British empire and Mughals. May be he needs to read history thoughtfully or he needs to shed hate for some community. British went back to places where they came from and also to some other places also like Australia, NZ and US which they successfully acquired from those poor natives. Did you see any Mughal going back to central Asia Mr. Narayan. Had Britishers were here for the same time as Mughals in India perhaps ours fate would have been same as American natives. Look how many people in India speak persian the language of Mughals. So as I said there is difference between Britishers and Mughals and you are comparing apple with oranges. I guess you can compare britisers with Bin Qasim may be, just they built more infrastructure to exploit this land efficiently, gave language so that the could communicate with native babus


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