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.
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?
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.)