Modern Indian History-Events and Personalities

Symbolic significance of the Red Fort and Delhi


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Red Fort

Mains level: Red Fort and its symbolic significance for the nation

Newsfeeds on Republic Day were dominated by scenes of protests on the ramparts of the Red Fort.

Mob stormed and vandalized the national flag and the mast of Red Fort in guise of peaceful farmers protest! What did this act signify?


To unravel some of these strands of meaning, one must go back in history, to a time centuries before the Red Fort was even constructed.

The History of Capital

  • Before the 13th century, Delhi — or ‘Dilli’ — was, politically speaking, a moderately significant town.
  • It was for long the capital of the modestly sized kingdom of the Rajput Tomar dynasty.
  • By the mid 12th century it was conquered by the Rajput Chauhans who, however, ruled from Ajmer.
  • It was the conquest by Ghurid Turks in the late 12th century that put Delhi on the map as a centre of power.
  • As the capital of the Sultanate, Delhi gradually developed an aura of power — in the popular imagination, it came to be associated with a dominant power in the subcontinent.
  • Babur, having defeated Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat in 1526, headed for Delhi, which he described as “the capital of all Hindustan”, even though the Lodis had ruled from Agra for the previous two decades.

Sultanate period

  • There was another important feature of the Delhi of these two centuries.
  • From the 13th century, the capital had been located at a number of different sites – Mehrauli, Kilugarhi, Siri, Tughlaqabad, Jahanpanah, Firozabad, and Dinpanah.
  • Now it came to be settled permanently in Shahjahanabad, with the emperor’s seat being in the Red Fort.

Seat of the Mughal power

  • During the first century or so of Mughal rule, Agra was the capital for longer than Delhi.
  • Still, the Mughals continued to be seen as rulers of Delhi.
  • A Sanskrit inscription from 1607 refers to Akbar as “Dillishvara”, the lord of Delhi, though he had ruled from Delhi for a very short time.
  • In a Persian inscription dated 1621 on the Salimgarh Bridge adjoining the Red Fort, Jahangir, who never reigned from Delhi, was described as “Shahanshah e Dehli”, the emperor of Delhi.

Construction of Red Fort

  • It was only in the reign of Shah Jahan (1628-58) that the Mughal connection to Delhi was given concrete form, with the founding of the city of Shahjahanabad and the inauguration of its palace citadel, the Red Fort, in 1648.
  • From that date to the end of Mughal rule in 1857, Delhi would be the formal capital of the Mughal Empire.

Fading centre

  • The significance of Delhi and the Red Fort was thrown into sharp relief by political developments in the 18th century, once the Mughal Empire started on the long road to decline.
  • Erstwhile Mughal provinces such as Bengal, Awadh, and Hyderabad broke away, and new forces like the Sikhs and the Marathas arose.
  • Not only did the Mughal territories shrink, but the Mughal emperor also became increasingly ineffectual even within them.

A takeover by the East India Company

  • The control over the emperor and of Delhi was, therefore, a prize worth fighting for.
  • Safdar Jang, the Nawab of Awadh, fought a civil war in an attempt to keep his position as PM of the Mughal emperor.
  • The Sikhs had their ambitions and came up to the walls of the city in 1783 before retreating.
  • The Marathas met with greater success the following year when Mahadji Sindhia became the power behind the throne.
  • Finally, the East India Company defeated the Maratha forces in 1803 and went on to control Delhi and the emperor for the next 54 years.

Shifting of capital

  • Delhi was officially announced as the capital of British Raj by the then-Emperor George V, on December 12, 1911.
  • The capital was shifted from Calcutta as Delhi was the financial and political seat of many earlier empires and was located closer to the geographical centre of India.
  • The rising nationalist movement in Calcutta was also responsible for the shift.

Symbolic importance then

  • In the popular imagination, the legitimate rule was associated with the Mughal emperor to the extent that when the country broke out in revolt in 1857, the mutinous soldiers made their way to Delhi, seeking his leadership.
  • When the revolt in Delhi had been crushed, the British army occupied the Red Fort and the officers drank to their Queen’s health in the Diwan-e-Khas, where the Mughal emperors had held court.
  • It was in this same hall that Bahadur Shah was put on trial, convicted, and exiled.
  • Nearly ninety years later, in 1945-46, the memory of that trial foreshadowed another historic trial in the fort.
  • The personnel of the Indian National Army were tried there, which generated an immense wave of nationalist sentiment in the run-up to Independence.

Symbol of the nation, now

  • With the coming of Independence, it was necessary that the site of the Red Fort, over which the British colonial government had sought to inscribe its power and might, be symbolically reclaimed for the Indian people.
  • It was for this reason, that after the first hoisting of the national flag at India Gate on August 15, 1947, the next day, the PM hoisted it on the ramparts of the Red Fort.
  • This was to then become India’s lasting Independence Day tradition.

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