History and Cultural Significance of the Red Fort as a Symbol of Indian Independence

The Red Fort is located in Delhi, India. The memory of the Red Fort has different interpretations that emerged and evolved over the years. The fort plays an important role in the commemoration and remembrance of important events in Indian history. Its recognition as a symbol of Indian independence stems from its association with the 1857 Indian uprising against British colonialism. However, its purpose changes often in order to satisfy different groups.

History of the Red Fort

The 1857 uprising was the result of outrage against British colonial rule.
Image source: National Army Museum

The Lal Qila, or Red Fort, was built between 1638 to 1649 in Old Delhi, India by the fifth Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, as a palace fort for the capital of Shahjahanabad. It appears alongside another fort, Salimgarh. This combination is known as the Red Fort Complex. This complex became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007. Its name comes from its red sandstone walls, and its structure is a combination of various architectural traditions. It draws influence from Hindu, Islamic, and Persian traditions.

European powers in the 1600s and 1700s searched for trading opportunities in Asia through small groups of investors and businessmen. The British East India Company is one of these groups. It operated out of India for a few decades, exporting cotton and silk as well as spices. The company placed local branch officers to manage trade and rule in different territories. In 1757, it took over full control in India.

The 1857 Indian Uprising

The 1857 Indian uprising was a response to the injustice the company showed the Indian people. The British forced Indian soldiers to use cartridges greased with cow and pig fat. This went against both Hindu and Muslim ideologies and sparked outrage. This was the final straw in a number of infractions committed by the British East India Company. As a result, outbreaks of violence occurred across much of northern and central India.

A division of the Indian army marched to Delhi with the intent to take back the city. They instituted Bahadur Shah II, the Mughal king who resided in the Red Fort, as the face of the rebellion. Mughal power had severely declined under British rule with Bahadur Shah’s position being largely ceremonial. However, the Indian people believed that placing support behind a Mughal king would break down British control.

The Indian rebels attacked British architecture and structures, like the Delhi Bank and army encampments. They fought against the British with fervor. However, the Indian army was not as centralized and unified. As a result, the uprising ultimately failed, resulting in a brutal reestablishment of British rule. After the uprising, the British East India Company dissolved. The Crown of England took direct control over India until the partition in 1947. 

Colonial Manipulation

The 1911 durbar shows how the British portrayed themselves as rulers of India
Image source: The Quint

Destruction and Repurposing of the Red Fort

The Red Fort served as a symbol of the Delhi’s resistance and resolve. During the 1857 uprising, the British looted and destroyed parts of the Red Fort. They also repurposed it for use by British regiments. The British changed entire rooms to serve as garrisons for British troops. They turned the Diwani’Am, the hall where the emperor used to greet guests, into an army hospital.

The British also cleared the buildings around the fort, including a mosque built by Shah Jahan’s wife and historic bazaars that were operating since the fort was built. In destroying these elements, the British erased aspects of Indian history.

British took pieces of the walls called the pietra dura panels along with other artifacts and even the clothes of the royal family. These still reside in the British Museum. This targeted destruction is a common tactic seen today that annihilates a group’s collective identity and destroys the power that monuments hold.

The British tore down walls and structures that represented Mughal and Indian might. They wanted to emphasize the failure of the uprising so that the people would remain obedient to the British. The failure of the British East India Company and the takeover by the British crown led to restoration of the destroyed parts of the Red Fort. They completely erased their own role in the brutality leading to the uprising and after.


The Red Fort also held gatherings and celebrations. The British leaders wanted to present themselves and the fort as symbols of a new era of British rule. For the 1903 coronation of King Edward VII, Lord Curzon, the viceroy of India, supervised the restoration of the Red Fort. The British rebuilt everything that they destroyed in an attempt to erase any evidence of colonial vandalism.

The restoration of the Red Fort presents an altered history that portrays the British as rulers concerned with the preservation of ancient Indian architecture. However, they were the reason that the fort needed to be rebuilt. The British created a certain memory by selecting which parts of the 1857 uprising benefitted them.

Mughal Association

Furthermore, the British crown attempted to link themselves to the Mughal monarchs associated with the Red Fort through ceremonies called durbars. In 1911, King George V and Queen Mary even presented themselves to the rest of Delhi on the balcony of the fort. In the past, only Mughal emperors made this appearance. The British also encouraged tourism in the Red Fort, where guides discussed the Mughal empire and the 1857 uprising. These guides spoke primarily of the “sacrifices” that British soldiers had made during the 1857 uprising and the generosity of the British crown. They did not refer to the reason for the uprising or the British brutality. The British positioned themselves not only as monarchs equivalent to the grandeur of the Mughal empire but as superior rulers.

The Red Fort as a Symbol of Indian Independence

The Red Fort symbolizes Indian independence which is celebrated there every year.
Image source: India Today

During the 1857 Uprising

The Red Fort represents political and social gain for the Indian nation as well. After World War II, the British put three Indian National Army (INA) officers on public trial at the Red Fort in 1945 for treason against the crown. They believed that punishing these officers would demonstrate their authority over the Indian people. However, it ended up having the opposite effect.

National protests and demonstrations erupted all over the country, and the phrase Chalo Dilli (onward to Delhi) became a rallying cry. The three INA officers were Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh, three of the largest religions in India. This established the Red Fort as a symbol of anti-colonial resistance and unity amongst the Indian people.


India gained its independence in 1947. The first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru,  gave the first national address at the Red Fort. Since that moment, each prime minister gives a speech at the Red Fort on India’s independence day. This cements the Red Fort as a representation of freedom and a unified Indian identity. A national Indian identity has been championed by the Indian government. The government hosted several re-enactments of the 1857 uprising in Delhi at the Red Fort. It wants to “help Indians hold on to their roots” and preserve Indian heritage. They downplay the brutality for public consumption, instead championing the bravery of Indian soldiers and the power of religious unity. In this way, the Indian government celebrates Indian history through the Red Fort in order to retain their heritage in a world of connectivity and homogenization.

Symbol of Prosperity

At the same time, the Indian government uses the Red Fort to build a new image of India as a prosperous and advanced nation. The Archaeological Survey of India applied for the Red Fort to be added as a UNESCO site. They hoped to gain economic and social resources associated with tourism. The Red Fort Reborn project attempted to restore areas of the Red Fort that had been destroyed  to disprove the common perception of India as a “backwards” or “developing” country. Leaving the destroyed parts of the fort in the capital of India would prevent the image of India as successful.

However, researchers and conservationists argued against the restoration. They believed that it was more about beautification than preservation. Instead of trying to maintain the ancient architecture, the government simply made it more appealing. They also claimed that the people in charge of the project were concealing or altering parts of history, especially pertaining to the Mughal empire. The critics of the project claimed that authentic material and artifacts associated with India’s history were being lost. The Indian government used restoration and symbolism of the Red Fort to create an official memory that generated unified patriotism and nationalism in the Indian people as a whole.

Hindu Nationalism and Muslim Erasure

Narendra Modhi, the leader of the BJP, champions the identification of India as a Hindu state.
Image source: Foreign Policy

The most recent and well-known interpretation of the Red Fort and the 1857 uprising is specifically that of Hindu nationalism. Although there are some who see the Red Fort as a symbol of greatness under the Mughal empire and express a desire to return to those roots in a kind of Muslim renaissance, most Muslims do not claim the Red Fort for fear of repercussions and discrimination. There has always been animosity between the Hindu and Muslim groups in India, but British colonialism encouraged the hatred.

Colonial Stereotyping

The British reinforced the Red Fort as Muslim architecture by incorporating their own stereotypes of Muslim people as warlike. The British even portrayed the 1857 rebellion as a Muslim uprising. This was a successful attempt to fuel anti-Muslim sentiments in the Hindu population. In 1947, the British broke India up into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan and drove almost 330,000 Muslims from Delhi. This served as a catalyst for the decades of religious and political turmoil that still exists today. As a result, a lot of Mughal influence on historical events in India no longer exists.

Delhi was the capital of the Mughal empire. Therefore, Delhi has a lot of Muslim architectural and cultural influence. Because of this, local commemoration of independence and the uprising is significantly lacking. This alteration of history and erasure of Muslim participation in the fight for independence, allows the selection of a particular kind of past, one that revolves around Hinduism.

Melancholia and Hindu Nationalism

An article by Stephen Legg mentions a concept called melancholia which describes a “political and creative inability to accept the past as fixed and complete.” Essentially, Hindu nationalist groups invoke this idea concerning colonialism in order to bring up memories of the subjugation of the Hindu people at the hands of oppressors. As a result, The Red Fort serves as a demonstration of Hindu resistance against the British and the Mughals. Even though the Mughals were Indians, Hindu nationalist groups painted them as foreigners, portraying India’s Muslim minority as outsiders as well. Because this mentality describes a history of victimization at the hands of Muslims, Hindu extremists feel justified in their acts of aggression towards Muslim people.

The BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), a right-wing Hindu nationalist political party, benefits almost directly from this counter-memory of the Red Fort and India itself. It advocates for hindutva, an ideology that defines Indian culture solely in terms of Hindu values. This allows Hindu nationalist parties refer to India as a Hindu country rather than one of multiple religions and identities. The BJP currently is the leading party in the Indian government with its leader Narendra Modi as the prime minister. Hindu nationalists manipulated the memory of the Red Fort. As a result, they have been able to change the collective memory of the Indian population. They hold immense political power and ostracize non-Hindu minorities.

The Memories of the Red Fort

The Red Fort is a huge complex that holds memories for different groups of people
Image source: Britannica

Different groups of people have different memories associated with the Red Fort. The British destruction and restoration of the Red Fort established a memory that painted the British in a benevolent light. Because history tends to favor the victorious, non-Indians know the 1857 uprising  as the 1857 or Sepoy mutiny. The Indian memory of the Red Fort presents it as a symbol of resistance and independence against British colonial rule. It is where the national leaders give their speeches to celebrate Indian unity. The Indian government’s restoration project attracts tourists and gains validation for the country. It presents India as an advanced and complex nation but favors beauty over conservation. It focuses on creating an appealing attraction instead of restoring architecture. The Hindu nationalist interpretation of the Red Fort erases the Muslim influence on Delhi and Indian history. Instead, it creates an altered memory of a solely Hindu country.

The Red Fort holds significance to different groups of people. The memory of the Fort changed according to time and context. It witnessed monumental moments in Indian history that made it a symbol of freedom and independence.

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