The Little Conquest of the Red Fort – by Abhishek Kaicker

On the 26th of January 2021, as a pandemic-wracked India held muted celebrations of the anniversary of its constitutional founding, a group of farmers protesting recently introduced farm laws veered from their permitted routes towards the Red Fort in the heart of the Old City of Delhi. Staid images from the official telecast of military ceremonial and the customary parade of tableaux were quickly supplanted on social media by riveting amateur video of protestors using their tractors—a signature of the protest movement—to break through police barricades and enter the great square before the looming sandstone walls of the fort. Violently dispelling the small force of assembled police, members of the crowd occupied the grounds for several hours. Waving Indian flags, and brandishing weapons, many in the crowd were readily identified by their turbans as Sikhs, some particularly distinctive in the blue garb of the warrior-ascetic Nihang order (embedded tweet in Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Photo of the crowds at the Red Fort in Delhi on 26 January 2021. 

As retreating members of the police were beset with blows of staves and swords, the crowd of protestors streamed through the fort’s Lahore gate and ascended the ramparts, which they noisily occupied for several hours (embedded tweet in Fig. 2). The culmination of the experience for viewers on television and social media was the sight of a young man adroitly clambering up to attach the Nishan sahib—the flag associated with the Sikh faith—to the mast on which the Prime Minister ceremonially unfurls the tricolor flag of the secular republic every Independence Day.

Fig. 2. Protestors enter the Red Fort in January 2021.

Condemnations of the act were swift. Newspaper editorials lamented the “riotous scenes” of  “mob … rampage” at the Red Fort.[1] Calls were made for the protesters to withdraw, and for stronger police measures against them.[2] A spokesman from the Foreign Ministry even went so far as to liken the protests at the Fort to the attack on Capitol Hill some days earlier: a patently misleading analogy, because the seat of legislative power is not housed in the fort, but in parliament.[3] For their part, the leaders of the farmers’ protests disavowed the act, which they attributed variously to the enthusiasm of younger protestors or even as a false flag operation engineered by the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).[4] Particular opprobrium was directed against the protestors’ gesture of raising the Sikh flag below the national flag, which was seen as an act of sectarian assertion against the secular nation-state. Those aligned with the government saw the shadow of a revived insurgency for the Sikh ethnostate of Khalistan, which had been subdued three decades ago.[5] Sympathetic commentators, meanwhile, were at pains to point out that the Sikh flag marked an identity of faith, and not a political project opposed to the Indian nation. For them, the juxtaposition of a Nishan sahib and the Indian tricolor (embedded tweet in Fig. 3) symbolized the valorous and enthusiastic participation of Sikhs in the defense of the nation, evidenced by the great numerical overrepresentation of the small Sikh population in India’s police and military forces.[6]

Fig. 3. For sympathetic observers the raising of the Nishan Sahib was a patriotic gesture that reclaimed the Indian nation.

However shocking it may have been, the event was quickly obscured amidst the continuous parade of calamities that comprise the nightly news in India today. Yet, as we shall see, the disturbing power of this brief spectacle derived not only from the violation of a space marking the modern nation, but because of the deeper historical associations of both the Red Fort and the Nishan sahib. For observers from the Sikh community, which has played an important role in the current protests, the raising of the Nishan sahib evoked the memory of the struggle in the eighteenth century against the suppressive force of the Mughal empire. In these ways, the acts of protest illuminate the tenacious survival of a precolonial popular politics that has persisted despite the strenuous efforts of the colonial state and its succeeding liberal-democratic polity.

The Fort

Delhi’s iconic Red Fort (Fig. 4) was erected in the mid-seventeenth century as the culmination of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s project to create a new imperial capital in his own name, one befitting his grand vision of himself as “King of the World.” The architecture and layout of the new city of Shahjahanabad expressed in bricks and stone the values and ideals of a discourse of imperial sovereignty as it was understood by Shah Jahan’s courtly ideologues. Chief among these, the “exalted fort” represented the awesome power of the imperial dynasty embodied in the figure of its ruler. Just as the fort’s red sandstone walls recalled the ubiquitous scarlet cloth which marked spaces, persons, and objects associated with the royal person, the embrasures on its walls evoked the helmets of the cavalry on which Mughal power rested.[7]

Fig. 4. Attributable to Ghulam Ali Khan, The Lahore Gate of the Red Fort, early 19th century. Watercolor on paper with black ruled margins, 29 X 21.5 cm. Image in the public domain. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Long after the waning of empire in the mid eighteenth century, the fort remained the residence of the descendants of the Mughal dynasty. It served as a focal point of resistance to the British during the great Rebellion of 1857, when the mutinous sepoys of the East India Company’s army flocked to the last nominal Mughal ruler as the symbolic head of their short-lived government. In the twentieth century, the British colonial state embarked on the construction of a New Delhi that would serve as a colonial capital for all time to come. This monumental effort aimed to finally supersede the lingering aura of precolonial rule in India, and required the further diminution of Shahjahanabad into the “old city” of Delhi. Yet the Red Fort retained the aura of the power and authority of the totality of the Indian state, imagined as extending over the territory of the cultural nation of India that would soon be mutilated by Independence and Partition. Thus, it was here that India’s first Prime Minister would unfurl the national flag on the 16th of August 1947, the first day in the life of an independent India. Thus also the curious and continuing obsession of Pakistani chauvinists and irridentists to hoist the Pakistani flag on the Red Fort, a sentiment expressed from the very moment of the partition of the subcontinent.[8]

Fig. 5. The Golden Domes of Gurudwara Sisganj are visible in the top right of the photograph. A panoramic view from the Minarets of Red Fort, while the Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi addressing the Nation from ramparts of the fort, on the occasion of 69th Independence Day, in Delhi on August 15, 2015, photograph. Image source: Prime Minister’s Office, Government of India (GODL-India) and Wikimedia Commons.

But the protestors’ gesture of raising the Nishan sahib in January 2021 draws on a deeper reservoir of meaning than these convulsions of the twentieth century, one specific to the place of the Red Fort in Sikh memory, and one which found little mention in the febrile debates that followed the event. This is perhaps because of the significance of the gesture so obvious to Sikhs as to merit no comment, but barely recognized outside the tradition. The raising of the Nishan sahib by the protestors cannot be understood without reference to another building, whose golden domes are visible from the ramparts (Fig. 5), briefly claimed by the crowds, from which the Prime Minister annually addresses the nation.

The Sisganj Gurudwara

This building was the Sisganj (“The Treasured Head”) Gurudwara (a Sikh place of worship), erected to commemorate the execution of the Sikh spiritual head Guru Tegh Bahadur (1621-1675). According to Sikh tradition, Tegh Bahadur was executed on order of the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb (r. 1659-1707) for advocating against the forced conversion of Kashmiri Brahmins to Islam in Kashmir. This great act of violence against a small community of believers was seen as so insignificant by observers of the Mughal court as to escape mention in the near-contemporary compendia of Aurangzeb’s court records. Yet it would prove to be of moment in the shaping of the Sikh community.[9]

In present-day Sikh memory, Aurangzeb’s act against the Sikh Guru, and the Mughal empire’s persecution of Sikhs more generally, would find a measure of vengeance more than a century after Tegh Bahadur’s death. In 1783, the Sikh general Baghel Singh (c. 1730-c. 1802) is remembered as conquering Delhi and bending the proverbially powerless Mughal ruler Shah ʿAlam II (r. 1760-1806) to his will. To Baghel Singh also are attributed the seven gurudwaras commemorating the lives and deaths of the Sikh gurus at various sites in the city associated with them. Most prominent of all of these was the Gurudwara Sisganj, established abutting the city’s police-station (kotwālī) outside which the Guru had been executed. This claim to urban space in the formerly glorious Mughal capital, in the direct line of sight of the Red Fort, marked the stunning ascendance of a community which had been violently suppressed by the Mughals and their successors in the eighteenth century.

Fig. 6. Images commemorating Baghel Singh’s invasion of Delhi.

This historic vision of resistance and eventual triumph has loomed large for the protestors, in part because of the sedulous attempts of present-day religious authorities to craft memories of struggle and victory over brutal persecution. As the historian Kanika Singh has demonstrated in depth, the figure of Baghel Singh has acquired particular prominence in pictorial representations of Sikh history in museums and gurudwaras since the 1970s. Here he is generally depicted as the conqueror of Delhi, departing from the Red Fort having planted the Sikh flag atop its ramparts (embedded tweet in Fig. 6).[10]

Such images were never far from the minds of either the protestors or those who supported them. As Singh describes, since the year 2014, the Delhi Gurudwara Management Committee has promoted increasingly elaborate annual “victory celebrations” (fateh diwas) at the Red Fort, with parades including blue-clad Nihangs mounted on horses and elephants, and garbed and armed in the manner of their eighteenth-century ancestors; celebrants brandishing (presumably mock) assault rifles; a cannon shooting confetti; sword dances; and other dramatic displays of Sikh valor and piety. Such celebrations, notes Singh, have routinely culminated with the raising of the Sikh flag on the grounds of the Red Fort—a performance to which no one had so far objected.[11]

For its part, the right-wing Hindu-nationalist government had also attempted to mollify the protesting farmers by warmly invoking Sikh history. About a month before the storming of the fort, on the 19th of December (the anniversary of the Guru Tegh Bahadur’s execution) the Prime Minister visited the Gurudwara Rakabganj—also ascribed to Baghel Singh—which commemorates the site of the Guru’s cremation, and tweeted his appreciation of Tegh Bahadur. The Prime Minister’s efforts were in vain, because he had already become identified with the ruling power that had traditionally oppressed the Sikhs. The journalist Shoaib Daniyal describes encountering a protestor who told him: “We have come to Delhi because it is the capital and because of our Sikh history…During Mughal rule, Sikh generals captured the Red Fort. We have been victorious earlier too…Our fight is not with the common man. It’s with the hukumat (administration). That could be the Mughals or it could be Modi.”[12]

Fig. 7. Images comparing Baghel Singh’s invasion in 1783 with the kishan rally.

Indeed, the farmers’ protests were suffused with the memory of resistance—and triumph—against the tyranny radiating from the Red Fort. Animated movies depicting the history of Sikh persecution at the hands of the Mughals were screened at the protestors’ encampments in the weeks before the event. Punjabi singers churned out music videos set to poppy beats and revanchist themes, freely mixing the familiar images of Baghel Singh, animations of historical battles, and snippets of video of the icons of the Khalistan movement. 

And within minutes of the storming of the fort, images linking Baghel Singh’s victory of 1783 to the events of the present day began to appear on social media (embedded tweets in Figs. 7 & 8).

Fig. 8. A commemorative image of Baghel Singh’s invasion superimposed onto a photograph of the protestors.

History and Memory

History, as always, only serves to confound and complicate memory. The picture of the conquest of Delhi can be seen as deriving from the scholarship of Hari Ram Gupta (1902-1992), a pre-eminent historian of Punjab in the twentieth century, who leaves us with perhaps the fullest account in English of Baghel Singh’s time in Delhi. Under the influence of his preceptor Jadunath Sarkar (1870-1958), who set new standards for positivism in the study of Mughal history, Gupta also aspired to produce a comprehensive account of the development of the Sikh faith and polity from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries. When it came to Baghel Singh, Gupta tells us how a Sikh force overwhelmed Delhi; how the Sikh leader Jassa Singh Ahluwalia personally took charge of the Red Fort and ascended the throne; how Baghel Singh came to control Delhi for eight months; and how he constructed seven gurudwaras. Of these, the one at Rakabganj required the demolition of an existing mosque, conducted in the teeth of resistance from the city’s Muslims. The one at Sisganj, which marked the site of the beheading of the Guru Tegh Bahadur, also required the partial demolition of a mosque.[13] Gupta’s account of the Sikh conquest of Delhi and the forcible humiliation of the Mughal reigning power through the demolition of mosques, the occupation of the Red Fort, and the building of gurudwaras serves as the historic basis for the memory now celebrated on “victory day” at the Red Fort. It likewise surely shaped the imagination of the protesting crowd.

Though Gupta’s work was initially praised by Sarkar as “setting up on a granite foundation” the history of the Punjab in the eighteenth century, when it comes to the matter of Baghel Singh there are serious issues with Gupta’s account.[14] Gupta’s expansive vision of the Sikh conquest of Delhi rests on the tendentious reading of a small clutch of sources. In fact, it is not apparent from Gupta’s own sources that Baghel Singh and the Sikhs came to exercise control over the city for a period of months, as Gupta asserts. Both the English and Persian writings which Gupta mentions only note that a small number of Sikhs were collecting taxes from an exurban grain market in 1783. It is also telling that other historians of the Sikhs not otherwise predisposed to minimize their accomplishments do not mention the events of 1783. Jadunath Sarkar, hardly one to miss any instance of the humiliation of the Delhi court, does not mention the Sikh “victory over the fort” (qalʿa fateh) in his Fall of the Mughal Empire; likewise, these events find no mention in JS Grewal’s exhaustive chronology in his Sikhs of the Punjab.[15]

Fig. 9. The Čautara-yi Kūtwālī square, from Mirza Sangin Beg, Sayr al-Manazil, 1821, f. 52b, Orientalische Handschriften, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Sprenger 234. © Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz.

Nor, for that matter, is there much evidence for the founding of gurudwaras in 1783. Texts and maps of the city’s topography before the Rebellion of 1857 do not mark the presence of a gurudwara at the site of the Guru’s execution. Consider an early nineteenth-century account of Delhi’s buildings named Excursion through the Stages (sair al-manāzil). In describing the city’s central police station (kotwālī; Fig. 9), the author (himself a police official) described its apparatus of disciplinary power: a whipping-post, called “Laʿl Khan’s Log” (lāʿl khān lakra). The author also recalled a wheel on which murderers were broken, which had been removed after the British takeover of the city in 1803. Elsewhere the author does refer in passing to a “Guru of the Sikh community” outside the city, but the lack of mention of a Sikh Gurudwara at this site suggests no structure had yet been built here, nor would one appear as late as the mid-nineteenth century.[16]

If there was no conquest of Delhi and no building of gurudwaras, then could it be that the crowds which stormed the fort on Republic Day in 2021 were animated by purely fictive memories? This, also, is not the case. The deeper history of the crowd’s gestures cannot be understood from the reports for the East India Company’s administrators or the Persian chroniclers, who had very little to say about the Sikh presence in the city of the eighteenth century. But consider the account of Ratan Singh Bhangu, a Sikh historian of the early nineteenth century, on whose testimony Hari Ram Gupta and indeed all other subsequent historians have relied. Bhangu, as Purnima Dhavan has argued, was no disinterested narrator of the Sikh past.[17] Nor was he an eyewitness to the events of 1783. Yet he leaves us with an invaluable sense of a Sikh perspective of the happenings in Delhi in that year.

Bhangu does not paint the Sikh general Baghel Singh’s actions in Delhi in the lurid colors of overwhelming conquest and domination favored by Hari Ram Gupta. Instead, Bhangu recalled Baghel Singh as a wise and diplomatic leader who preserved the city from destruction: by exaggerating, on the one hand, the strength of the Mughal army to his fellow Sikhs to dissuade them from rampage; and, on the other, by extracting the promise of tribute and the right to build gurudwaras at various sites in the city from the Mughal court.[18]

Bhangu celebrates the making of Sikh claims to space in Delhi in the face of objections from its Muslim residents, claims which were made as much by force as by guile. In the case of Sisganj, Bhangu tells us that the site of the Guru’s execution was difficult to identify, lying somewhere between “a well and a mosque.” At this point “an old water carrier woman” appeared, conveniently recalling the exact spot of the Guru’s execution as related to her by her father, who had observed the event at the site over a century earlier. On this testimony the Sikhs began to demolish the mosque which obstructed the spot, despite the vociferous resistance of local Muslims. A riot had begun to break out when an intercessor managed to halt proceedings until Baghel Singh could intervene. By way of compromise, the mosque was partially demolished, but its façade was preserved.

Here, as elsewhere, Bhangu’s narrative does not accord with the topography of the square in Delhi in which the present-day Sisganj Gurudwara is located. Bhangu describes the spot identified by the aged woman as located between a well and a mosque on Moonlight Avenue (Chāndnī Chauk) but does not mention the police-station (kotwālī). There is indeed a mosque on the western side of the police-station, but the present-day Gurudwara has been built on the station’s eastern side, where no mosque has ever been known to exist. Such discrepancies indicate that Bhangu may not have been acquainted with the layout of Moonlight Avenue, and based his account of events on hearsay and not personal experience.

When and how the present-day Sisganj Gurudwara came into being deserves fuller consideration elsewhere.[19] For the reasons noted above, Bhangu cannot offer us a reliable account of its establishment. But it is deeply significant that Bhangu’s account of the establishment of a gurudwara in every instance involves the planting of a flag and the distribution of sacral offerings of sweet food (karāh parshād). In the case of Sisganj, too, after concluding his account of its making, Bhangu concludes:

In the very heart of Delhi he [Baghel Singh] set up gurudwaras
And had seven flags swung up
He had sacral offerings distributed to the beat of war drums
Rejoicing Sikhs flocked from all sides.[20]

As these verses indicate, the Nishan sahib and sacral offering was the foundational, if modest, act of Sikh assertion. Such a gesture was universally legible, given that flags were common symbols used by many different kinds of communities to claim space across early modern India. This was predictably true of royal authority, as in the case of Aurangzeb and his Mughal army (described by the satirical poet Mir Jaʿfar Zatalli as “planting a flag on whatever place he went / and drying every head he severed”). But poles, flags, and standards also served as mobile claims to power in popular pilgrimages, such as that to the grave of the famed Muslim warrior-saint Ghazi Miyan, or the commemorative processions of Shiʿa communities. Most broadly, they served as markers of claims to sacrality on sites of any denomination.[21] At the same time, to plant a flag was a far more limited claim than the destruction of a mosque or the erection of a gurudwara—though, as Bhangu notes, Baghel Singh’s attempts to denominate Sikh spaces in Delhi did not pass uncontested. 

Fig. 10. Moonlight Avenue, detail of Five Plans of Delhi, c. 1774. Watercolor, 140cm X 31cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Item AL.1762 © Victoria and Albert Museum, Non-commercial Use Permission.

In this context, one might speculate that the flag pictured in the foreground of this undated eighteenth-century map (Fig. 10) of Moonlight Avenue is in fact the Nishan sahib, installed to mark the site of Guru Tegh Bahadur’s execution.[22] But whether or not the flag in this painting in fact represents a Sikh marking of place, such little assertions as the planting of a flag (or the placing of an idol) are familiar symbols of sacralizing space that dot the landscape of the subcontinent, and which vanish or develop over long periods of time depending on the changing dispositions of local politics. Despite the grandiose claims of chroniclers such as Bhangu, it would not be unusual or surprising if today’s magnificent Gurudwara existed for its first few decades as only a small flag planted by the police station, a building that by the late twentieth century would be absorbed without a trace into the Gurudwara’s expanding precincts.[23]

It is thus not in grand histories of conquest and domination now celebrated in the Sikh “Victory Day” parades, but through such little gestures as the planting of the Nishan sahib that we should understand Baghel Singh’s actions in Delhi in 1783. From Bhangu’s account we see how Baghel Singh combined diplomacy, guile and force to secure temporal power (evinced in the arrival of Sikh tax-collectors in the grain market outside the city) and to make a political claim by outlining a sacral geography around the life of the martyred Guru that would be populated by devotees over centuries to come. In planting the Nishan sahib and distributing sacral offerings, Baghel Singh made a political gesture in the language of Sikh belief perfectly legible to his other contemporaries, both Hindu and Muslim, of the eighteenth century. 

Seen in this light, the gesture of hoisting of the Nishan sahib on the Red Fort by protestors clamoring against a farm law has a layered past. For contemporary observers, the act made sense—and produced outrage—because it marked a sectarian assertion against the (increasingly only nominally) secular Republic of India. But for the protestors who have always disavowed any such intentions, the raising of their flag beneath the tricolor was a patriotic gesture that marked the reclamation of the national space from a state now in the hands of a political party that openly declares itself to represent a Hindu majority and aims to construct a new “Hindu Nation” (hindu rashtra) in India.

Beneath this symbolic competition in the rough arena of modern politics, however, lies a tenacious history that continues to reach out from the eighteenth century. Even though the historical consciousness of contemporary protestors is shaped by the apparatus of modern media and religious propaganda, their gesture of planting the Nishan sahib hearkens to the struggle of a small Sikh community against the Mughal state. A lineage of popular politics links the vocabulary of the protestors of the present to their ancestors of the eighteenth century. Then as now, the struggle of the weak against the strong was marked as much by negotiation and accommodation as by resistance, a struggle in which assertions of faith and political opposition could not be separated. In the brief vision of the fluttering Nishan sahib over the ramparts of the Red Fort on Republic Day, we see how the gestures of popular politics in India today continue to be animated by a long history that predates—and arguably has never been subsumed by—the colonial and the postcolonial Indian state, and which has never been disciplined to obey the operative distinctions between the domains of the religious and the political foundational to the postcolonial state.[24]  

Abhishek Kaicker is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley

Acknowledgments: I am deeply grateful to Professors Zirwat Chowdhury and Purnima Dhavan for their comments on various drafts of this essay. All errors are mine alone. All web resources cited below were last accessed on 06/01/2021.

[1] Law and Disorder,” editorial, Indian Express, Jan 27, 2021:

[2] “Farm Protests turn Anarchic,” editorial, Hindustan Times, Jan 27, 2021:

[3] “India equates Red Fort chaos with Capitol riots after US remarks,” Al Jazeera, Feb 5, 2021:

[4] Anuj Kumar, “How the Farmers’ Protest lost its way,” The Hindu, Jan 27, 2021:

[5] “How extremist elements hijacked farmers’ rally and Deep Sidhu’s role in chaos,” The Tribune, Jan 27, 2021:

[6]“Op/Ed: Is anything wrong with hoisting Nishan Sahib, farm unions’ flag on Delhi Red Fort?,” editorial, Sikh24, Jan 27, 2021:; Chanchal Manohar Singh, “Why So much outrage over Nishan Sahib’s Unfurling over Red Fort?,” Daily Times, Feb 4, 2021:

[7] For a fuller explication of these ideas, see Abhishek Kaicker, The King and the People: Sovereignty and Popular Politics in Mughal Delhi (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[8] Khalid Mahmud, Pakistan’s Political Scene, 1984-1990: Reflections of a Journalist. (Pakistan: Rohtas Books, 1990), 179; Pamphlets Relating to India-Pakistan Dispute (India: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1965), 29 (citing the Pakistan Times reporting on the National Assembly, July 11, 1965); “[O]pen talk, in Hyderabad and Pakistan, of seizing Delhi and planting the “Muslim flag” on the Red Fort,” Background to Mass Murder: An Account of what Led Up to the Disorders that Attended the Partition of India (India: Foreign Relations Society of India, 1950), 65.

[9] Louis E Fenech, “Martyrdom and the Sikh Tradition,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 117:4 (1997), 633; Purnima Dhavan, When Sparrows Became Hawks: The Making of the Sikh Warrior Tradition, 1699-1799 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[10] Kanika Singh, “Commemorating Baghel Singh’s ‘Conquest’ of Delhi: The Fateh Diwas,” Studies in History 36:2 (Aug. 2020), 280–301.

[11] Kanika Singh, “In 2014, the Sikh Flag Flew at the Red Fort – And the Hindu Rightwing Had No Complaints,” The Wire, Jan 27, 2021:

[12] Shoaib Daniyal, “Red Fort: How Punjabi protestors are tapping into history to mobilise against farm laws,”, Jan 28, 2021:

[13] Hari Ram Gupta, History of the Sikhs, 4 vols. (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 2000), 3, chap. 11, “The Sikh Supremacy in the Doab and Delhi, 1781-83,” 158-70.

[14] As Dhavan observes, Gupta’s view of the Sikh past “changed substantially” over the course of his long career. Purnima Dhavan, When Sparrows Became Hawks, 214n5.

[15] Jadunath Sarkar, Fall of the Mughal Empire, 4 vols. (Calcutta: M.C. Sarkar & sons, 1949), 3:255; J. S. Grewal, The Sikhs of the Punjab (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

[16] Mirza Sangin Beg, Delhi in transition, 1821 and Beyond: Mirza Sangin Beg’s Sair-ul Manazil, trans. Shama Mitra Chenoy (New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2018), 82.

[17] Purnima Dhavan, “Reading the Texture of History and Memory in Early-Nineteenth-Century Punjab,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 29:3 (2009), 515-527. More broadly, see Anne Murphy, Time, History and the Religious Imaginary in South Asia (London: Routledge, 2012).

[18] Ratan Singh Bhangu, Sri Gur Panth Prakash, trans. Kulwant Singh (Chandigarh: Institute of Sikh Studies, 2006), 713-731.

[19] Because of pandemic restrictions I was unable to consult J B Bali, Sis Ganj: the Story of the Historical Sikh Shrines of Delhi (New Delhi: Swarn Prakashan, 1967).

[20] Bhangu, Sri Gur Panth Prakash, 725. I am indebted to Pasha Khan for amending the translation offered in the text and helping me understand it in its fullest sense.

[21] Ataullah, “Jafar Zatalli and the Historical Context,” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 69 (2008), 447-454; see p. 449 for the reference to Aurangzeb. Zatalli’s verse appears to refer to the practice of preserving the detached heads of rebels by desiccating them. On the procession of the warrior-saint Ghazi Miyan, see Shahid Amin, Conquest and Community: The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2016).

[22] The dating of these maps cannot be established with any certainty. Susan Gole claims the maps do not predate 1751. Gole, “Three maps of Shahjahanabad,” South Asian Studies 4:1 (1988), 13-27. Chanchal Dadlani suggests the maps were prepared for Jean Baptiste Joseph Gentil; in which case they arrived in Europe by 1778, and could not depict a flag planted in 1783. Dadlani, “The ‘Palais Indiens’ Collection of 1774: Representing Mughal Architecture in late eighteenth-century India,” Ars Orientalis (2010), 185. Yuthika Sharma believes the drawings were prepared for Antoine-Louis Henri de Polier, in which case it is possible the maps arrived as late as in Europe in 1788; in this case it would be possible for the maps to have been painted after 1783. Yuthika Sharma, “From Miniatures to Monuments Picturing Shah Alam’s Delhi (1771-1806),” Indo-Muslim Cultures in Transition (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 128-129. On Polier, see Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “The Career of Colonel Polier and Late Eighteenth-Century Orientalism,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 10:1 (2000), 43–60. 

[23]According to the Indian Parliamentary debates of 1979, in response to question 2947, Sikandar Bakht, the Minister of Works and Housing, said that “no decision has been taken to transfer the remaining portion of [the] Kotwali at Chandni Chowk to Sisganj Gurudwara and as such the question does not arise.” (Lok Sabha Debates, Seventh Session, Sixth Series, Vol. XXIII, No. 16, p. 200). This position was soon reversed under the pressure of Indira Gandhi’s electoral compulsions. In March 1983, the India Today noted: “Reciprocating the Sikhs’ vote of confidence during the Delhi elections, Mrs. Gandhi also announced the Delhi Administration’s decision to release a portion of the Delhi Kotwali in Chandni Chowk for Gurudwara Sisganj, to raise a suitable memorial for Guru Teg Bahadur.” Gobind Thukral and Prabhu Chawla, “Centre turns tables on Akali leadership, Zail Singh dubs Akali agitation as anti-Sikh,” India Today, March 31, 1983:

In April 1990, the “historic kotwali” in Chandni chowk was demolished over the objections of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage: Shriram Maheshwari, The Indian administrative year book (India: Concept Publishing Company, 1992), 240. See also Jitinder Kaur, The Politics of Sikhs: A Study of Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (India: National Book Organisation, 1986), 133-136.

[24] A point made in Pashaura Singh, “How Avoiding the Religion-Politics Divide Plays out in Sikh Politics,” Religions 10:5 (2019), 296.

Cite this note as:  Abhishek Kaicker, “The Little Conquest of the Red Fort,” Journal18 (June 2021),

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