Red Fort Trials: How British triumphalism backfired

Krishnanand Tripathi
A still from Rajya Sabha TV's movie Raag Desh.

A still from Rajya Sabha TV’s movie Raag Desh.

Rajya Sabha TV’s movie Raag Desh has rekindled the memories of a military trial that has long been forgotten from the national conscience. British Raj charged and tried three renegade officers who deserted the British Indian army to join hands with the enemies of the British empire to secure independence for India.

The controversial trial was conducted at the Red Fort in Delhi to send a message to the guilty and also to the wider public. However, the decision backfired as it galvanised the nation around the defendants, including those who initially opposed it.

Unlike India’s freedom struggle hero Subhash Chandra Bose who led the Azad Hind Fauj or Indian National army, the three members of the same army – Colonel Prem Sahgal, Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon and Major General Shah Nawaz Khan – who faced the famous Red Fort Trial for waging war against the British Raj could not become household names.

British Raj in India conducted the military trial on the lines of other military trials – Nuremberg Trials and Tokyo Trials – conducted by the allied countries to try the leaders and officials of axis powers – Germany and Japan.

Dr. Kanika Sharma of SOAS University, London, whose work focuses on the use of Red Fort in Delhi for conducting the political trials in India says: “The selection of the Red Fort served two purposes at once. Firstly, the Red Fort had featured heavily in the INA imagination, their slogan was ‘On to Delhi. Their monthly propaganda magazine published under the same name carried above the masthead the picture of the Indian flag in the foreground and the Red Fort in the background.”

“By selecting the Red Fort as the location of the trial the British could thumb their noses at the INA and give visual form to their failure, ” adds Dr. Kanika Sharma.

Archival Photo: Subhash Chandra Bose with INA officers.

Archival Photo: Subhash Chandra Bose with INA officers.

In case of the trials to punish Nazi officials, Nuremberg in Germany was selected as it was considered the birthplace of the Nazi Party. It had hosted the party’s annual propaganda rallies and the Reichstag session that passed the Nuremberg Laws. Despite the opposition from Soviets who wanted to try the Nazi officials in the capital Berlin, Nuremberg was considered the right place by the allied powers to mark the Party’s symbolic demise.

Similarly, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (Tokyo Trials) was convened at Ichigaya Court, the building of head quarter of the Imperial Japanese Army in Tokyo. A symbol to demonstrate the absolute defeat of war machine led by then Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo.

Selection of the place – the Red Fort in Delhi –  to conduct the trial was also important as the regimental quick march of Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, Qadam Qadam Badhaye Ja, urged the soldiers to march to Delhi and hoist a flag on the Red Fort. Reference to the Red Fort in Delhi in the song written by Vansidhar Shukla was considered to be seditious and was banned by the British Raj in India.

The song composed by Ram Singh Thakur urged the people to march to Delhi, the seat of power during the Mogul and British rules and raise the national flag on the Red Fort, the symbol of sovereign power in Delhi.

Talking about the subsequent developments Dr. Kanika Sharma, Senior Teaching Fellow at SOAS University of London says: Despite the Raj’s attempts to use the Fort to portray their triumph, the Red Fort became a symbol of Indian nationalism.”

Dr. Kanika Sharma who has extensively researched the subject says:

“Many sections were also opposed to it (INA). Nehru himself had claimed he would oppose the INA ‘with open sword in hand’. But once the British decided to make an example of the INA leaders, the Indian nationalists saw the propaganda potential in the case.” 

This paradox of treating the defendants in the Red Fort Trials either as traitors or as heroes by different sections and their inner conflict about their actions have been clearly demonstrated in the war movie Raag Desh produced by the Rajya Sabha Television.

Archival Photo: Colonel Prem Sahgal, Major General Shah Nawaz Khan and Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon.

Archival Photo: Colonel Prem Sahgal, Major General Shah Nawaz Khan and Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon.

Dr. Kanika who is the author of ‘A Symbol of State Power: Use of the Red Fort in Indian Political Trials’ succinctly puts it:

“Against the Fort as an emblem of the state stood the three men as an icon of the nationalist struggle for independence. The trial was no longer about the three men who stood in the dock; it was about Indian suppression at the hands of the British.”

Once it became clear that the symbolism of the Fort had indeed backfired on the British, the Fort was no longer the site of the later INA trials as they were quickly and quietly shifted to the Kabul Lines in Delhi Cantonment.