The story of William Bentinck, Governor General of India, wanting to sell the Taj Mahal in the 1830s is one of those fascinating tales that is completely untrue. The canard started out as whisper campaign against him by the Bengal Army, which hated Bentinck for cutting their allowances, but was soon picked up by Indian nationalists keen to demonstrate the barbarity of the Raj. The story stuck. Even an authority such as the Archaeological Survey of India – set up by the British – believes it.

As it happens, while the Taj Mahal remains unsold, another great edifice commissioned by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan is in the middle of an auctioning row.

Delhi’s Red Fort, commissioned in 1639, is being adopted by a private company for five years, after the firm won a bid. It is one of several sites that will see corporate involvement under the Union government’s “Adopt a Heritage” scheme. Under the plan, the Dalmia Bharat Group will take over a large part of the responsibility of running the Red Fort. It will build, operate and maintain tourism infrastructure to make the site more accessible and interactive for visitors. The infrastructure includes amenities like toilets, drinking water and restaurants, as well as ticketing, signage, audio guides, illumination, and even virtual-reality based installations. The Dalmia Group will be permitted to generate revenue through semi-commercial activities in the complex, but any money collected from visitors for these activities will have to be ploughed back into the monument. For this, the firm will pay the Union government Rs 25 crore over a span of five years, or Rs 5 crore a year.

Branding history

News that the Red Fort has been adopted by a private firm caused a furore, with commentators and Opposition parties displeased at what they saw as the commercialisation of a historical monument. “Can heritage conservation be handed over to the highest bidder?” asked historian Sohail Hashmi in The Indian Express.

Author William Dalrymple also tweeted his concern.

The Dalmia Bharat Group has interests in cement, sugar and power manufacturing. Its patriarch, Vishnu Dalmia, was a key mover behind the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and an accused in the Babri Masjid demolition. The group has no experience in conserving monuments, and one would imagine it has little interest in the grandeur of the Mughal Empire either. Yet, why is it interested in something so removed from its core businesses?

The answer seems to be: branding, not history.

The “Adopt a Heritage” deal allows the company to link the Dalmia name to signage in the Mughal complex as well as other paraphernalia, such as souvenirs. “It will help us integrate the Dalmia brand with India,” Mahendra Singhi, the group CEO of Dalmia Bharat Cement, told the Business Standard.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers an Independence Day speech from the Red Fort with the Jama Masjid in the background.

This is an interesting statement given the beating that anything Mughal has got in India of late. In October, the newly-elected Bharatiya Janata Party government in Uttar Pradesh excluded the Taj Mahal from the state’s official tourism booklet. As a follow up, that month itself, BJP MLA Sangeet Som said that the marble mausoleum had been built by traitors and that Shah Jahan “wanted to wipe out Hindus”.

Even BJP spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao described the period of Mughal rule in India as “exploitative, barbaric and a period of incomparable intolerance which harmed Indian civilisation and traditions immensely”.

“Babar ke aulad” – descendants of Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire – was a common slur during the movement to demolish the Babri Masjid in the 1980s. Hindutva’s characterisation of the Mughals as foreign colonisers has spread into the wider culture too, being picked up by films and television. One show even manages to demonise the third Mughal emperor Akbar, who is widely seen as an enlightened and secular king in both Indian and world historiography.

Pan-subcontinental sovereignty

Given this background, it is interesting that the Dalmia Group thinks associating itself with the Red Fort will help integrate their brand with India itself. This dichotomy points to an earlier visualisation of the Mughals as repositories of pan-subcontinental sovereignty before the British arrived. It is to claim this legacy that the Prime Minister of India stands on the Red Fort’s ramparts every year on Independence Day to deliver his address to the nation.

The Red Fort has been viewed as a symbol of India for decades. In his April 29 article in The Telegraph, historian Mukul Kesavan pointed out how Subhas Chandra Bose challenged British Rule by exhorting his Indian National Army: Dilli Chalo! March to Delhi, with the Red Fort the symbol for Delhi. Even the far-right Pakistani political commentator Zaid Hamid ends his harangues against India with the somewhat ambitious claim of planting the Pakistani flag atop the Red Fort. As legal scholar Kanika Sharma puts it: “The iconicity of the Red Fort was such that there was a belief that to raise your flag over the Red Fort was to raise your flag over all of India.”

Delhi and the Red Fort

What gives the Red Fort this – to use academic Partha Chatterjee’s phrase – “sacred iconicity”? Part of it can be attributed to the use of its premises by the British to court martial a number of officers of the Indian National Army in 1946 on charges of waging war on the British Empire. But a large part of the reason is the role the monument has played as the heart of the Mughal Empire and, therefore, of a politically united Indian subcontinent.

India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru delivers a speech from the Red Fort on 15 August, 1947 -- the day power was transferred from the British. Credit: Wikimedia commons

While the Indian subcontinent has had various measures of cultural and religious unity, political unity mostly eluded it. The first rulers to unite the land were the Mauryas (321 BCE to 185 BCE). Yet, in the centuries between the Mauryan Empire and the coming of the Europeans, Indians had all but forgotten the dynasty, and its greatest emperor, Ashoka, had been reduced to a figure of Buddhist legend. It took the arrival of the British and a phalanx of modern historians to inform modern Indians about Ashoka. This left only the Mughals as an organically historical source of political sovereignty that encompassed the entirety of India.

The British, who became the paramount political power in India by the 18th century, consciously styled themselves after the Mughals in order to signal to their subjects that Calcutta – their first capital – was picking up where the Mughal Empire’s capital of Delhi had left off. The Raj started off using Persian (right till 1947, the British king styled himself Kaisar-e-Hind or Emperor of India) and used a modified Mughal style in its architecture to establish sovereignty over India. By the 1930s, the British even shifted their capital back to Delhi, which is now modern India’s capital.

In 1857, as parts of the Bengal Army rebelled against the British, they automatically headed to Delhi and, by some accounts, virtually forced Bahadur Shah Zafar to lead them. Zafar had no power at the time, but his name as Mughal emperor was a valuable stamp for the largely rudderless sepoy revolt.

Hindu history and Muslim history

The rise of modern nationalism and colonial historiography, however, saw the hold the Mughals had over the public imagination start to fade. History was viewed through separate lenses – Hindu and Muslim, and in many cases, the Mughals shrunk from being seen as Emperors of India to just Muslim kings.

This trend might be most visible in the case of Hindutva (and Pakistani nationalism), but has seeped in everywhere. For instance, Shivaji, the 17th century ruler of a small kingdom that spanned a few districts of modern-day Maharashtra, now occupies much more mindspace than, say, Shah Jahan, who ruled over an area covering Afghanistan to modern-day Maharashtra, and wielded much greater powers. Similarly, Shivaji has several buildings and an airport named after him, not to mention the 210-metre high statue of the Maratha ruler that is slated to come up in the Arabian Sea at considerable expense. But Akbar, the world’s most powerful and enlightened sovereign of his time, has only one prominent road in New Delhi named after him, that too thanks to the British. Now Union ministers are asking for even this to be renamed.

Yet, while the trend in India is to play down the Mughals, it is difficult to completely erase them from the country’s history given their role as a pan-Indian power – and the only one widely known. Hindutva might not like the Mughals, but even a Hindutva prime minister needs to address the Union of India from Delhi. It cannot be done from Raigad, the capital of Shivaji’s kingdom. Of course, if a brand needs to “integrate with India” – even Hindutva India – a Mughal fort is still its best bet.