New Son et Lumière at Red Fort Plays Down Gandhi, Nehru Role in Freedom Struggle

Intended to celebrate 75 years of India's independence, the show ignores many of the events of the second quarter of the 20th century.

New Delhi: Between stretches covering medieval and Mughal history and excerpts from a speech made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Red Fort in which he exhorts people to live every moment for the motherland, Jai Hind, the new light and sound or son et lumière show at Red Fort, does not appear to have much time for some of India’s most prominent freedom fighters and prime ministers.

The one hour long show, which has been open to the general public since January 16, has been revived after a gap of five years to commemorate the Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav initiative that celebrates India’s 75 years of independence.

During the inauguration of Jai Hind on January 9, Union Minister for Home Amit Shah said that the idea was to let the youth of the country know all those who had made sacrifices while fighting for freedom. “Those who don’t learn from history can’t envision a great country,” Shah said.

However, the show omits some key references to the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. For example, Nehru, along with Bhulabhai Desai, had appeared as a lawyer for soldiers from the Indian National Army (INA) when they were tried by the colonial British government at the Red Fort in 1945. While this was commemorated by the previous makers of the show, the Indian Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC), it has been omitted in this edition. The son et lumière also devotes less time to the freedom struggle than one expects, especially the events of the second quarter of the 20th century. These and other complaints make Jai Hind a rather controversial depiction of recent Indian history.

Cherry-picking history?

According to a keen observer of history, the lack of focus on the 20th century history of the freedom struggle runs in consonance with right-wing thought, which seeks to downplay the leadership of the Indian National Congress.

“The idea behind this approach is to emphasise that the main freedom struggle started in 1857. While the British called it the Great Indian Mutiny, Veer Savarkar called it the ‘First Indian War of Independence, 1857’, in his book by the same title. So by giving that 19th century period greater emphasis, an attempt has been made to belittle the contributions of various Congress leaders – including those who later left the party,” explained the history buff who wished to remain anonymous.

A still from ‘Jai Hind’. Photo: Screengrab from Youtube video

In the show, the narrator says of the 1857 war: “Everywhere the fire of revolt was kindled. Nana Saheb, Tantia Tope, Azeemullah, the Nawab of Banda and the Rani of Jhansi were all getting ready for the struggle of Independence … On May 10, 1857, the revolutionaries, while raising slogans for Independence, started from Meerut to Delhi to remind the Emperor of India –the last ruler of the Mughal dynasty, Bahadurshah Zafar – of his duties.”

The expert also suggested that, by placing emphasis on the Mughal rulers of India in the show, the idea was to deflect accusations that India under the Bharatiya Janata Party is unleashing politics of hate against the minorities, especially the Muslims. A narrative that brings some ‘good’ Muslim rulers of India centre stage may spread the impression, at least among foreign tourists, that India is not acting against the community.

Also read: How the Red Fort Became the Site for India’s Independence Day Celebrations

Missing in action

Since the 1970s up to 2018, the son et lumière at the Red Fort was prepared by the ITDC. This year’s edition, however, was made under the auspices of the Dalmia Bharat Group, which in 2018 had won the right to maintain the Red Fort for five years. The decision to allow a private entity to maintain and develop this historical monument quickly became embroiled in controversy when the opposition raised serious concerns about it.

Now, there are even more controversies.

After journalist Sagarika Ghose pointed out that it was “disturbing” that Jawaharal Nehru’s role in the INA trials was removed from the show, Congress leader Jairam Ramesh tagged her tweet and added a photograph which showed Nehru, K.N. Katju and Tej Bahadur Sapru walking into Red Fort to defend the INA in late 1945. Ramesh added that “Bhulabhai Desai played a stellar role in getting the INA acquitted.”

It is not as if the INA trials are left out of the show altogether. In fact, much is made of Subhas Chandra Bose and his Azad Hind Fauj or Indian National Army, which is referred to as India’s own army.

But the narrative simply does not feature Nehru and Desai. Narrated by actor Amitabh Bachhan, the script says: “The incidents which took place in the neighbouring Salimgarh Fort are a painful part of the history of this place. In November 1945, the first trial of the Azad Hind Fauj was carried out in this Red Fort. The English were unable to bear this unity of Indians. To divide the country, they played another move. For the trial, they chose one soldier each from among the three communities – Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. But it had an opposite effect. People’s resolve grew stronger. The entire country rose in support of these three soldiers. ‘Lal Quilay se ayi awaaz Sehgal, Dhillon, Shahnawaz’.”

There is nothing about India’s other prominent freedom fighters. The only references to them are images of Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Sardar Patel and Mahatma Gandhi displayed on the walls of the fort.

Nehru’s famous ‘tryst with destiny’ speech is played, however, after a congratulatory speech made by the last Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, at midnight on August 15, 1947. The two speeches are heard against visuals of various prime ministers of the country displayed in postage stamp format on the walls. Later, Narendra Modi appears in a video, saying: “In this amrit kaal, live every day, every second, every part for the motherland.”

A still from ‘Jai Hind’. Photo: Screengrab from Youtube video

Mahatma Gandhi’s great grandson Tushar Gandhi told a news channel that it was not surprising that references to Nehru had been removed and those pertaining to Bapu (the name by which Gandhi was affectionately referred to by the people of India), had been reduced to the mere display of an image.

“That this Central government resists Pandit Nehru is not a secret and so it should not come as a surprise that they would like to belittle his contribution. Also, there should be no surprise at their attitude towards Bapu because their policies clearly show that they want to dilute his image as much as possible. Their policy has been simple: in foreign (sic) it is Gandhi-Gandhi, in the country it is Nathuram-Nathuram (Gandhi’s assassin).”

In the wake of these criticisms, a video of the show that had been recorded by Doordarshan and uploaded on YouTube was blocked. No reason was given as to why it was blocked.