Violence at Delhi’s Red Fort: Here’s What Happened Before & After
An eyewitness account of how a peaceful protest turned violent at Delhi’s Red Fort on 26 January 2021.
The biggest lesson from yesterday’s unprecedented scenes at Red Fort is that no journalist should take her phone battery for granted.
The Road to Red Fort
1:30 pm: I step out of my house around 1:30 pm to walk down to the Ring Road from where the protest chants are getting louder. What is meant to be a curious stroll to witness the ‘Tractor Rally’ by protesting farmers will turn into a trek to Red Fort to watch violence unfold at one of the most iconic monuments of Delhi.
Standing opposite Metcalfe House on Ring Road, I witness an unending procession of tractors, cars, SUVs and bikes. Not to mention cycles and walking protestors. For an hour or so, the sloganeering, the songs, and vehicular noise drowns any other experience on the road. The din shakes the sleepy neighbourhood of Civil Lines awake. What is remarkable about the processions is that there is absolutely no problem on the roads. The traffic is largely streamlined. I see organisers making way for an ambulance.
Walking with some protestors, I learn that all of them are coming from Singhu Border and the plan is to go to Red Fort to assert their presence by unfurling Nishan Sahib, the holy flag of Khalsa panth.
I keep chuckling at the naïveté of these proclamations but there is a context.
A centuries-old dream of sikhi was perhaps going to be realised on 26 January 2020—to bring Dilli Darbar to its knees. Except, there is no darbar in Delhi anymore and the Mughal fort is not a seat of power.
I speak to Sikh and non-Sikh protestors of all ages from Amritsar, Jalandhar, Kurukshetra, Delhi, Jalaun and almost everyone echoes the same sentiments: We are marching to Red Fort to show the country what government friendly media does not want anyone to see. We are not just a handful of protesting farmers; the dissent against controversial farm laws is widespread.
Ladakhis, Tibetans Standing in Solidarity, While A Bengali Baba Sits and Supports
2:00 pm : I walk past the Monastery Market and found hordes of Tibetans and Ladakhis standing in solidarity and cheering the protestors on. There were families with little children perched on parents’ shoulders. I asked a bunch the most jaded question in a reporter’s repertoire: How are you feeling? They reply, “Achha lag raha hai”. (We are feeling good looking at the protest.) One man adds, “Bina khaane ke kaise rahega?” (How can we live without food?) A big thumbs up to the tractor rally.
Young men Tenzin, Norbu, and Sospel draw my attention by shouting “Sat Sri Akal” and “Support, Support”. They told me enthusiastically that they were from UT Ladakh.
A little ahead, a bunch of people—including children— from Uttarakhand are waving and shouting at the procession. “We are supporting because we are farmers, too,” Dayal Singh informs me.
A ‘Bengali Baba’ with his tent on the road divider is keen to talk. Jagtar Singh from Amritsar, this ‘Bengali baba’ is happy about the protests and cautions that if farmers’ don’t get their due, we’ll die of hunger. His chela, Pankaj Singh, nods in agreement.
Reaching Red Fort
2:30 pm : At Red Fort, there are rows of DTC buses on police duty and a constant stream of protestor influx. Farmers from Singhu borders have reached Red Fort. It’s one straight road, after all. Some of them want to go inside Red Fort others are happy with circling the area. Entering the Red Fort grounds, I see a carpet of police personnel sitting and waiting. Men and women in khaki ready with their batons but casually lounging.
I can see several Nishan Sahibs on the railings of the platform from where the Prime Minister of India makes his Independence Day speech every year. The tricolour stands giant and glorious above.
For one flag hoisted by a bunch of churlish protestors at Red Fort, there were thousands of tricolours being waved and respectfully carried by the same protesting crowd.
I walk towards Lahori Gate, bracing myself for impending claustrophobia. The narrow entry to Red Fort cannot handle this volume of protestors. Once inside, there is some breathing space, despite a parked police-duty bus. The stairwell, however, is crammed with people, mostly young men. There is a protestor standing with a banner welcoming the outstation farmers to Delhi. I spot a Nihang Sikh standing precariously at a high parapet. On the opposite ramparts, a young man is trying to climb the wall. It is surreal. At this moment I realise I do not have my press ID. I don’t have a single penny in my pocket, either.
When It All Started at Red Fort
3:00 pm : Some trouble is beginning to brew. There is a scuffle right behind me. A young man is being lambasted by another. Minor fisticuffs. It appears that more youngsters want to climb up the walls of Red Fort to reach the flagstaff. Elderly protestors are telling hot-headed youth that it isn’t right. “Ye hamara national jhanda hai. Iss ko chhoona bhi nahi chahiye. Hamara kaam ho gaya hai bas yahaan aakar.” (This is our national flag, it shouldn’t be disrespected. We have achieved our goal by reaching Red Fort.)
One youngster says, “Hum khoon chadhane aaye hain”. (We are here to make a blood offering.) An elderly gent shouted, “Baahar jaake chadha khoon” (Offer your blood outside) and let some chaste Punjabi expletives out.
Police personnel enter Lahori Gate in anticipation and stand at one side. This sight unsettles the protestors perched on the platform and there is commotion on the stairwell. A stampede, if nothing worse, looks impending. I squeeze out and observe from the parapet near Lahori Gate. I catch a glimpse of a handful of police personnel on the platform. And a flurry of protestors exiting from Lahori Gate.
Some youngsters run outside to tell people about police lathicharge. I run towards the police tents and seek comfort in the company of fellow members of the media. “Let’s pray things don’t turn ugly here,” a video journalist from Kannur says to me.
Police personnel start charging towards Lahori gate and that’s when the confrontation started. Protestors outside are beating up police personnel in retaliation for the ‘lathicharge’ inside. The parapet I was earlier standing on becomes the site of clashes.
Tractors come charging towards the crowds. I retreat towards the main road where some Delhi Police personnel are standing. I ask, “What is happening here?” and pat come the reply “Nothing much”. I ask about what orders they have. “We have no orders. We are waiting”.
Signs of First Blood
3:15 pm : I spot an injured cop being escorted out by a group of protesters. His head was hit and blood was streaming down his face. I fumble to take my phone out but he’s quickly taken away. From the main road I attempt to record a piece to camera but it is interrupted by a protestor who threatens me in Haryanwi, “Don’t bring us bad name by showing only this police constable”. I talk to him and my phone battery dies. Other protestors whisk him away and apologise to me.
I walk away from Red Fort as farmers keep coming from Singhu Border and Ghazipur. Oblivious of the scenes inside, most of them circle Red Fort and head back. I hear some shots—they seem distant. Perhaps from ITO. My colleagues from ITO have been reporting disturbing scenes of clashes between Delhi Police and protestors.
I want to reach home to file an eyewitness blog quickly but there is no internet at home. My neighbours have no internet either. I go to a friend’s house in Mukherjee Nagar—after multiple detours—to send photos and video clips to my colleagues at desk.
At night, I receive a drone video showing details of the police-protestor clashes at Red Fort.
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