'How can the monument where the prime minister unfurls the flag on Independence Day, in a ceremony broadcast and telecast nationally, be maintained by a private entity?' asks Jyoti Punwani.
Photograph: Saumya Khandelwal/Reuters
Is the Red Fort any old monument?
The majestic ramparts from which the flag is ceremoniously raised on Independence Day are part of our consciousness.
Many Indians may not know who built the monument, or how old it is, but we know it as a symbol of our sovereignty.
The monument is also an architectural marvel. This writer has visited the Red Fort a number of times and remains in awe of its stately aura.
It is not just a magnificent structure, with its Diwan e Aam and Diwan e Khaas, the exquisite Moti Masjid reflecting Aurangzeb's sobriety, the Mumtaz Mahal... it is simply redolent with history.
Will this history now be diluted with billboards of Dalmia Bharat all over the complex?
Will we emerge from Diwan e Aam and see a hoarding of a cement company instead of red sandstone and latticed walls?
In China, the global coffeehouse chain Starbucks was allowed to open an outlet inside the Forbidden City in 2000. It used an existing structure and thereby blended with the surroundings in this 15th century imperial complex, home to China's emperors.
But just seeing the name 'Starbucks' on their ancient heritage angered the Chinese so much that the coffee chain had to shut shop in 2007, after half a million Chinese signed an online petition against it.
It may be a dictatorship, but China is more responsive than India when its citizens get agitated and take mass action against something that disturbs them. So an online petition to stop Dalmia Bharat taking over the Red Fort may not work here.
Signs of typical Indian official arrogance were evident when Minister of State for Tourism K J Alphons pooh poohed opposition to the proposal and declared the government would go ahead with its plan to hand over more monuments to corporates.
Alphons is an ex-bureaucrat, hence responsiveness to public sentiment isn't his forte; arguing his case is.
He pointed out that the Congress government at the Centre had earlier given Humayun's Tomb, another of Delhi's iconic monuments, to the 'foreign' Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
Alphons can see no difference between a trust known worldwide for its success in restoring historic architectural structures and a cement company! Even the Aga Khan Trust is being blamed by experts for not carrying on restoration work in keeping with the style of Humayun's Tomb.
There are two aspects to the BJP government's move. First, the ethics of it.
How can the monument where the prime minister unfurls the flag on Independence Day, in a ceremony broadcast and telecast nationally, be maintained by a private entity?
No one can believe that the Centre doesn't have enough money to maintain this monument.
One of India's top tourist attractions, it ranks fifth in terms of revenue earned through tourism.
In 2013-2014, it earned more than Rs 6 crore (Rs 60 million). The Dalmias will spend Rs 25 crore (Rs 250 million) in five years. So, the Red Fort already earns more than what the Dalmias are going to spend on it!
What then is the rationale behind this move except to rid itself of the responsibility of maintaining this crucial monument?
This is a government that describes itself as the only nationalistic government to have ruled the country. It silently endorses physical attacks by its supporters on those who do not stand up for the national anthem in cinema halls.
Yet, it sees nothing shameful about washing its hands off a monument symbolising our sovereignty.
One reason for this puzzling sense of self-respect could be that no member of the party that makes up this government took part in the freedom struggle.
Do they know that the trial of Subhas Chandra Bose's comrades in the Indian National Army took place inside the Red Fort in December 1945?
P K Sahgal, Shahnawaz Khan and G S Dhillon were the first to be tried. The three, each following a different faith, became symbols of our freedom struggle.
A century earlier, the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar had been tried here.
The INA heroes were defended by the Congress and top lawyers of the day: Bhulabhai Desai, Jawaharlal Nehru, K N Katju, Tej Bahadur Sapru, Asaf Ali.
But all this must mean nothing to the BJP, which tries to appropriate Bose without believing in a fraction of his vision.
In fact, the Red Fort may well be looked upon by this Hindutva party as a symbol of the Mughals whom they hate. Remember Narendra D Modi's speech in Parliament soon after he became PM, rueing the mentality created by '1,200 years of slavery'?
There is no doubt that the Red Fort is a symbol of the Mughals, that fascinating dynasty that ruled us for near 200 years.
The Fort is part of the Mughals' magnificent legacy, the jewel among the many monuments Delhi is so fortunate to have. Indeed, first time tourists to Delhi are often left overwhelmed with the sense of history the capital imparts.
But one doubts that BJP members feel a surge of pride when they look at the Lal Qila, the Juma Masjid, the Qutb Minar, Humayun's Tomb, the Lodhi monuments.
Given that the second most popular leader in the ruling party is on record saying that the Taj Mahal is not part of his cultural heritage, one can guess that the narrow-minded men and women of this party may feel belittled by these grand monuments.
For them, Gujarat's restored Somnath Temple may be the biggest symbol of national pride.
Interestingly, the Somnath Temple Trust has our PM, and the second most important man in the country, the BJP president, on its board. Also on the Board are party stalwarts L K Advani and Keshubhai Patel.
For these men, Somnath is not just a temple, but a living entity. Obviously, the Red Fort isn't.
But, will it be so for the Dalmias?
Vishnu Hari Dalmia is a former president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad that demolished the Babri Masjid. In an interview with this Web site in 2001, he had said its aim was to make India a Hindu country. Two years ago, he asked the PM to build the Ayodhya temple in time for VHP leader Ashok Singhal's 90th birthday.
However, it is not known whether all Dalmias share his views. For our sake, we hope they don't.
The second troubling issue in the Centre's decision are the terms of the contract.
The Dalmias will not be liable for 'loss, costs and expenses' if any are claimed by the Archeological Survey of India, which is, along with the ministries of culture and tourism, also a signatory to the MoU.
What if some part of the Red Fort is damaged during the 'landscaping' that the Dalmias are allowed to carry out?
What if their café ruins something built almost 400 years ago with so much care? How can they not be held liable?
When asked, Alphons replied that nothing would be done without the ASI's permission, and the government didn't want the Dalmias 'getting caught in unnecessary legal hassles'.
If only this government showed half the concern for the Red Fort that they show for the corporate entrusted with its care!
Will the ASI keep a hawk's eye on the Dalmias? Our government bodies are not known for looking corporates in the eye. Additionally, the ASI comes under the ministry of culture.
Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma made it clear within a year of being appointed that his ministry's mission was to get rid of the 'sanskrutik pradushan' (cultural pollution) apparently choking our country's heritage.
Sharma justified changing the name of Delhi's Aurangzeb Road to A P J Abdul Kalam Road by saying that Kalam was a nationalist and a humanist, 'despite being a Muslim'!
Finally, according to Sharma, the Koran and the Bible do not reflect the soul of India as do the Ramayan and the Gita, which should be made part of school syllabi.
What regard can this man have towards the Lal Qila?
The Dalmias may well have to incorporate Sharma's view of history -- the RSS view -- in the sound and light show at the Red Fort (if it is not already their own view).
Will Shah Jahan be described as a 'videshi hamlaawar (foreign invader)?
Will there be descriptions of the forced conversions and mass rapes of Hindus that populate their fantasies?
The Taj Mahal, the envy of the world, which we are so lucky to have as our own, is turning green and yellow, its minarets are getting damaged, yet, this government has remained silent.
Is it any wonder we get a sinking feeling at the BJP government's proposal to hand over the Red Fort for five years to a cement company?