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Praveen Siddharth | Updated on November 27, 2020 Published on November 27, 2020

Cross my heart: The simple act of changing guards on watch duty acquires a ceremonial character at the Rashtrapati Bhavan   -  IMAGE COURTESY: RASHTRAPATI BHAVAN ARCHIVES

The ‘changing of the guard’ ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on November 28 highlights the Indian soldier’s ability to flawlessly slip into contrasting roles

* On November 28 this year, a change of army guard battalions will take place at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. On this day, the 5/1 Gorkha who have been standing guard through rain and shine since 2017 will hand over the ceremonial keys to 6 Sikh

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No one really knows when and how the simple act of changing the guards on watch duty began to acquire a ceremonial character. It is a rite that has survived past the age of monarchies. Normally, it is an oft-repeated colourless routine wherein one set of fresh and rested guards arrives to relieve those weary from long hours of vigil. But when this change happens at a public building or monument such as the Rashtrapati Bhavan, there is a fascinating spectacle of military discipline involved. And unlike everything else the soldier does, this one is intended as a ‘show’ for others to watch.

The most popular changing of the guard ceremony is probably the one outside the Buckingham Palace in London. There is also one that takes place every weekend at the Rashtrapati Bhavan (temporarily cancelled in view of Covid-19 precautions). But once in three years, a unique ceremony takes place. The entire battalion of soldiers performing guard duty here leaves and, in its place, a new battalion arrives, consisting of jawans who have never before performed this job.

New vigil: On November 28, the 5/1 Gorkha who have been standing guard since 2017 will hand over the ceremonial keys to 6 Sikh   -  IMAGE COURTESY: RASHTRAPATI BHAVAN ARCHIVES

 

On November 28 this year, such a change of army guard battalions will take place. On this day, the 5/1 Gorkha who have been standing guard through rain and shine since 2017 will hand over the ceremonial keys to 6 Sikh. There will also be an inspection of guard by the president in the forecourt of the Bhavan. Unlike the previous occasions, though, the ceremony this year will be a subdued affair with no outside guests and strict adherence to social distancing protocols.

But who are these army guards and why do they change all at once?

To clarify at the outset, there are actually not one but two components of the Indian Army within the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The more popular unit, the one that is seen more often, is the President’s Bodyguard or PBG. The main job of its members — adept horse-riders and all over 6 ft tall — is to escort the president during national events. The PBG is also the senior-most regiment of the Indian Army and the only existing cavalry regiment. They were raised in 1773 by Warren Hastings as his personal bodyguards and were known then as the Governor’s troops of the Mughals. The PBG are permanently stationed within the Bhavan and are perhaps identified more with the Rashtrapati than the Bhavan itself.

However, a little-known fact is that, in addition to the PBG, there is another battalion of the Indian Army in ceremonial guard of the Bhavan. They are simply referred to as the army guard but their history is equally fascinating. Their main role is to provide the ceremonial guard of honour for the president and any visiting head of state. They perform this role not only in the Rashtrapati Bhavan but also in the South Block, which houses the defence ministry, and the National War Memorial, as the occasion demands.

Since 1947, over 30 different infantry battalions have been functioning as ceremonial battalions. But they were not always positioned in the Bhavan. In fact, until 2004, the battalions used to reside within the Red Fort. The Army’s presence in the Red Fort dates even further back. After the capture of Delhi from the Mughals, the British Army had used the Red Fort as a garrison for its troops that controlled Delhi. When the British left in 1947, the Indian Army moved in and the 4 Sikh Light Infantry was one of the first Indian Army battalions to make it its home. In 2004, when a decision was taken to hand over the Red Fort to the tourism ministry, it was coincidentally the same 4 Sikh Light Infantry that was positioned during the changeover. Since then there have been five battalions stationed within Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Until 2014, the changing of the guard happened away from the public eye. The ceremony on November 28 this year will only be the third to take place at the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

As the preparations for this event are in full swing, what amazes me is the versatility of our soldiers and their ability to flawlessly slip into contrasting roles. The fact that they are performing a ceremonial role does not mean their fighting ability is relegated. On the contrary, they are completely combat-ready and are often posted to troubled and conflict-prone areas after their stint at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. And when they are initially posted here, too, chances are that they have just been in the thick of things guarding our frontiers. Their ability to wield a deadly gun and the elegant ceremonial staff with equal felicity is fascinating. Years of arduous training have prepared them for this day, when not only their bravery and courage are tested on battlefields but also their discipline and stride on parade grounds.

Numerous traditions abound in a place as steeped in history as the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The change of guard is one of them. The importance of these traditions is sometimes obvious.

Armies throughout history have been carrying out ceremonial parades and drills. These elaborate and coordinated movements were designed to mimic tactical manoeuvres on the battlefield and encourage discipline and unity among the troops. But there is also another importance attached to these events that is less obvious. These ceremonies are not just meant to be performed but also watched. They create an unseen bond between the actors and the audience. It is a reaffirmation of ties that bind us in the fabric of society.

The ceremony will remind us that change is inevitable but is also to be celebrated. On Saturday, as the old guards depart with fond memories of their time in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, a new set will take over, ushering in a fresh spirit of hope and expectation. It will only be a matter of three more years when the new become the old and this cycle continues, as always.

(Head Quarters is an occasional column on the story of the Rashtrapati Bhavan)

Praveen Siddharth is Private Secretary to the President of India at Rashtrapati Bhavan

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Published on November 27, 2020
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