A peek into PBG

President’s bodyguard a part of Republic Day Ceremony.

Devasis Chattopadhyay
During every Republic Day celebration on New Delhi’s Rajpath, a group of finest horsemen attired in exquisite red coats, elegant golden sashes, and magnificent turbans accompany the President of India to the stage and give the order for the national anthem to begin. They are called the President’s Bodyguard (PBG) – the elite and senior-most household cavalry regiment of the Indian Army. There are some very interesting stories from the pages of history available about the PBG which would remind us not to meddle with our legacy of plurality and unity in diversity.
Most people don’t know that this regiment officially and proudly traces its roots and history in the Governor-General’s Bodyguard (GGBG) raised by Governor-General Warren Hastings of the British East India company (EIC) in Kolkata in 1773. While forming the GGBG in September 1773 Warren Hastings had handpicked 50 troopers from the Mughal Horse, a unit which was raised in 1760 by the local sardars of the then Bengal Presidency loyal to the EIC after the victory of the English in the Battle of Plassey over Nawab of Bengal Siraj-ud -Daulah and his French allies on 23 June 1757. Later, Raja Cheyt Singh of Varanasi provided another 50 horsemen that took the strength of the unit to 100.
The unit saw immediate action after its formation when it was deployed against the Sanyasis while they started a rebellion in Bengal in 1773. A reminder of this rebellion is in the Bengali novel Anandamath, written by India’s first modern novelist Bankim Chandra Chatterjee at a later date. Song – Vande Mataram – is a part of this book.
The next campaign of GGBG was against the Rohillas in April 1774. The GGBG was also present during the 3rd Mysore War against Tipu Sultan in between 1790 and 1792. In 1843, during the battle for the succession that erupted in Gwalior after the death of Maharaja Jankojirao Scindia, GGBG took an active part to achieve settlement. Internationally, the unit had taken part in various military conflicts including in World War I and II.
With our independence came the partition of the nation. It also divided the armed forces in a 2:1 ratio between India and Pakistan. GGBG was no exception. The Muslim members of the unit went to Pakistan, and Sikhs, Jats, and Rajputs stayed with in the Indian Army. The title of the regiment remained GGBG till 26 January 1950, when India became a republic and the GGBG became the President’s Bodyguard – in short – PBG.
After the division of other assets of the regiment, when it came to the gold-plated buggy of the British Viceroy, which was a part of this unit’s assets, both India and Pakistan wanted it. To decide the fate of the buggy, both sides tossed a coin and India got the buggy. The President of India uses the buggy during ceremonial occasions even now. The current Indian President Ram Nath Kovind took the historic buggy ride from the Rashtrapati Bhavan to the Parliament House for his oath-taking ceremony, as did his predecessor Pranab Mukherjee during his oath-taking ceremony. And both the Presidents used this buggy to attend the Republic Day parade as well.
South Kolkata’s Ballygunge Military Camp opposite to the St. Lawrence High School on the posh Ballygunge Circular Road was created as a permanent home of the GGBG servicemen and their horses in the early 19th century.
And, after a permanent cantonment was made for the elite army unit, the Calcutta Gazette, one of the first newspapers in India published form Kolkata, reported in 1802, that ‘Antoine De L’Etang was appointed as the veterinary surgeon to the Bodyguard of the Governor-General of Bengal, a cavalry regiment of the British Indian Army’. The authorities created this position for the first time in the history of the Indian Military. Initially, he was in employment with the GGBG till 1806. Eminent narrative history writers, from Evan Cotton to William Dalrymple, have mentioned De L’Etang (1757-1840) – the Page of Honour to Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) – the last queen of France and wife of Louis XVI before the French Revolution, in their respective essays.
In the Palace of Versailles, where his father served, Antoine De L’Etang had his first employment in 1770 as a Page of Honour to Marie Antoinette, the would-be-queen, on her arrival at the Palace. De L’Etang, then a boy of 13 and two-years junior in age to Marie Antoinette, fell in love with her. This story of adolescent love was not found improbable by many writers. It was because De L’Etang was openly devoted to his Royal mistress, and his conduct was such that over time gossip reached the ears of King Louis XVI, who was already overwhelmed because of the Hans Axel von Fersen affair.
Antoine De L’Etang, many writers including Marion Dell, the British researcher and author, said that this incident prompted De L’Etang to escape to India and upon reaching India he joined the French infantry to serve against the British East India Company. Later, he migrated to Kolkata along with his Anglo-French wife from Pondicherry and their children. After a few years in private business, he accepted the position of a veterinary surgeon at GGBG. After four years, in 1806, he left this job and went to Lucknow to work for the Nawab of Awadh as the Superintendent of the Nawab’s Stud, and a Veterinary Surgeon.
Finally, he returned to the services of the GGBG in 1816 in Kolkata once again as a Sub-Assistant to the Superintendent. They promoted him to the post of the Second Assistant in 1824, and as the First Assistant in November next year. We know from the Bengal Directory and Annual Register of 1838 that Chevalier Antoine De L’Etang was continuing in the same position as the First Assistant under Superintendent Major Mackenzie in the Stud Department, Buxar, Central Provinces. He held this position till he died on 1 December 1840 at the age of 84 and interred in the Buxar cemetery in Bihar bordering modern day eastern UP.
The famous British writer Virginia Woolf is Chevalier Antoine De L’Etang’s great-great- granddaughter. Very many popular 19th Century English families, with powerful women such as, Julia Margaret Cameron – the celebrated British Photographer and Anny Thackeray Ritchie – daughter of author William Makepeace Thackeray and herself an author are related to Chevalier Antoine De L’Etang.
This amazing history of the PBG, which will be 250 years old next year, in its truest military tradition, teaches us the importance of embracing plurality and unity in diversity while celebrating our Republic Day. (IPA)