Mohammad Shakir and Mohammad Shahid are dressed identically in white. Shakir is a tad taller and quieter while Shahid is younger and smiles widely. For the past decade the two have been waking up at 3am every day to report for duty on the dome of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. As the sun comes up sleepily―a pale shade of orange over the Yamuna beyond the India Gate and the National Stadium―the two hoist the tricolour. They are the keepers of the president’s tricolour.
In the evening, as the sun dips into the horizon beyond the thickly wooded ridge, they take down the flag. Accompanied by two buglers, who have to ensure that they sound the instrument to coordinate with the hoisting and the lowering of the flag, this ceremony is the centre of their lives. “I feel very proud,’’ says Shahid with a wide grin. “I have to hoist the flag of the president of India. Of course, this is special.”
The timing of the hoisting and the lowering of the flag is decided by the deputy military secretary to the president. “The schedule is sent to us at the beginning of the year,’’ says Captain Prashant Singh, comptroller, President’s Household.
In the event of a national tragedy, when the flag has to be flown at half mast, the timing is particularly important. “The boys have to be summoned immediately,’’ says Singh. They then climb up and lower the flag. The other buildings have to synchronise the lowering of their flags with the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
There is another protocol as well. The flag flies on top of the dome only when the president is in the capital. If he is travelling, the dome will be flag-less. "The tricolour is then hoisted when his plane touches down to signal that he is in Delhi,'' says Singh. “When his plane takes off, the flag is lowered." Presidents have had their own flags to decorate Lutyens' majestic dome until President V.V. Giri decided that the tricolour would be the president's flag.
The tallest flag in the capital, perched right on top of the twin-coloured dome, is huge. Spun out of khadi, it comes from a shop in the Paranthe Wali Gali in Chandni Chowk. The flag is 15 feet by 10 feet, the proportions of a room. Hoisting and lowering the flag on the dome, especially during the monsoon, are far from easy.
Both Shahid and Shakir grew up in the closeted world of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Their grandfathers worked for the British and now they spend their lives keeping alive the symbol of independent India. “On an average, the flag has to be changed every month,’’ says Shakir. The velocity of the wind often causes the flag to tear. While small rips can be mended, the flag is not repaired more than once.
At night, the flag is folded and kept on a stand. If it is too damaged to be used, it is still preserved carefully. Maintained with great love, the Rashtrapati Bhavan has countless flags dating back to the British Raj tucked away in the store. “We respectfully keep all the flags,’’ says Singh.
The two are on duty throughout the year. Shahid, who has been doing this for nine years, even dreams in tricolour. “Sometimes, I even hoist the flag in my dreams. My nightmare is about getting late,’’ he says, and adds that they have a truncated sleep because of the fear. And often they end up rising earlier than needed. “I was once here at 3am because my alarm went off early,’’ says Shahid.