From a nation which is sometimes afraid to embrace the multiplicity of identities, comes a story of an Adivasi Christian soldier who embraced India at the cost of his own life.
Future history books must tell the tale of Lance Naik Albert Ekka and his heroics in Gangasagar in modern-day Bangladesh during the 1971 war (Bangladesh Liberation War) against Pakistan. He was posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chaka, India’s highest gallantry award, for his heroics.
Albert was born on December 27, 1942, into an Oraon Christian family in Zari village, modern-day Jharkhand. Growing up hunting with his bow and arrow, he developed a natural flair for sports.
At the age of 20, he enlisted into the Bihar Regiment. In 1968, however, he was transferred to the 14 Guards, which initially undertook counterinsurgency operations in the Northeast, but with the dawn of the 1971 war, was launched into battle in erstwhile East Pakistan (Bangladesh).
On December 3, 1971, the young battalion was directed to capture the Pakistani stronghold of Gangasagar in erstwhile East Pakistan, which was just 6.5 kilometres west of Agartala, the capital of modern-day Tripura.
Capturing the Pakistani stronghold of Gangasagar was critical for the advancement of Indian forces towards Akhaura, another town of great strategic importance in Bangladesh. The subsequent victory in Akhaura would ease the road ahead for Indian forces in their march towards Dhaka.
On the morning of December 3, 1971, two companies of the 14 Corps launched an assault on the Gangasagar railway station, while the other two undertook operations capturing other parts of this town. For the two companies leading the assault on the railway station, the task ahead was rife with danger and obstacles.
“The main (enemy) defences were based on the high ground around the railway station and the built-up area. The surrounding marshy area and the few remaining areas were heavily mined with anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. The main defences were also extensively wired,” writes Colonel V Ganapathy, a senior fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS).
Nearly 100 yards away from Pakistani defences, the Indian troops came under heavy firing from automatic machine guns. Despite the death toll and injuries resulting from machine gun fire, mines and wires, the remaining Indian forces propelled themselves further and were eventually locked in hand-to-hand combat with opposing Pakistani forces.
During the battle, Lance Naik Albert noticed that a Pakistani light machine-gun was inflicting serious damage on the Indian forces. What followed is captured in detail by Param Vir Chakra citation for Lance Naik Albert Ekka posted on the Official Indian Army website.
“With complete disregard for his personal safety, he charged the enemy bunker, bayoneted two enemy soldiers and silenced the LMG. Though seriously wounded in this encounter, he continued to fight alongside his comrades through the mile-deep objective, clearing bunker after bunker with undaunted courage.
Towards the northern end of the objective, one enemy medium machine-gun (MMG) opened up from the second storey of a well-fortified building inflicting heavy casualties and holding up the attack. Once again, this gallant soldier, without a thought for his personal safety, despite his serious injury and the heavy volume of enemy fire, crawled forward till he reached the building and lobbed a grenade into the bunker killing one enemy soldier and injuring the other.
The MMG, however, continued to fire. With outstanding courage and determination, Lance Naik Albert Ekka scaled a side wall and entering the bunker, bayoneted the enemy soldier who was still firing and thus silenced the machine-gun, saving further casualties to his company and ensuring the success of the attack.”
When taking down the first LMG, he was seriously wounded in the stomach, and it is only his courage and irrepressible sense of duty that took him over the line.
In fact, he refused an evacuation attempt because he felt that he had to take down the MMG before it slaughtered more Indian soldiers.
Sadly, he would succumb to these injuries after his comrades in arms achieved their objective and took control of Gangasagar from the Pakistani forces.
“In this action, Lance Naik Albert Ekka displayed the most conspicuous valour and determination and made the supreme sacrifice in the best traditions of the Army,” writes Colonel V Ganapathy.
Thanks to the actions of Lance Naik Albert and his comrades, any advance of Pakistani forces towards Agartala, a major hub for Bangladesh liberation operations, was stopped. In other words, Ekka and his comrades saved the city from Pakistani forces.
Besides being posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra, the Indian government issued a postal stamp in his memory during the 50th Republic Day in 2000.
His home state of Jharkhand has also honoured him by naming a major road intersection in Ranchi after him. In fact, the State government took the further step of naming an entire block after him in Gumla district. Even Bangladesh awarded Albert with the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ for his sacrifice in their battle for Independence.
Earlier this week, the city of Agartala, for which Albert committed the ultimate sacrifice, finally recognised his efforts. On Tuesday, the Tripura government inaugurated a public park in his name.
“The park is developed over two hectares of land. Tripura’s traditional customs, history, tribals’ life and culture have been showcased while a statue of Lance Naik Ekka is being erected to attract students, youths, historians and others,” Agartala Mayor Prafulla Jit Sinha told IANS.
It’s only fitting that the remains of Albert Ekka and ten other soldiers of the Indian Army are buried at the Sripalli village in Dukli, 15 km south of Agartala. Without the sacrifice of Albert and his comrades, history may have taken a very different turn.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)