The unsung heroes

By Pradip Kumar Dutta

Out of despair, Pakistan has termed it the “fall of Dhaka.” Till date, they do not recognise that due to their mischievous policies and attempts to subdue the Bangalees of their eastern wing by clamping upon them a horrendous genocide on March 25, 1971, they compelled the Bengali nation to wage a war of independence, which they won with the help and support of their friendly neighbour India.

On December 16, the eastern command of the Pakistani army, along with the Pakistani power machinery in occupied Bangladesh, was bound to accept a public surrender. At 4:30 pm, the commander of the Pak army, Lt Gen AAK Niazi, surrendered to Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora, who had successfully commandeered the joint forces of Bangladesh and India into Dhaka. The great war of liberation, led by the provisional government of Bangladesh and its Mukti Bahini, was crowned with success. The people's war, participated in by Bangladeshi members of the Pakistani armed forces, the paramilitary, and the police, was fought together with people from all walks of life; there were students, peasants, workers, and youth of all denominations among the freedom fighters.

With minimal training in makeshift camps and with whatever arms they could lay their hands on, the Muki Bahini fought tooth and nail and softened the backbone of the Pak army and their collaborators. The Pakistanis were exhausted, and their morale was at its lowest. They tried their best to maintain the status quo by achieving a ceasefire with the help of the UN and their Western allies. Active and well-crafted diplomacy ensured that the Bangladesh government could wrap up all military operations and achieve independence before a ceasefire became mandatory.

Though it was a nine-month-long war for the liberation of Bangladesh, supported in all possible ways by India, our friendly neighbours deliberately kept a distance from direct frontal military engagement. By the end of November 1971, it was evident that the genocidal activities to compel the Bangalees to come to terms with Pakistan were a total failure, and losing the war was a matter of time. The Pakistanis wanted to get India directly involved in the war and thus achieve a ceasefire, focusing the military conflict as a war between India and Pakistan. So they launched Operation Chengiz Khan on the western border between the two countries on December 3.

The Pakistan Air Force bombed six air bases (somewhere deep inside Indian territory), and their army ventured into the Indian territories of Punjab and Gujrat. India was now directly involved in the war. Pakistan’s desperate ventures on the western front were foiled. In the east, a joint command of Bangladesh and Indian forces was formed. 

The GOC in C of Indian eastern command at Fort Williams, Gen. Aurora, was entrusted with the responsibilities of commanding the joint forces. Such a situation was anticipated, and both the Bangladeshi and Indian governments were prepared to face all odds. The Mukti Bahini had already been engaged in the war since the declaration of independence in March. Indian military formations were moved to suitable positions, ready for combat. It was already known where the Pakistani military buildup was of what strength.

Gangasagar is a railway station close to the Indian border of Tripura. It is a few kilometres south of the Akhaura railway junction in Bangladesh and is within shelling distance of the Tripura capital, Agartala. The Pakistani army was maintaining a considerably strong contingent in Gangasagar. Their position was heavily fortified. India, anticipating an attack on Agartala from this Pakistani base, decided to execute a preemptive attack on Gangasagar.

Here is where our hero, Albert Ekka, comes into the picture.

Albert was born in present-day Jharkhand. His family was Adivasi Christian. Adivasis love hunting, and, from his very childhood, Albert had been an avid hunter. Growing up, he developed an interest in joining the army. In 1962, he joined the Bihar Regiment. His unit, the 14th Guards, was deployed on the Bangladeshi borders as part of the Indian 4th Corps towards the end of 1971. They were tasked with saving Agartala. On December 3, they marched into Bangladesh and attacked Gangasagar.

Albert was, by that time, promoted to the post of Lance Naik, following which he went off to the front with his unit. Pakistani soldiers were in well-built bunkers, consequently in an advantageous position. Incessant firing commenced from the enemy bunkers to stop the advancement of the 14th Guards. There were casualties on both sides, but Albert Ekka and his comrades crawled forward while returning the enemy fire. From one of the enemy bunkers, a LMG was causing heavy damage to the Indians, and it had to be silenced.

With eleven other boys of the 14th Guards, they all laid down their lives in the battle. Their bodies were carried across the border, and the last rites were performed in a place near the ONGC campus, a few kilometres south of Agartala in the Dukli area. The area was fallow, undulating land covered with shrubs and wild growth suitable for tillas. It was sparsely populated. Still, there are some elderly people who were eyewitnesses to the happenings of December 4. Nine of the 12 men were Hindus, and they were cremated according to Hindu rites. Three, including Albert Ekka, were Christians. So, they were buried in the hilly land.

On December 16, when ultimate victory was achieved, the people within the locality constructed a modest memorial in honour of the fallen heroes beside the lane leading to the cremation/burial place. It can still be seen at the same place, near the Dukli branch of the State Bank of India, quietly singing the glory of Albert Ekka and his comrades, who made the ultimate sacrifice for India and for helping Bangladesh win its independence.

For his valiant heroism in Gangasagar, Albert Ekka was awarded the Param Veer Chakra, the highest military gallantry award in India. In Agartala,where some people regard him as the saviour of the city from an imminent Pakistani military attack, a large, decorated park has been named after him. In his native Jharkhand, Albert Ekka Chowk and several roads and establishments are named after him. The Indian postal department even released a stamp in his memory.

Bangladesh has so far honoured about 2,000 Indian armed forces men who laid down their lives to liberate Bangladesh alongside Bangladeshi Mukti Bahini. Albert Ekka is one of them. Unfortunately, after the war was over, we failed to keep track of the actual location of the last rites of Albert Ekka and the other martyrs. With the development of the state capital, Dukli also started changing. The barren land became populated in the last fifty-plus years. No one seemed to know the exact location of the cremation or burial.

Recently, Indian authorities took up an initiative to find out the exact location and sought the assistance of veteran Agartala journo Manas Paul. Manas Da had been to the place once, several years ago, when Albert Ekka's widowed wife and his son came to visit Agartala. They were taken to Dukli, and Manas Da was accompanying the team.

As my good luck would have it, I was in Agartala for a few days last week. Manas Da has been the editor of Tripura Times and online media for many years now. To my pleasant surprise, I found that we were not going to his office or a coffee shop. He announced that we were going to Dukli for the purpose of finding the exact place of the eternal rest of Albert Ekka and his shaheed colleagues, for which some government officials have requested Manas Da's help.

I considered myself fortunate.

When we reached the spot, Manas Da and the Indian officers immediately embarked on their mission. Initially, people seemed to be tight-lipped. There was one Das, a prominent figure in the locality, who was an eyewitness to the last rites. Manas Da vaguely remembered him from his previous visit and investigative journalism. We found out that Das had expired in the recent past, but his wife was living nearby. She was newlywed in 1971 and was an eyewitness too.

At our request, someone from the locality went to her home and requested that she come and help us. In the meantime, the assembled local people understood that we had the good intent of locating the exact place of the last rites to show respect to the heroes. Now everyone has started cooperating. Mrs. Das came to the spot and pointed out the exact locations where the cremation and burials were done. The place has changed hands three times in the last 53 years. A semi-pucca dwelling stands at the exact place of burial. The cremation ground, hardly 20 metres away, is still open.

The Indian government officer deputed for the job said that they were planning some events for December 16, Bangladesh’s Victory Day. One of the items on the agenda is to organise a cycle rally from Agartala to Dukli to lay floral wreaths at the exact place of burial or cremation. The local people requested that they chalk out a plan for some cultural events to commemorate the heroism of Albert Ekka and his comrades.

Long live Victory Day.

Long live Bangladesh-India friendship.

And to Albert Ekka: Jugg jugg jeeyo.

Courtesy: Dhaka Tribune