Remembering a forgotten hero

All Albert Ekka wanted to do was make a living; instead, he made history. This was the single thought that kept running through my mind as I entered his small, humble home; the home of Shaheed Param Vir Albert Ekka, awarded the PVC by Government of India for his gallantry in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. On 3 December 1971, Lance Naik Albert Ekka of 14 Guards of Indian army accepted martyrdom while attacking the strongly built defence position of 12 Frontier Force Regiment of Pakistan army.

The writer with Ekka family at their home. Photo: Col Sajjad

Like millions of his countrymen, Ekka was a man of humble beginnings. He was born in the village of Jari, in the district of Gumla in Jharkhand (approximately 165 km from Ranchi City). Curious villagers walked by my side as I approached his home. His elderly widowed wife, Balamdine, hurriedly came out to greet me, leaning on her walking stick. By her side was her only son, Vincent, who was one year old when his father had joined the war for Bangladesh's independence in 1971. As we talked, Balamdine told me she had heard about Bangladesh and about Gangasagar, the place where Ekka was martyred. I showed her photographs of Gangasagar, the Pakistan defence positions and the location where he was killed. She touched the photographs gently, with deep affection and held them close to her chest. She cried softly, the tears trickling down her wrinkled cheeks. Her face wore a mournful look as she tried in vain to dry her face with the edge of her saree. In a quavering voice, she recalled that four or five days after Ekka's death, a group of soldiers had come to her house with the news. She remembered how they had consoled her by telling her how he was martyred for the cause of the nation and that his act of heroism had saved the lives of his unit soldiers.

Balamdine touched my hand gently. It was the first time she had ever seen a Bangladeshi. She held on to my hand, and Vincent held the other, as if we were connected at that moment, by a lifetime of bloodlines and memories. Finally, she broke the silence, curious to hear about Ekka's last battle and about Gangasagar. I quietly recounted the role of 14 Guards in the battles of Dholoi and Gangasagar and how bravely Ekka charged towards the enemy lines, destroying them from bunker to bunker. Despite being wounded, he continued to advance, until he was fatally wounded being hit by a bullet. I narrated everything that I had studied about the battles while Balamdine and Vincent listened being engrossed. They could not get enough. Finally Balamdine asked: “Did he put up a good show? Did he die well?”

Balamdine said that Ekka's death in Gangasagar made her want to see the place with her own eyes but her own poverty never made that possible. She ekes out a living on the monthly pension of Rs 5000 provided by the Indian Government. She also has five acres of land given to her family by the Government. Vincent's auto-rickshaw is out of order. I could only assure the “Veer Ramani” that if she desired, it would be my honor to arrange for her visit and take her to Gangasagar.

The writer showing photos of Ekka's battle field in Gangasagar. Photo: Col Sajjad

I wanted to know more about Ekka simply because this was the man who fearlessly laid down his life in the battlefield for the liberation of my country. A member of the Oraon (meaning Falcon) tribe, he joined the Bihar Regiment in the Indian Army on December 27, 1962 and later was transferred to the Guard Regiment. He was a man whose sense of duty and courage was unparalleled. He had a kind heart and took great pride in being an Oraon and a soldier; it was something he talked about all the time whenever he visited his family on leave. That Ekka took pride in coming from a tribe long known for its people's valour in battlefields should come as little surprise; the Oraon has a glorious tradition of bravery in battles in Rohtasgarh against the Aryans, in the battles of Choto Nagpur against the oppressive Zamindars and against the British Army as well. It was a legacy that Ekka carried with him till his death.

But ultimately, this soldier who fought and died for a cause greater than his own, was a father and a husband. While the memory of his sacrifice has dimmed with the passage of time, his absence is felt every day, and grieved by the ones who loved him the most. I can still see Balamdine weeping as she said, “I did not want him to die so young and make Vincent an orphan.”

It was time for me to leave. It was dark as the mother and son walked me to the car, but I could make out the deep sadness etched in their faces. I too felt a deep sorrow, as if I was leaving a part of my family behind, a tie forged by the blood and sacrifice of a man for a country that was to become my own. As we made our way back, I felt an urgency to stop near the statue of Ekka in the small town square of Chinpur. I stood there for a long time. It was as if Ekka was telling me, “wait with me for a while, when many others have stopped waiting for me.”

Forty years have passed since Ekka's death, yet barely any of us knew of him and others like him. In their untimely deaths, each soldier and civilian has asked for very little; may be they just expected to be remembered; may be they did not want their lives, hopes and their sacrifices to be erased with the passage of time. Their expectation, however, remained unfulfilled because of our inability to record that they lived and that their contributions mattered. For the living, this is the ultimate responsibility ? the task of documenting the struggles and sacrifices of these ordinary women, men and children ? and that task is far from being complete. It is a task we should embrace with humility, urgency and a profound sense of honor and gratitude.

It was my fortune to be able to visit the home of Param Vir Albert Ekka and pay my respects to his family. Their sacrifice and Ekka's unflinching sense of ultimate duty will be written in the history of my country's independence forever. I am proud to have taken part in the same war with Ekka, and having fought for the same cause. A cause we would all do well to remember and honour.

Written by Lt Col Sajjad.


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