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The importance of building trust

Greyhounds personnel of A.P. Police during a combing operation at Jerrela, an interior tribal village in Visakhapatnam district. File   | Photo Credit: C.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

The district of Visakhapatnam, and especially the Andhra Pradesh-Odisha border region, is densely forested and filled with water bodies. As a result, it is a difficult one to traverse. There is no access to these areas; only long treks can get you there. There is no cell phone connectivity in most parts of the 11 Adivasi mandals of the district. Malaria is a common disease in these areas and getting drinking water is a big challenge. Without gaining the trust of the Adivasis, a journalist covering the Maoist problem in the region can not only get lost easily in the jungle but also fall sick.

The Adivasis, who are often caught between the police and the Maoists, are naturally suspicious of questions and conversations. They wonder whether people who want to interview them are actually officers from the Intelligence Wing of the police who have come to gather information about the ‘Annas’ (elder brothers, as the Maoists are called), or are Maoists who have come to recruit them. If journalists pose questions, they pose as many in return. They only open up once they are satisfied that the journalist is neither a police officer nor a Maoist.

Also read | Maoists fast running out of friends in AOB stronghold

Some years ago, during a visit to Ramaguda, the photographer and I did not do our homework of networking with local reporters. We were covering a fact-finding mission of the Human Rights Forum after an encounter between the elite anti-Naxal force of Andhra Pradesh, the Greyhounds, and the Maoists. The encounter took place on October 24, 2016 at Ramaguda, a remote village. More than 30 Maoists, including some top leaders, were killed in the incident.

We visited the site about four days after the encounter. We travelled till a village called Beijingi in a vehicle after which we set out on foot to the site. We made our way through the forest for two hours until we finally came across a man carrying firewood. We asked him about the encounter site. He did not understand our tongue and we did not comprehend his. But he understood our query from our gestures. He looked at us suspiciously and then gave us some directions.

We learnt over the next couple of hours how unprepared we were. The man who had sized us up had directed us the wrong way. We wandered about aimlessly in the heat until we reached an Adivasi hamlet. We were exhausted. We sat down in the village square and asked for some water, though we had brought bottles of water with us. Past experience had taught us that there is no better way of gaining the confidence of the Adivasis than sitting cross-legged on the porch of their homes, requesting them for some water and food, and chatting for a while.

We finally got our bearings right, but only after trekking for about 10 km in the wrong direction. Though the 15-km distance from Beijingi to Ramaguda that day stretched to 25 km, we reached the spot and completed our work. But we learnt an important lesson that day: always reach villages a day earlier if you’re on an assignment, interact a lot with the locals, and build trust. Only trust can yield good reports. And only through trust can you avoid getting lost in difficult, unfamiliar terrain.

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Printable version | Oct 24, 2020 5:24:08 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-importance-of-building-trust/article32864812.ece

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