Frankly, I’ve lost count of it.
Of the number of times I’ve travelled safely on a road that may have been mined; trekked without being disturbed by Maoist fighters only a shouting distance away; reported uninterrupted from a hamlet where ‘dada log’ (as Maoist fighters are referred to by the locals) are present and watching; or calmly left a site and later heard gunshots there.
I’ve even reported from a site where dead bodies of security personnel were stuffed with Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that mercifully did not go off.
In these scenarios, I believe, my identity as a journalist was known to all involved.
There is also another scenario in which you could lose your life, often in a case of mistaken identity.
There is one truth that stands taller than most when reporting from inside India’s Maoist heartland – you better be lucky, always.
And yet, there are rules one must respect.
At least I did and ensured my team followed them too.
What I will now say may sound ironic, especially in the light of killings witnessed yesterday in Bastar’s Dantewada district. However, I firmly believe a journalist’s identity, by default his integrity and impartiality, is still his biggest security.
I’ve been asked — why don’t you take security cover along when you travel in these areas?
My answer has always been — because I don’t need one.
Seldom has my work in these areas been disrupted or even as much as threatened. I am referring here to interference by villagers, the administration or the Maoists. If and when I did face a roadblock, I would deal with it as an independent entity.
Of course, being a faceless and, thus, a less accountable entity, I’ve maintained my distance with the Maoists as against the other two.
What does this mean when it comes to the nuts and bolts?
Well, it means being and acting thoroughly independent, the way it was supposed to be.
Whether concerning accommodation or arranging a vehicle, I’ve seen colleagues seeking assistance, sometimes even favours, from their contacts in the police or in the administration.
Like it or not, you are being watched. And those watching you won’t need to justify before concluding that you too are a party to the conflict.
Following work-related interactions, I’ve not hesitated in walking out from the relative security and comfort of a paramilitary camp and sleeping in a hut belonging to a local contact in a nearby village.
In my early days of covering the Maoist conflict, following persuasion from a friendly police officer, I did travel with him in his vehicle between two camps in West Bengal’s Lalgarh.
I was lucky that day.
Some of the other things I’ve learnt over the years include never moving around in a white coloured-car (lest it is mistaken for a government vehicle), pasting enough A4-sized papers with ‘PRESS’ written over them on your vehicle, walking with your mike and camera clearly visible and not falling for adventurism.
I cannot end this piece without addressing the elephant in the room — the responsibility of media organisations.
If you are a journalist, when was the last time you were taught about how to conduct yourself in a conflict zone? Before you were asked to take the first flight into a story, did you or anyone else make an assessment made of the risks involved? Did you find out or were you briefed about measures to take in case anyone got hurt?
If you are an editor, did you prefer an amazing story or an interview over the safety and security of your crew? Did you pull your reporter up for not going into harm’s way and getting you ‘exclusive’ visuals?
Many may, understandably so, turn defensive upon reading this. However, when else will we prioritise the safety of our journalists if not now!
I’ve worked with many editors whose sense of responsibility and sensitivity when it comes to the safety of their crew is anything but encouraging.
For those trapped in this cycle of violence, the ruthlessness of the Maoist insurgency is an unfortunate way of life. As a journalist, study it, respect it.
For those who look at it merely as a piece of ‘prime time news’ and an opportunity for comical debates, keep your distance.
ALSO READ: https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/elections/chhattisgarh/story/20140505-chintalnar-chhattisgarh-lok-sabha-polls-2014-802497-1999-11-30