It was a regular Saturday afternoon in Budh Vihar, a busy area in India’s national capital of New Delhi. As the heat mounted, a local marketplace saw both shopkeepers and shoppers going about their usual business. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
That is, until almost out of nowhere, a man who had been quietly waiting at a street corner, emerged with a knife.
This man, a matrimonial consultant later identified as Harish Mehta, was waiting for his wife who worked as a doctor at Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital. At first, onlookers noticed the pair arguing, with the man persistently asking his wife to come home, despite her insistence that she wasn’t going to return. But suddenly, Mehta whipped out his knife and horrifically stabbed his wife at least 26 times in broad daylight, as passers-by merely watched from the sidelines, many of them even recording videos of the horror unfolding in front of them.
As these videos went viral like gruesome videos often do in India, so did the crippling realisation that despite the man being surrounded by a crowd, no one stepped up to help the victim. Some just casually walked by, choosing to ignore a woman being murdered. While the video does show some onlookers trying to intervene, they look immediately intimidated by the knife-wielding murderer, then choosing to stay out of the situation and continue gaping.
Eventually the police showed up and arrested the killer, but by then, Mehta’s crime was complete. Bystanders reported feelings of heavy trauma, guilt and regret, but continued to feel they were helpless in the face of an armed man. This wasn’t even the first time something like this had happened in the world’s second most populous country.
Two separate incidents that took place in April 2018 echoed a similar pattern: In Bihar, a group of men molested a minor girl in the midst of a crowd, while in another incident, a man molested a disabled woman as she tried to board a crowded local train. There have also been similar instances over the last couple of decades where accident victims have been left to die as onlookers recorded them, some in which authorities even admitted that the victims could’ve been saved had someone intervened in the nick of time.
But in a country where mobs take on couples for publicly displaying their affections or minorities they suspect are smuggling cows, the outrage around the recent tragedy begs a simple question: Why did nobody try to stop the murderer who was clearly outnumbered?
The apathy and helplessness that usually surround these horrific incidents, especially in the case of accidents, is explained by some as the fear of being implicated in the crime. But there’s another explanation for why Indians don’t intervene in the face of violent and life-threatening situations: the bystander effect.
Bystander effect or bystander apathy is a phenomenon where individuals at a crime scene are less likely to offer help to a victim if they see crowds of people present at the scene. The term was coined in a study by social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley in 1964, after a woman named Kitty Genoveses was brutally stabbed over and over outside her apartment, and none of her neighbours came to her aid.
“But while the bystander effect is not new, it’s concerning that it is part of the Indian psyche,” Harish Shetty, a Mumbai-based psychiatrist who has been working closely with non-profits to help people overcome the bystander effect, told VICE. The bystander effect is often seen as a diffusion of responsibility, where each onlooker feels it is the responsibility of another onlooker to intervene. But, in reality, it’s also a form of secondary trauma.
“Bystander syndrome arrests an individual's ability to engage with the distress happening in front of them,” Devika Kapoor, a counselling psychologist told VICE. “A person in trauma will go through something called the freeze response, where the brain goes into a cognitive arrest due to the incident being so out of the ordinary. It’s a result of your system going into survival mode in the face of a perceived threat.” In India though, this seems more pronounced because of our cultural conditioning. We’re often told to mind our own business as young kids, Kapoor says, and not ask questions. This then carries into our adult lives too, where we choose to isolate ourselves from situations that don’t concern us.
“Indians face death continuously, whether it’s a train accident, suicide, house collapse or illness,” said Shetty, explaining why Indians are more likely to fall prey to the bystander effect. “India is in the middle of a chronic disaster syndrome (long term stress which makes people live their life waiting for an impending disaster), and access to the internet and mobile phones have made people even more disconnected from each other.” Shetty believes that the lack of empathy and sense of increased apathy can be attributed to self-centred instincts that make the individual put themselves before others. “So events, like this stabbing, end up becoming voyeuristic, with the focus shifting to reporting the incident instead of actively responding to it.”
But this is not just about Indians choosing to not take action. This is also about the system they’re placed in—a system with a cripplingly slow and expensive legal process that can upend anyone’s life if stuck in it. In a country where resources are few and people too many, most get stuck in the rut of simply getting their basic needs fulfilled. To then actively place yourself in a situation where you might get involved in a police or court matter—which means parting with time, money, energy and possibly your mental health on something just because you helped out someone who needed emergency help–is a luxury most can’t afford.
There have been steps taken by the government to combat this hurdle, even if there’s not enough awareness about them. In 2017, the state of Karnataka became the first in the country to approve the Good Samaritan law to protect a bystander’s anonymity, involvement and prevent any civil or criminal action against them. In 2016, the Supreme Court passed the Force of Law ruling, essentially protecting all those who helped road accident victims. But experts continue to argue that while these laws protect onlookers in the case of accidents, they are not as effective in cases of assault. “People are worried about taking an interest in such violent affairs over fear of reprisal of the law,” stressed Shetty. “They may feel there is no empathy in the system and they could be implicated for trying to help out.”
The fact of the matter is that in India, research suggests that bystanders are less likely to help, unless they are protecting someone close to them, have the required strength or skill, or feel a positive sense of responsibility to the community as a whole. But that doesn’t mean they can’t change.
“Even if you’re not willing to engage, at least draw attention to the scene,” said Kapoor, adding that bystanders should ideally team up together, even if they don’t know each other, to take on a criminal in plain sight. For others, the answer lies in conditioning and awareness that starts at an early age.
“Always tell children to share things, separate other children when they see them fighting, and report such instances to their teacher. This teaches them to respond to injustice from early on,” said Shetty, who does empathy training campaigns with schools across the country. “By helping children look beyond themselves and connect with the larger world, you are building an automatic cognitive response for how to react to future situations. It’s how fire or disaster drills wire people to respond in the face of disaster.”