On a warm summer morning, in the 1990s, a young girl was cycling back home from her school, barely three kilometers away. As she got close to home, she was groped by two couple young men on a bike. The girl, about 15 years old, got off her bicycle in shock. The men too stopped, came up to her and held her tight, groping her all the while, as she screamed and cried in full public view, on the main 10th Avenue Road close to Ashok Pillar, a busy and traffic-heavy junction in Chennai.
A crowd gathered around her — about 10 to 12 people, many familiar faces that she had seen while growing up in the area — the coffee powder shop ‘uncle’, the ‘pookkari’ (flower seller) whom she bought flowers from everyday, a number of watchmen in the various residential complexes in the area. All of these people knew her and could see she was in trouble, but no one helped.
Finally, the young men, seeing that a crowd had gathered, released her and sped off. She went home, sobbing uncontrollably, violated and worse, disillusioned that none of those she knew since she was a child had lifted a finger or raised their voice to help her.
This is one incident in the life of this reporter and doubtless, similar to those faced by many young women in India. Young Swathi, the IT professional, who was murdered in broad daylight at the Nungambakkam railway station, also experienced a similar situation. Except she died. Simply because no one came to help. Everyone simply stood by, watching for two hours.
The experts have a name for this phenomenon — they call it bystander apathy. Astonishingly, research shows that more the number of people who are witness to a crime like Swathi’s brutal murder, the less the victim’s chances are of getting help.
“This is a phenomenon called ‘diffusion of responsibility’,” explained Dr Lakshmi Vijaykumar, mental health expert who works with the World Health Organisation. “In a crowd, everyone looks to the other person to see if they will act first. It is a syndrome of — I don’t want to get into trouble by acting first. If there is only one witness to a crime, the chances of that witness acting and actually helping the victim are much higher,” she said.
Research into bystander apathy began in the 1960s, following public outrage over the sensational murder of 29-year-old Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York in 1964. Newspaper reports at the time wrote about how there were 38 witnesses to the brutal murder in full public view, but that none of the 38 neighbours bothered to call the police or help Genovese in any way. Although the claims of so many witnesses were subsequently proved false, this bystander apathy stirred up the American public enough to prompt research into this syndrome, also known as the Genovese Syndrome.
“When you are a witness, you first need to feel responsible in order to take action,” explained Vijaykumar. “What determines responsibility? First you have to feel that the person needs my help. Secondly you have to feel a competence to help. If you have never seen a murder take place or do not have any knowledge of first aid, for instance, you will not feel confident or equipped to help.”
Vijaykumar also adds that the fear factor in cases such as Swathi’s murder could dampen chances of any help being offered to the victim. “You know the killer has a sickle; he is armed. So even though you may want to help, fear will arrest that feeling,” she said.
But what explains the fact that Swathi’s bleeding form lay on the platform for two hours, with no one going to aid, despite the killer running away after the attack? The answer, say experts, lies in more mundane issues — such as witnesses not wanting a tangle with the police, who can make life difficult for them.
“In order for the bystander apathy to be eradicated, two agencies namely the legal system and police force need to develop a checklist that is comforting to bystanders so that they would be willing to help out in times of public danger,” said Saras Bhaskar, a prominent psychologist in Chennai.
“The causes for bystander apathy are multi-faceted. Always in a traumatic and unexpected homicide in a public place, the onlookers are absolutely stunned and in shock. However, by the time reality ticks in, which could take anywhere from 10 seconds to several minutes, they start deliberating whether to help or not. Police enquiries can be demanding, demeaning, time consuming and unprofessional. Hence with the check list, these agencies can organise awareness programs to ensure that witnesses will be handled diligently, expedite their enquiry process, and give assurances that no bribes will be taken,” she added.
Facilitating witnesses to come forward to help and give their accounts of the crime can be done by simplifying police procedures and introducing laws similar to the Good Samaritan laws in the US that protect witnesses of crimes and encourage them to speak up, say experts.
Another crucial move would be to impart the knowledge of first aid and how to react in emergency situations to youngsters right from the school level. “State government must make it compulsory for students right from school itself to learn first aid and basic self defence,” said mental health expert Lakshmi Vijaykumar. “There is no single remedy for bystander apathy. It is a socio-psychological problem and we can only bring about awareness about this,” she concluded.