At 7 pm, the Adarsh Nagar area of Chembur in Mumbai is choked with people. When a minor child was beaten by a man and had her nose broken in front of the crowd earlier this week, the throng watched in silence. It wasn’t a gang of hoods armed with weapons, it was one lout but no one interfered. The girl’s crime: She asked the man not to engage in loud arguments. So she was thrashed publicly.
Of course, the standard ho hum FIR was lodged and the police booked a case under IPC sections 324 (voluntarily causing hurt and non-bailable and yet this perpetrator was let out on bail) and 506 (criminal intimidation) and we could all now go home, having contributed our collective might to a new link in the inordinately long chain of public apathy or what is known as the bystander effect or the Genovese Effect after the 1964 murder in New York of Kitty Genovese, which no one raised a finger to stop.
In India, it has become endemic to do nothing and has been further accentuated by a vicarious glee in taking a video of the cruelty on display and hoping it can make some money or get 15 minutes of sour limelight from a TV station or even find a berth on a social media platform.
Interfering or stopping the violence is no longer an option. So if three Dalits are being beaten up for dancing at a garba or three Muslims thrashed for ostensibly eating beef or an African is assaulted because of racism, it is all family entertainment. We usually think: I was there, I watched it happen.
A man was hacked to death in Andhra Pradesh in 2016. Over 400 people watched silently. In Delhi, a woman was stabbed over 30 times in September last year by a jilted lover and a two to three deep circle of rubberneckers watched the bloodspill in silence.
During the demonetisation crisis, an elderly man had a heart attack in Kolkata outside an ATM. No one came to his rescue and he died even as he ‘starred’ in their last gasp mobile phone cams. A girl was molested in Guwahati in 2012 for all of thirty minutes and everyone watched. Every four minutes, a person becomes road kill in India. Many lives could have been saved if someone had stepped up.
Are we bad people who are selfish, do not care and have a he’s-not-my-brother attitude that marks us for what we are?
Maybe not, maybe we are victims of conditioning. From an early age, we are taught three lessons in life.
One, do not get involved, you will only land in trouble and you will not reach home for dinner and we have enough problems of our own. Since Indians generally live lives of quiet despair, this reluctance to be at a ‘safe’ distance is in our DNA.
By that very token, we are also taught not to trust the police because like Tracy Chapman sang, they cannot be trusted to come to your rescue if they come at all. Stories of individuals who had to pay for their sense of duty by doing the right thing only to be embroiled and harassed abound are the stuff of which legends are made. Pretty much ditto for the faith in the long-winded justice system and the security offered to a person who shows the courage to be a witness.
In the case of mobs and hoods and gangs, there also exists a belief that they are protected by the powers that be and will get away with murder. So, the people would rather just watch mayhem as it happens because who can go against mobs and gangs?
These two factors are wrapped in the banana leaf of kismet and karma and the deeply-seated belief that if it is written, shrug, shrug, what can we do. We may not be able to articulate this factor very well but it is so integral to our thinking that it might be by the introduction of schedenfreud or glee at another’s misery.
We have occasionally considered making the Good Samaritan law applicable, under which, if a witness does nothing to prevent a crime, he or she is liable for punishment. But it has never been implemented.
The elements that prevent us from coming forward are fear, cowardice, self-preservation and the inoculation offered by poverty and low social esteem.
Time to switch off the cameras and put out a helping hand instead.
Updated Date: Oct 22, 2017 14:05 PM