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Crime in Public – Why Do People Remain Apathetic?

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Crime in Public – Why Do People Remain Apathetic?

Recently, a young girl Sakshi was murdered in the Shahbad Dairy area of Delhi in full public view by stabbing repeatedly at 8:45 p.m. The crime was recorded on CCTV. The accused Sahil Khan, who had fled comfortably from the scene of the crime, was arrested shortly thereafter from Bulandshahar. He had stabbed the defenceless girl 34 times in 66 seconds (21 times according to some other reports), kicked her five times and smashed her head with a stone lying there six times. Several people had passed by in this one minute, and except for a feeble, vain attempt by one person, no one else did anything to intervene.

Reacting to this, India Today wrote, “But what is equally chilling is the indifference of the passers-by who didn’t intervene…The piercing question that is being asked is what has happened to ‘Dilwale ki Dilli’? Has the city become heartless?… Why did they do so? Did the incident take place during the wee hours? No, it was 8:45 pm. Were there too many attackers? No, just one. Were only a few people present? No, several people passed in and out of the CCTV frame, as Sahil mercilessly stabbed and bludgeoned the girl…The terrifying murder in a public space becomes even more alarming with people turning a blind eye to it.”

The Indian Express wrote, “A horrifying image that perhaps does capture the metanarrative is of apathetic and indifferent passers-by and the semblance of impunity reflected in the actions of the perpetrator as he appears unfazed by the fact that his violence has witnesses…What has the process of constant “authorisation” of either the victims, the perpetrators or even the spaces where violence takes place, achieved for us?”

There have been a large number of similar, emotionally charged reactions aiming to shake the conscience of the people. Somebody asked, “If there had been such a barbaric attack on their sister or daughter, would these people have gone on like this? They all are animals.” Many Twitterati appealed to people to act in such cases. Academician-type people described it as the normalisation of violence by the people in their quotidian lives or as the so-called Bystander Effect.

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Incidentally, a similar apathy was shown by the people when, this January, an arrested criminal stabbed Delhi police ASI Shambhu Dayal 13 times in 26 seconds.

In my considered opinion, all such outbursts, though well-meaning, are hopelessly, pathetically un-informed—those who take them seriously instead of trashing them, might land themselves in serious trouble. This article will educate you about all the possible consequences.

Let me analyse the possible consequences when a crime is being committed in public view and you, playing the role of a Good Samaritan, decide to intervene.

  • Answer me clearly, how exactly are you going to intervene? Let us not indulge in any whataboutery.
  • We can safely presume that you have never been in a physical fight before, not to speak of facing an opponent armed with a knife or rod, etc. or worse, a country-made or regular firearm.
  • Now, what would you do? Are you going to try some mythical martial arts moves with your bare hands or feet that you might have seen in some third-rate Bollywood movie? Take it from me, they shall not work.
  • In all probability, you will be seriously injured yourself. The injury could very well be fatal leaving your wife widowed and your kids orphaned.
  • Even if you are not stabbed in the abdomen at leisure as shown in the films, mere slashes on your throat (cutting the jugular vein), wrist or arm joint (the place from where they draw blood when taking blood samples); can be fatal from sheer blood loss. Rest assured that, in real life, it will take a long time for you to be taken to the hospital and you would be declared dead on arrival.
  • It does not require a Rambo-style commando knife or the Rampuri knife, the staple of Bollywood to kill someone. Experienced knife fighters or persons trained in real-life combat know that good kitchen knives with serrated blades are absolutely excellent for slashing, though not for stabbing.
  • Someone could hit you on the head with a heavy object and that is the end of it. I have seen people dying from falls in the bathrooms and from their heads being banged against a wall in an altercation.
  • Please ask any fool who advises or appeals to ordinary people to intervene in such situations, as to what are the secret techniques by which you may ‘dissuade’ the frenzied assailant to drop his weapon and walk away! 

Suppose, by sheer chance, you are able to muster some implement to fight before you intervene. The following scenarios are likely.

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  • The only effective implement is a long bamboo lathi with some weight in it because it gives you the vital standoff distance to save yourself.
  • You are not likely to find such lathi readily in an urban situation, though you might find in a rural area.
  • I do not think that you would have any idea of fighting with a lathi of any description. Without training, you are most likely to use it in the most natural way, that is, an overhead strike with both hands.
  • An overhead strike on the head can easily fracture the skull and be fatal for the recipient.
  • Alternatively, if you have found some iron implement, such as a rod, pipe, wrench or hammer, you will be obliged to go nearer. That would increase your chances of being injured or killed. However, if you manage a strike with a metal object somehow, it could easily kill the man.
  • A good side-on strike on the head with a folding metal chair can also be fatal. In WWE wrestling, they take great care to hit with the broad seat of the chairs to avoid serious injury.  
  • If you have found only ineffective implements, such as rolling pins from the kitchen, flower vases or the like, consider yourself seriously injured or dead.

Now, I will analyse the likely scenarios if you manage to ‘save the victim from being murdered’ or ‘break off a fight proper’ but injure or kill the assailant or one of the parties in the process.

  • Rest assured that you will spend the next five-six years of your life running to the police and the courts.
  • Are you prepared for that?
  • Remember, if you are an employee, leave is not a matter of right. It may be denied to you when you have a date in the court. You may be in trouble in your job or worse, with the court.
  • If you have a business of your own or are self-employed, you will have to lose the earning or income for the day.
  • Depending on your economic condition, frequent visits to court may cost you dearly.
  • And, do not forget the tremendous mental stress that accompanies visits to the hospitals, police, and the courts.   
  • The injured or dead person’s side will invariably claim that you had no business intervening and that you had used disproportionate and excessive force, or that you actually had some old grudge to settle and you took advantage of the situation.
  • Rest assured that it is extremely difficult to prove in court that the force that you used was ‘reasonable’ on a Golden Scale and that your exercise of the right of private defence was exactly in conformity with the elaborate conditions laid down in the Darshan Singh judgment.
  • In all probability, you will go bankrupt in hiring good lawyers just to prove that—your children will starve in the process, your parents might die for want of medical attention and your grown-up daughter might have to forget her marriage.
  • And, please remember, things could be worse. For example, in Sakshi’s case, the assailant was a Muslim and the victim a Hindu. Had some Hindus intervened, overpowered the assailant or killed him in the process, it could be very easily alleged that he was killed with a communal motive and that it was therefore a case of communal mob lynching!
  • It is also quite possible that the victim you saved might not support you later in court—it is also possible that they could be terrorised into dropping the matter or forced into a compromise, leaving you in the lurch.
  • I am personally aware of a shameful incident. In a residential colony in Delhi, a middle-aged woman was walking her dog at night in the park. Some hoodlums, who were sitting in the park, drinking in a dark corner, outraged her modesty. She started crying and screaming for help. That drew the attention of residents of the colony and six-seven people rushed to help. They outnumbered the hoodlums. They confronted them; an argument ensued and as the hoodlums were abusive, they thrashed them soundly with hands and some improvised sticks. Then they turned to the woman. At that moment, out of moral compulsion, she gave a FI statement. However, later she realized that she would not like to be running to the police and the court. Hence, on the second day, she went to the police and actually withdrew her complaint quietly. Not only that but within days, she left the town itself for good so that the Good Samaritans could not pester her for her shameful conduct. Her withdrawal of the complaint left the Good Samaritans without any defence at all and they suffered horribly running to the court for the next five-six years in that case of assault. They had to spend tens of lakhs of rupees on lawyers to scrape through and destroyed their health and family lives due to stress. 

It cannot be argued that people must intervene in a crime only if the weapon in the hands of the assailant is a lethal weapon and could ignore the matter in other situations. This is outrageous. Who can decide, and that too within a fraction of a second on the spot, that a certain weapon or implement is lethal or not? For that matter, where a lethal non-firearm weapon has been defined? It all depends on how one is using a given implement and where he is striking with that. Give me something as simple as a heavy wrench and I promise you, I would kill a man with it within 30 seconds. If you bother to read about something called a blackjack or sap (the Germans called it SiPo), which were perfectly concealable; hoodlums in the West had killed thousands with them. They were just weighted flexible implements that could fracture skulls.

The matter is complicated further if the other person (who would be called a victim if he or she were to die later) also has some sort of implement or weapon. Suppose somebody comes with the intent to kill somebody and is armed with an iron rod, baseball bat, cricket bat or even hockey stick if not sharp-edged weapons or firearms. Suppose the person attacked also manages to fetch something from the place he is attacked, such as some stick, long piece of wood, iron rod, GI pipe, some cycle chain, wrench, hammer or anything of that type. In that case, it would become a ‘fight proper’.

Also Read: To kill or get killed: a police officer’s dilemma

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The only way out is that policemen should wear body cameras on their uniform, and record the incidents. Body cameras won’t be able to prevent suicides but can certainly help zero down on the truth in case the public cooks up stories of imaginary violence by the police.

I mean, there is no way in which a passer-by can determine in a ‘legally safe’ manner that an incident is a completely one-sided affair fit for intervention. In fact, completely one-sided affairs are rather rare and ‘fights properly’ is more likely. In that case, it could well be argued that it was essentially an altercation and a passer-by had no locus standi to intervene. Moreover, one who intervenes in a ‘fight proper’ is likely to be injured by both parties—accidentally, if not intentionally.

I am not asking people to become heartless but I sincerely advise people to be aware of the consequences before they are carried away by emotions.

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Dr N C Asthana IPS (Retd)
Dr N C Asthana IPS (Retd)
Dr. N. C. Asthana, IPS (Retd) is a former DGP of Kerala and ADG BSF/CRPF. Of the 56 books that he has authored, 20 are on terrorism, counter-terrorism, defense, strategic studies, military science, and internal security, etc. They have been reviewed at very high levels in the world and are regularly cited for authority in the research works at some of the most prestigious professional institutions of the world such as the US Army Command & General Staff College and Frunze Military Academy, Russia. The views expressed are his own.


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