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Shahbad Dairy Murder: Analysing the ‘Bystander Effect’ in Working Class Communities

Witnessing crimes can hardly come as a shocker when people are born and raised in inhumane, unfriendly, and unsocial environments in which acts of violence are not uncommon.
Rohini murder

Illustration by Pushkin Chakraborty.

The gruesome murder of 16-year-old Sakshi by her boyfriend Sahil Khan (20) in the Shahbad Dairy neighbourhood of Rohini, Delhi, on May 27 has revived the discussion on the spate of violence against women and apathetic onlookers. 

This apathy is termed the ‘bystander effect’—the inhibiting influence of the presence of others on a person’s willingness to help someone in need or the power of the situation that leads to perceptions, decisions and behaviour of witnesses. 

From a social-psychological perspective, more witnesses or bystanders lead to diminished assistance. The term was coined after the sexual assault and brutal murder of an American woman Kitty Genovese in 1964 when about 38 bystanders offered no significant help until she died. The term has since then become a critical psychological theory to explain the behaviour and tendencies of witnesses. 

The latest murder revived a familiar pattern of conversations on social media—quick stringent justice, communal slurs, judgement over a female victim’s choices, and the apathy of the onlookers. It is a deep personal loss for Sakshi’s family, who have every reason to believe humanity died when no one tried to save their daughter.  

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, crime against women rose by 15.3% in 2021 compared to 2020. 

Social, political and economic factors, the fault lines of caste, class and religion, and individual psychosocial triggers are usually the reasons for such crimes and how society responds to such incidents.

In this case, the story has three sides—the accused, the victim and the witnesses. The victim did not file an FIR against the accused when he stalked and harassed her fearing her family would be shamed. Women in India have always been held responsible for their choices. 

The perspective of witnesses is complicated. There is wider acceptance of the theory of apathy. The breaking news of a gruesome crime often reaches us through raw videos shot by onlookers. In several instances, witnesses want to help but fear the consequences or law enforcement itself. How violence or crime is perceived and acted upon in a working-class neighbourhood, which is at the receiving end of systemic apathy, needs meaningful discourse.

NewsClick spoke with professor Tila Kumar, from the Delhi School of Economics, an expert in the sociology of poverty, to understand the ‘bystander effect’ in the working-class communities of urban India. Below is the edited excerpt from the interview:

How is crime or violence against women perceived in low-income areas of urban cities like Delhi?

Tila Kumar: How people perceive things, including certain crimes or violence, in populated areas is determined by their living environment. The life, livelihood and worldview of working-class people, branded as the ‘underclass’ or ‘underdogs’ in cities like Delhi, are very different. 

Life here is fast, busy, exhausting, overcrowded, and full of struggles and uncertainties. There is no access to quality education, and economic insecurity dictates their everyday life. There is also a huge gap between what they have and their aspirations. Whether we talk about political, economic and cultural factors or even the larger question of their identity, it needs to be looked at very seriously to make sense of these people in general and their perceptions about themselves or, for that matter, crime and violence against women in particular. 

These people live in a very different world and struggle and quarrel with their families, immediate neighbours, the public, and the authorities over petty things daily. Their entire focus, time, money and energy is very often to fulfil their basic necessities. 

Therefore, such crimes hardly make a difference and are common because these people were born and raised in an inhumane, unfriendly and unsocial environment.

So, their perceptions, like their lives, are the products of the larger societal structure they come from and live with—and in which they too indulge, including committing crimes. It is part and parcel of their daily life unlike the hue and cry made by people from different classes and environments.

How does the lack of resources, education and accessibility impact the human/society’s behaviour towards violence? How is this behaviour different from comparatively elite sections of society?

Tila Kumar: Many factors mould human behaviour. As I earlier pointed out, behaviour is determined generally by our social structure. 

Historically, humans are said to have been born equal. However, as subsequent differences in income, wealth, property or education and class arise, their life and worldview differ. Most importantly, what differentiates people is seen in their behaviour towards certain daily, mundane and basic things and critical questions of their time and society, including crimes and violence. However, we now see unusual behaviour even during heinous and fatal crimes.

A ‘lonely crowd’ is an assemblage of many people in a specific place without being conscious of and concerned about anybody else. Such a crowd witnesses violence, including rape and murder of a girl, but is busy with their lives and hardly thinks of what happens to others—forget about intervening and saving the victim. This underlines that the working class is so busy dealing with daily struggles that it doesn’t have any scope for sympathy for the victim.  

Apathy is also common in the upper class but for different reasons—confined to its world of comforts and luxuries. 

Therefore, these two classes are hardly concerned about what happens to their neighbour because they think of their own life rather than interfere in the life of others but in very different ways and for various reasons.

Things could be different with the middle class as it happens to be the mover of society, economy and polity. 

Whenever such an incident occurs and goes viral, people call it a lack of empathy. But considering the social and economic factors, is it a lack of empathy? 

Tila Kumar: It is the product of people living in a world that is changing so fast and divides the rich and the poor, and the upper and working classes. The upper class enjoys a luxurious life while a section of society struggles even for two square meals daily and survival. This widening and unequal gap is a major factor in the whole issue. 

Besides, the fear of authorities and legal complications and avoiding a bad name in the locality for being associated with police and court also prevents people from helping others in such times despite their best intentions.

The implications of a fast-changing society, and the flow of messages, information and images we confront daily create an isolated environment. Joint families and the support and guidance of the elderly and relatives don’t exist anymore—we are left to ourselves. The alienation and the lack of social support systems for children and the youth of vulnerable sections are probably the root cause of all these problems. 

These factors collectively give rise to anti-social elements and crimes—and the response to them is the cumulative effect of a sense of lacking so many things and the subsequent rise of aspirations for their own life rather than showing interest in the problems of others.

How do social and economic factors impact the ‘bystander effect’?

Tila Kumar: There is a sociological explanation despite that it usually alludes to a problem of the individual and his/her state of mind. Such an explanation suggests that individuals are socially constructed with every aspect having a social structure. This is not a choice that comes from an individual to begin with. The situations in which they are born and raised, especially the working classes in metropolitans like Delhi, make them non-conforming to social norms and values. The lack of social support, intervention, regulations, and provisions dictate their behaviour.

When children born into poor and illiterate families grow up and see a widening gulf between what they possess and their aspirations, they become obsessed with realising their dreams—and the denial of scope and resources turns them into rebels in their ways. Therefore, they are always busy minding their business and prefer to be mute bystanders during a heinous crime.

Could you shed light on the common man’s fear of law and police procedure in India?

Tila Kumar: The police and the court are meant to guarantee law and order and justice to every individual irrespective of caste, class, religion or social background. 

However, the reality is different. Rather than being society’s conscience keepers, the police suspect vulnerable common people in rape and murder cases during questioning. A witness reporting a crime is often considered a suspect. The fear of police questioning in such cases deters a working-class person from filing a genuine complaint. 

Moreover, survival and meeting basic needs, not dealing with the police and court, is the biggest priority of working-class people. Law enforcement and the justice system have a long way to go before building confidence in ordinary people. 

What should be the way forward for policymakers to make violence redressal more comprehensive and reachable to vulnerable sections? 

Tila Kumar: Our policies ignore the needs and welfare of working-class people and hardly consider them as stakeholders in society, economy and polity. 

A policy must factor in the specific needs of people in a particular environment. Additionally, providing an amicable environment and reforms in legal education that impart the knowledge of rights and duties is crucial.

We should also build confidence in people, especially the poor and illiterate and residents of so-called unauthorised colonies without potable water and electricity. A deeper understanding of all these factors is the way forward.

Besides, reforming the police and legal institutions should be prioritised to provide a positive environment for concerned citizens who should feel rewarded for their intervention, not punished for helping their neighbours and society. 

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