Shahbad Dairy Murder: Why Didn't Passersby Help Minor Girl or Stop the Accused?

Even as the crime was being committed, several people walked by. Why? The answer is a bit complex.

5 min read
Hindi Female

Just as shocking as the brutal murder of a 16-year-old girl, allegedly by a 20-year-old man, in Delhi's Shahbad Dairy area, was that the witnesses to the crime did nothing to help the victim. In a purported 65-second video, the accused, Sahil, is seen stabbing the victim multiple times and bludgeoning her to death with a brick. Even as the crime was being committed, several people walked by, merely watching on.

The police later confirmed that none of the witnesses made calls to the station and that the girl's body was lying in a corner for about 25-30 minutes. When The Quint visited the teenage victim's family, they, too, couldn't help but ask: 'Why did no one help her?'

The answer, however, is a bit complex. Psychologists say that this inaction is closely related to the 'bystander effect'. But what exactly is it? Can it be prevented?


What Is the Bystander Effect?

The bystander effect or bystander apathy is a socio-psychological theory, which states that the greater the number of witnesses to a crime or misconduct, the less likely that someone will intervene – because everyone feels that it is a shared responsibility. 

"While it is morally expected, we can't automatically assume that when people are in distress, other people are going to be helpful. It is not as simple as that, because any action or behaviour of a person is influenced by a lot of things," Dr Ruksheda Syed, a psychologist, tells FIT.

She explains that each member of the crowd may have refrained from acting due to multiple reasons:

  • Social influencers: The ideals and experiences they grew up with may have stopped them from acting. "We are often taught not to get involved in things because it is 'none of our business'. In fact, we are told as children that if we do anything, we might end up in trouble," says Dr Ruksheda. "If it is socially acceptable for us to help, then there is more willingness to help. If there is the social acceptability of not intervening, then we don't intervene."

  • Diffusion of responsibility: Dr Ruksheda says that when the bystander effect is in play, there is a diffusion of responsibility. "When there are people around, each individual will look to someone else to do something. 'I'm not responsible for this, so why am I doing it?' – this is what they must be thinking." She refers to this as a "contagious reaction of inaction." When we see nobody doing anything, we also tend not to, she says.

  • Fear for safety: When the aggressor is holding a weapon, the bystander may also fear for their own life. "When the bystander sees the attacker holding a weapon, they are thinking: 'Who is to say this person won't use it against me?' The level of danger or threat that the bystander feels also prevents them from acting. We are conditioned to feel helpless in the face of an aggressive tool," she explains.

She adds that in many cases, people may also stop and watch a crime unfold right before their eyes. "People may stop to witness the crime probably because they feel some kernel of responsibility – they feel that they shouldn't walk away from the crime. They are thinking: 'I can't do anything, but if I walk away, I'm abandoning the situation, which morally I'm not okay with'."

Dr Ruksheda, however, says there is also a small proportion of people who might enjoy witnessing the crime.


When Bystanders Are Desensitised

Dr Ruksheda says that a bystander may fail to act also because they are desensitised to a particular crime – their brains may have normalised it.

"Take, for instance, domestic violence. There may be a lot of bystanders in the house when a woman or child is being abused. Because it is so normal for them – because they think, 'Yeh toh roz ka kaam hai' – they don't really act when situations like this happen."

When you are desensitised to a situation, your brain cannot recognise the urgency, importance, or wrongness of the situation. That is how our brain adapts to any kind of stress, she adds.

Speaking to FIT, Dr Kamna Chhibber, Head of the Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences at Fortis Healthcare, says that desensitisation may also occur because of the accessibility to violent content.

"We are in the age of information, and it is easy to feel a disconnectedness or a preoccupation of self. We are consuming so much content, especially content that is so violent in nature. So, we may be desensitised to such situations when they happen in real life," she says.


How Can We Change This?

A 2008 campaign by NGO Breakthrough, called 'Bell Bajao', was launched to stop domestic violence. People were told to ring the bell if they hear screams from their neighbour's home, so they could stop domestic violence, albeit momentarily. 

"This response had to be taught to people because until then, domestic violence was considered an internal issue. When domestic violence became socially unacceptable, our responses also changed," says Dr Ruksheda. 

"If there's violence of any kind, most people don't know why they didn't do anything about it. If you ask them why they didn't do anything, they say, 'I didn't know what to do'. A majority of people fall into this category."

Therefore, bystanders must be trained to be active bystanders, so they know how and when to respond, opine experts.

"Authorities must understand that identifying the problem is not enough, they must also find solutions," says Dr Chhibber.

She added that the first step could be to encourage young people to act. "We must equip young people to act. Even in schools, when a child is being bullied, kids are not taught to step in. Safe intervention in situations like this should be taught at a young level."

Speaking to FIT, Jyotica Bhasin, a lawyer who specialises in the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) Act and gives bystander training to corporate employees, says there are 4 Ds that a bystander must always remember while witnessing a crime:

  • Direct approach: The bystander directly steps in and asks the aggressor why they are committing a crime. They can also threaten to call the police.

  • Distract approach: The bystander is creating a distraction for the aggressor. If they are witnessing a crime and are unsure about what to do, then they can distract the aggressor – say, by saying: 'I can hear the police siren.'

  • Delegate approach: You, as a bystander, may not be comfortable intervening. But you can delegate this matter to a person of authority, like the police.

  • Delay approach: To delay the situation by distraction or any other means. 


Bhasin says that while legally speaking, someone who is a bystander is not required to intervene, the likelihood of preventing that crime is higher if an active bystander steps up. 

Bystander awareness training is just as important as rewarding an active bystander, she adds. "They should be assured that this behaviour will be rewarded – whether at a personal, social, or financial level."

The bystander should also be given the assurance that if they intervene, there won't be any retaliation. "We don't recognise our authority figures as friendly, comforting, and trustworthy. They are feared. So, the bystander may be worried that they might get into trouble with the police after intervening. There should also be no retaliation or discrimination against the person who is the bystander," she says.

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Topics:  Delhi Murder   Delhi Crime   Members Only 

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