“As the woman (Neelu Mehta) got repeatedly stabbed, everyone just stood there. Not one person said a thing. Had more people come forward, then we could have saved her. She could have been alive today,” 60-year-old Gulshan Kumar, who runs a tyre puncture shop outside which 44-year-old Neelu Mehta was stabbed to death in broad daylight at least 26 times on 10 April, speaks to The Quint as he battles a sense of shame, helplessness and sorrow.
Neelu’s death at the Budh Vihar market was caught on a local CCTV camera, and the accused, her husband Harish Mehta, was caught minutes later. He was dragged to Rohini’s Vijay Vihar police station where Harish blatantly accepted that he had killed his wife who wanted a divorce from him.
"He had a pervert mind and an unreal sense of attachment to her," the policemen investigating the case said. When asked if he had a psychological assessment done, the policeman said that he seemed stable and did not show any need for such a check-up.
"He was of sound mind for certain. There was no need for a psychiatrist," the police said.
Forty-year-old Harish was booked for murder (Section 302 of IPC) the same day and was moved to the Tihar jail on Sunday evening, 11 April. The officials on the case said the couple had been married for nine months and were facing issues; that Harish killed Neelu because he had a hunch that she had been cheating on him and therefore, wouldn’t leave her job at Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital. While she counselled HIV/AIDS patients, Harish worked for a matrimonial site.
What we learnt after speaking to several eyewitnesses is how everyone seemed to be waiting for the other person to take the lead, making it seem like if one person had done something then everyone else would have too.
Neelu’s death is a near-perfect example of the ‘bystander’s effect’ or ‘bystander apathy’, which is a phenomenon where the more the number of people present, the less likely they are to act to help the victim. The fact that there is a large crowd makes the individual feel like there is a diffusion of responsibility and therefore no single person’s responsibility to act. They are more likely to act if there are few or no witnesses around.
‘Harish Had Been Waiting Since 10:00 AM’
"Since 10:00 am, the man had been standing behind this (see image below) black gate in a pink shirt. I was getting very suspicious of him and around 12:00 noon, I asked him who he was and why he was loitering around here. He told me his wife was coming and he was waiting for her. I had no idea what was going to happen less than two hours later...," Kumar said.
The lane where the woman was stabbed is not secluded. Located in Budh Vihar, it is buzzing with traffic, people and several local shops. Despite how densely populated the area was, no one came forward to stop the man. The traffic went by and witnesses stood and stared. When this reporter met the locals, she found the busy lane with people caught up blaming each other.
Around 1:20 pm, when Neelu returned from work, Harish’s wait ended. He waylaid her on her way home. Eyewitnesses Gulshan as well as his wife – 55-year-old Raj Rani – told us how they overheard the man asking the woman to come home with him.
“The couple was standing right outside my shop and they were talking to each other. I was squatting on the ground and fixing a tyre. He incessantly kept asking her to go home with him, but she kept refusing. She said she would only go to her own house. He forcefully pulled her a few times, but she freed her hand from his grip and started walking towards home when he took out the knife from underneath his shirt and started stabbing her non-stop. She lost balance and fell on me. I got scared and went inside my shop. By now she had fallen to the ground,” a wide-eyed Gulshan explained.
Gulshan’s wife had come to give him lunch a few minutes before the incident took place. “I was waiting for him to get done, so I sat inside the shop and was going to give him food. I too heard them quarrel, but as soon as he started stabbing her, I fell unconscious and lied down here. The site was gruesome,” Rani said.
Gulshan and another shopkeeper Sushil Jain, both in their sixties, were the only two who tried to dissuade Harish from doing the act, several locals confirmed. However, both were shown the knife and they quickly backed down. Gulshan even shut the shutters of his store.
“The woman continued to be stabbed on the road as the traffic passed by like nothing had happened," Sushil’s son, Gaurav Jain, who had stood behind his father when all this happened, said.
“She screamed in pain and he kept stabbing her, she fell on the floor and he kept stabbing her, her arms and legs lost life and he still kept stabbing her.[sic.] The knife kept twisting due to the constant stabbing, and he kept straightening it out under his feet and with his hands only to return to stab her again,” Gaurav narrated the gruesome details of the scene.
Harish kept telling everyone that she was his wife, “Like that justifies what he was doing. It was meant as a warning for us to not interfere in their ‘personal matter’,” Gulshan said.
After stopping, Harish went around looking for a battery van or a three-wheeler to flee the scene, but no one gave him a lift. This was when locals and then the police followed him through the streets of Budh Vihar and caught him at Krishi Vihar.
'Only If Someone Showed Courage, She Would’ve Been Alive’
While most locals who saw the woman being killed blamed others for not coming forward, all accepted that if they had shown courage the woman would have been alive.
“We are old men who tried to dissuade him. Where were the young boys in the area who stood and did nothing,” Gulshan asks. Since the accident happened right in front of his store, people come and tell him every day that he could have done more.
As this reporter sat there, a local Sikh family came and started berating him. "Mard chudiya pehenke aaye hai. Public mar gayi hai. Agar ek bhi sardaar hota is road par toh vo hone hi nahi deta ye. (Men are wearing bangles here. The public’s consciousness has just died. If there was even one Sikh man on this road, then this would have never happened)," she told him as he listened.
There are other young men who can be seen in the video, doing nothing and hiding behind doors. “I did not know what to do whatsoever. I could not think at the time. Watching a video of the incident is one thing, but being present there is another. Yes, I could have, just like everyone else could have, done more, but that would require me taking risks that I am not comfortable taking," Shiva (name changed to protect identity) said.
Shiva had two others with him. Instead of responding to what kept him doing anything, he repeatedly asked why the onlookers – those in trucks and cars – did not stop and help the woman. “We stood because they stood. We had no weapons on us to do anything,” he added.
Gaurav Jain pointed towards a few sticks kept in one corner of his store. "I am not scared, but then how could I have stopped him alone? Look at these sticks, I could have hit him but only if there were several people. This is why mobs do not have a face. But if I did hit him, and he died or was even injured, then my life would have been on the line. But yeah, I am not scared at all."
Unable to Sleep, One Eyewitness Even Returned to Village
"What happened was terrible, what happened to her was terrible..," Gulshan’s wife Raj Rani repeatedly says. She adds that she is still anxious and that the visuals of the woman’s body keeps haunting her.
Her husband Gulshan says, "Why should I lie? I have not been able to eat for the last few days. I have not been able to sleep either. I am sixty and growing weaker. Between all this, the fact that people keep coming and telling me that I am at fault makes my heart heavy.”
Many locals came to the area on bikes and cars, to take a look at the exact site of the murder.
Many had justified their inaction by ascertaining that the woman was going to die anyway. Others said that they had to prioritise themselves while many others "lied" and said that they were not present when other eyewitnesses said they were.
Another eyewitness, who can be seen in the CCTV footage, has returned to his village in Uttar Pradesh after the incident. His employer told us, “Seeing things like this are not normal. She is dead but the incident will stay with all of us forever.”
"Everyone tells me that I have not shown any himmat (courage). That I did not do anything and could have saved the life of the woman. I tell them I did the best I could," Gulshan said.