A man allegedly raped a woman on the sidewalk of a busy street in Visakhapatnam on Sunday afternoon. Several members of the public reportedly witnessed the crime, and according to some reports, did little to stop the man. But reports also said an auto-driver captured the crime on video and sent it to the police, enabling the arrest of the accused. The police reportedly received six different phone calls alerting them to the alleged assault. However, it is also reported that there were others who simply filmed the alleged assault or stood by while it happened.
The incident calls to mind the notorious murder of Kitty Genovese in New York in 1964, a murder that was reported as having occurred even as 38 neighbours chose not to help. That case helped spawn a theory called ‘bystander effect’ which claims people are less likely to help a victim when others are present—not necessarily due to apathy. Of course, it has since come to light that the original reporting was inaccurate—some of the ‘bystanders’ did indeed help in that case, as they did in Vizag.
However, more pertinent questions arise: for one, what does it say about the law and order in our cities when crimes of this nature can occur? For instance, on Monday a woman was stabbed multiple times in public in Hyderabad. Members of the public reportedly beat the assailant and handed him over to the police. Second, what is it that we expect of the public?
While campaigns such as #MeToo urge others to speak up, rarely is the public told how to speak up, or what to do. It is worth considering adding such an education to our civics syllabi at schools and colleges, so that people can learn how to intervene meaningfully and safely in such cases. Third, the instinct to document even horrific crimes—reportedly also seen in the Vizag case—must be studied and countered. The tendency to view the world through the filter of the lens can depersonalise and desensitise, and can in turn add to criminal acts.