The residents of Sant Nagar, a locality in North Delhi, still talk in huddled groups about the horror they witnessed here on Tuesday – a 21-year-old girl stabbed at least 22 times in broad daylight by a man who had allegedly been stalking her.

Later, surveillance camera footage of 34-year-old Surender Singh pinning down and stabbing Karuna with a pair of broken scissors before hitting her on the head with a rock played on loop on television channels for hours. It showed that while scores of passersby witnessed the attack in a narrow lane cluttered with coaching classes, realty offices and shops, no one came to the young woman's rescue.

Singh, who lived in the neighbourhood, was caught by residents a hundred metres away while trying to flee and handed over to the police.

"People couldn’t gather into a group, which would have scared the assailant," said a shopkeeper, who asked for his name not to be revealed.

Many in the area echoed his view.

Sitting in his small cigarette kiosk a short distance from the crime spot, the shopkeeper said he didn't get a good look at the attack as his shop is in a corner. "The people living in the upper floors must have got a better view," he said, pointing to a second-floor balcony close to the CCTV that captured the crime.

Tuesday's incident bears a striking resemblance to the murder of 24-year-old Infosys tech worker S Swathi at a busy railway station in Chennai on June 24. Ramkumar, who had allegedly been stalking Swathi, hacked her to death with a sickle and calmly walked away as stunned commuters watched and did nothing. Ramkumar was arrested a week later and allegedly committed suicide in prison on September 18.

Such a crowd response (or lack of it) has been witnessed over and over again, not only in cases of heinous crimes – which, to some extent, involve the fear of being harmed by the perpetrator – but also in helping accident victims or in situations where a crime has already taken place, said psychiatrists and clinical psychologists.

For instance, in August, a 35-year-old security guard, who was the victim of a hit-and-run in West Delhi, lay dying on the road for hours as vehicles and pedestrians passed him by. Camera footage – again played out on TV – showed a rickshawpuller stop and make away with his mobile phone, leaving him writhing in pain.

Such incidents have been reported not only in the Capital but in cities like Bhopal and Pune too, leading to growing calls for a Good Samaritan law to assure people who intervene in road accident case of anonymity and protection from civil or criminal liability.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court approved government guidelines for such a law.

Learned behaviour

According to experts, this public apathy stems, to a great extent, from the fear of not being protected by the legal system.

“There is an inherent sense of victimisation among crowds witnessing crimes in Indian society,” said Dr Rajat Mitra, a Delhi-based clinical psychologist. “There is a feeling that if I intervene, will I be protected by the law enforcement system? This is something about which people are not convinced.”

Mitra added, “The behaviour of bystanders in this case [Karuna’s case] is not entirely based on the [aggressive] behaviour of the stalker. Even with regard to other crimes, such as hit-and-runs, we see that people do not intervene. The observer of a crime has to have confidence in the justice system, which again is a learned behaviour and cannot be expected of anyone just like that."

He said one way of making the public more responsive was to introduce smart intervention skills in the school curriculum, and gave the example of places like California and Sweden.

"However, such programmes have to take a shape beyond just dos and don'ts. They must involve role play and experiential methods suitable for children of different ages," he added.

International lead in the Public Education Initiatives of the World Psychiatric Association, Dr Avdesh Sharma, also stressed the importance of learned behaviour and its inclusion in the school curriculum.

"A cosmopolitan city is like a society in transition in which human bonding becomes less, leading to a breakdown of social cohesiveness and the birth of mass apathy," Sharma said. "Migration from other cultures and their failure to gel with others further contributes to the breakdown."

Sharma said helping a stranger who is the victim of a crime requires humanity with a firm belief in a swift and effective law enforcement system. “A bystander never knows what he is getting into, has no assured protection and may assume potential harassment in future at the hands of the perpetrator and his family and associates," he said.

Immunity to violence

Visual images of violent crimes that people regularly consume through popular media have also ended up desensitising them and making them immune to certain events, Dr Avdesh Sharma said.

“The human brain does not differentiate too much between real and reel life,” the consultant psychiatrist said. “So what we see as lack of reaction in such cases by a crowd witnessing the incident is actually a reaction to the violence that people are already accustomed to through popular media in their everyday lives, causing dehumanisation."

The projection of women in society is also a factor in such cases, he pointed out. He said that a society with zero tolerance to crimes against or ill-treatment of women has a better rate of positive intervention in cases of any nature of crime against women victims.

Going back to what many residents of Sant Nagar had said – that they felt Karuna could have been saved if a crowd had come together swiftly – Sharma said it was the right statement in the wrong context.

“First of all, the reaction time in this case was too short for a crowd to gather," he said. "And even if a crowd had managed to gather, it is true that the assailant could have stopped and tried to escape, but the crowd could have turned violent, leading to another law and order issue."

Dr Rajat Mitra also said he did not subscribe to the idea of the crowd as a rescue mechanism, mainly because of the collective anger inherent in a crowd. “That anger can turn the crowd into a mob in no time," he said.

"Even one or two persons can actually intervene in situations effectively, provided they have the right instincts – which are the result of learned behaviour," he added.