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No law can bridge the gap of basic decency

columns Updated: Jul 01, 2016 21:32 IST

S Swathy (24) was found dead at a railway station in Chennai on June 24. (AFP)

“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing,” Albert Einstein.

Juan Jasso on an early morning tram in Manchester, England did not ‘look on and do nothing’. The Mexican American who has lived in England for 18 years was offended by the language used by three rowdy fellow commuters. The retort from one of them? “You’re not even from England, you little f***ing immigrant. Get off the f***ing tram. Get back to Africa.”

Jasso, a sport lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, later told Channel 4 News: “It was a bit of a surreal moment because initially it was just me asking those individuals just to watch their language.”

Jasso wasn’t alone. One of his fellow commuters filmed the episode that led to the eventual arrest of the three and another chose to speak up as the racial rant continued. “There’s no need for that,” she can be heard in the video. “Disgrace. Disgrace. You’re an absolute disgrace to England.”

How different things might have been for one family had the commuters at Nungabakkam railway station shown some involvement. Instead, on June 24, they looked away as Infosys software engineer Swathi was attacked by a man with a knife.

Read | Infosys techie murder: 11 hackings in a month and TN’s apathy to the killings

As she lay bleeding on platform 2, not one commuter came forward to help. No one called the hospital, just minutes away from the station. Did even one think of making an anonymous 100 phone call? “Had the commuters present at the railway station shown some courage and retaliated, the culprit could have been caught,” Swathi’s father told India Today.

Not many of us would confront a man with a knife. But what about getting help after the assailant had run away? Instead, police say, many walked away from the gruesome crime scene and simply took the next train to work.

Read | No one came forward to help Swathi, says father of murdered Infosys techie

The Madras High Court has already upbraided the police for leaving the body ‘lying like an exhibition for two hours’. And there has been considerable commentary decrying the inordinate media attention on Swathi’s life and character. But neither answers the question of bystander apathy.

What kind of person watches a young woman dying while he rushes off to catch the next train to work?

A 2013 study on impediments to bystander care in India by the NGO SaveLIFE Foundation found that 80% of the 1.4 lakh people who died in road accidents in 2012 failed to receive emergency medical attention within the critical Golden Hour after an accident. The same study also found that 58% of respondents were more likely to help a road accident victim than a victim of violence.

“Education about what to do in an emergency, including something as simple as calling for help, must become integral to our education system,” SaveLIFE founder and CEO Piyush Tewari said in response to an email.

But the core question remains: Why do we look away? Partly it’s a reluctance to get involved in a long-drawn legal process including police questioning and court appearances. Partly it’s a fear that intervention could lead to suspicions about guilt.

Read | Witnessed a road accident? You can help victims without any fear

But that’s only part of the answer. All over the world, our increasingly online preoccupations are leading to an increasingly offline disconnection with our real lives. Certainly there is a breakdown of old social networks. And maybe it’s also because we act as a herd. When one looks away, the others believe it’s alright to do so. Conversely when one speaks up — as Jasso did in Manchester — others are emboldened.

The Supreme Court has approved guidelines that seek to protect Good Samaritans who help road accident victims from being unnecessarily harassed by police or other authorities. But, says Tewari, most are ‘still unaware about the March judgment’.

Read | SC approves guidelines to protect saviours of accident victims

The judgment applies to road accident victims. One possibility would be to expand it to include victims of violence. But no law can bridge the gap of basic decency. Ultimately, it is for us to reclaim our best instincts. Ultimately, it is for us to reclaim our humanity.