What if help never arrived?

A few weeks ago, while walking home in Delhi, I came across a young man lying down on the road, not moving. Upon coming closer, he had a bleeding, nearly severed ear and blood coming out of his nose. He was responsive, but barely. Without a phone or wallet on me, I tried in vain to convince someone to call the police or ambulance, but people curiously stared and continued on their way, writing off the man as “being a drunk.” The people at the stalls near the scene of the incident said he “fell down” and that this isn’t the “era for people to help each other.” Another clarified that it was a hit and run accident, which seemed inconsistent with his injuries. One person then proceeded to waste more time with a story about how he once tried to help someone who ended up stealing his wallet.

20-30 minutes later, after heading home and coming back with my phone and wallet, the man was still lying there, with more onlookers staring and walking on. After finally managing to get a crowd to gather around and help while we called the emergency ambulance and police helplines, I ran to a police booth nearby to get help. Out of the two police officers present at the booth, one was getting ready to leave, while the other turned to me and said: “It happened on that side of the street? That’s another jurisdiction I’m sorry. Sir, he’s probably drunk. You seem to be educated and not from India. This happens all the time here. Leave it be.”

By the time I got back, a police van had arrived on the scene, but there was still no sign of an ambulance. The police officer tried to inquire about what had happened, again with no real answers, and then told us to call an ambulance. A heated exchange followed where one concerned man berated the police officer for arriving late and not caring about the wounded, semi-conscious man. Finally, the officer agreed to have a few of us help him load the injured man into the police van to be escorted to a hospital. The same concerned gentleman accompanied the police officer in the van.

It has been a while, but I am still left wondering what happened to the injured man. Was he provided appropriate care at a hospital? Was he taken to a police lock-up and refused care as many are?

I am still in disbelief about the unabashed refusals of dozens of passerbys to tend to this man’s injuries. I am ashamed at myself for refusing to accompany the man in the police van to ensure he got the care he needed, out of fear of being harassed by the police at a later date. It is difficult to blame ordinary citizens in a country where bystanders who dare to bring injured patients to the hospital or police station face repeated calls to court or harassing calls by the police. A tacit message is relayed that we should simply mind our own business.

The good news, however, is that Good Samaritans are now explicitly protected by a 2016 Supreme Court judgment, in which the Court stipulates that “people who help victims of road accidents or other calamities are not harassed in any way.” Unfortunately, my own reluctance to get involved is a testament to the limited amount of awareness around this recent development. As a privileged, upwardly mobile male, I have relatively little to fear compared to the stall owners who opted to keep their mouths shut on that fateful evening. Yet, I still managed to succumb to fear.

Bystander non-intervention is a problem no matter which country you hail from. The 1964 Kitty Genovese murder in the United States is a landmark case that laid the foundation for emergency helplines and bystander trainings, but bystander apathy is no relic of the past even in the US. In India, the situation is further complicated by a justice system that continuously fails to bring perpetrators to justice, a law enforcement system that harasses innocent bystanders looking to right a wrong, a traffic nightmare that leaves injured victims at the mercy of bystanders rather than trained emergency response crews, and a largely overburdened populace that faces enough socio-economic difficulties in day-to-day life without having to worry about complete strangers on top. None of these factors excuse bystander apathy, but they do help create a toxic atmosphere of callousness and indifference to the suffering of those around us.

We can all do so much better. I am still shocked at the explicit instructions of the police officer to “leave it be” and mind my own business, all conveyed with a gentle smile. I am outraged that “being drunk” was enough of a justification to allow the man to lie dying on the road with incoming traffic. I am appalled at my own selfish desire to get on with my evening without seeing the situation through to a fruitful end. And I’m left confused about what I would do in a similar situation if it involved violence taking place in front of my eyes. I’m left with more questions than answers, but I urge my fellow citizens to never let apathy or callousness set in. As a bare minimum, call for help and ensure help arrives while being mindful of avoiding harm to yourself. Last week was a personal reminder that bystander non-intervention is a real phenomenon that can cost lives. Apathy and callousness may not be as evil as inflicting grievous bodily harm on another human being, but they create the conditions in which evil thrives and perpetuates.

We can all do so much better.

“The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” –Lieutenant General David Lindsay Morrison