On the eve of the 57th Independence Day, an incident occurred literally in the centre of India, in the city of Nagpur, that should give all of us — policymakers and ordinary citizens — reason to pause and think deeply. On August 13, in the premises of the civil court, a group of women from the Kasturba Nagar slum of Nagpur attacked an accused rapist, Bharat alias Akku Yadav, with chilli powder, stones and sharp weapons. The result? The man died and four of the women have been taken into custody.

When a reporter asked these women why they had done this, they narrated the harassment, rape and extortion at the hands of Yadav that families living in the slum had borne silently for many years. Twenty families had packed up and moved out in the face of these problems. According to the women, the man would rape young girls and even pregnant women, beat up the men and send his associates to extort money. Despite repeated arrests, Yadav walked out of jail after procuring bail and continued his activities. "Tired of his excesses, we decided to kill him," said one woman. "There is no justice for the poor," said another. "What if this had happened to a minister's wife or daughter?" she asked.

While voicing their frustration, one woman said, "The police is of no use ... we thought enough was enough. Instead of dying slowly by swallowing such humiliation, we thought it is preferable to die once for all." What is even more shocking is that women police constables who knew of the case have reportedly stated, "If we were to be in their place, we would have done the same."

Taking the law into your own hands can never be condoned. But we must ask what is happening in this country if ordinary people, and even people within the police force, are losing faith in the ability of the law-enforcing machinery and the courts to deliver justice. The level of desperation that is evident in the extreme action of these women in Nagpur, where they could attack and kill a man in an open court of law, is indicative of a much larger problem in our society.

Compare this incident to what happened in a Mumbai train on August 15, exactly two years ago. A young mentally challenged woman was raped in a compartment where over half a dozen people were seated. None of them raised an alarm or tried to get the rapist off the girl. Instead, like the indifferent public of most cities, they dozed or waited for their respective stations, got down and left. Only at the final station did a couple of people report the rape to the police. But by that time the deed had been done.

Is there no halfway point between callous indifference and activism — or taking the law into your own hands as the women in Nagpur have done?
This subject came up during a student debate organised in a leading Mumbai college on Independence Day this year. What should people do when they see something wrong being done, when a crime is being committed before their eyes? Some of the young people suggested that they should intervene only if they were sure they wanted to be involved in the long and involved process of getting justice. If they did not want the "hassle", then it was better not to be "distracted" by such events because not everyone can be an "activist", said some of them.

But is there no halfway point between callous indifference and activism — or taking the law into your hands as the women in Nagpur have done?

The Nagpur case and the Mumbai "Independence Day rape", as it has come to be known, may be isolated examples but they are representative of a growing mindset in the country. Many people assume these days that taking a stand, intervening, refusing to tolerate the intolerable is "activism". I was disturbed to meet young people at this debate who argued that not intervening to prevent a rape or a violent attack was not indifference, it was merely pragmatism and that it was a matter of knowing what are your priorities. In other words, the state of unknown individuals should not be on your list of priorities or concerns. Instead, you should remain focussed on your personal goals.

If this is indeed the attitude of a growing number of the young in this country, then we really have something to worry about. For how can anyone hope to fulfil personal goals if the country as a whole is going up in flames, if divisiveness becomes the norm, if women are not safe in their homes or on the streets, if young children are the targets of abuse and trafficking? The list is endless. Of course, one individual cannot tackle all these problems. But surely, a civilised society calls for citizens to be more concerned not less, to be willing to intervene instead of turning the other way.

At the same time, being concerned does not mean taking the law into your own hands or encouraging vigilantism. There are no pat solutions. But each time an incident like the one in Nagpur occurs, we are forced to stop in our tracks. Did these women really have no other option? Can the justice system ever be fair and just to the poor? How long should they wait? How long will they wait?