On September 7 this year, Purnima Govindarajalu, a researcher from Canada began a petition on Change.org, asking the government of India to allow adult survivors of sexual abuse to report the harassment to the police. Her demand to remove time limitations for such complaints, has has now found the support of a member of Parliament, namely DMK's Kanimozhi.
The petition addressed to Law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and Women and Child Development minister Maneka Gandhi outlines Purnima's harrowing experience as a child in India. She alleges that her cousin's husband molested her by putting his hands and mouth on her private parts. The abuse continued till she was 13 and Purnima says that she was too ashamed and confused to talk to anyone about it. But as an adult, when she realised what had happened she chose to file a complaint against her alleged abuser.
But the law in its current form does not allow for that. First because the POCSO Act, which came into force in 2012, cannot be applied retrospectively. And second, at the time of the alleged abuse, penetration by finger or tongue did not fall under the definition of rape under IPC 376. What Purnima was subjected to, therefore, would only be termed molestation - for which the maximum punishment is less than three years.
This would mean that, under section 468 of CrPC, the crime can no longer be tried in court. The code says that any offence which is punishable by imprisonment between one and three years, cannot be taken cognizance of more than three years after the crime.
MP Kanimozhi who tweeted in support of the survivor on Sunday argues that such restriction must be done away with. "When a crime of this nature occurs, children don't understand what is happening and a lot of them tend to blame themselves," the DMK leader told TNM. "When they finally understand what happened and are ready to speak, we should take their complaint and ensure action follows," she adds.
When asked if she is ready to take up the matter in Parliament, Kanimozhi replies in the affirmative.
"Yes, I will definitely take this up in the Parliament when I can because the scars that this kind of abuse creates run too deep to be ignored. Pedophiles are usually repeat offenders ," she says. "An amendment has to be brought in the existing laws."
Lawyers that TNM spoke to however pointed out that the POCSO act which came into force in 2012 ensures that adult survivors can complain now. "The punishment under POCSO for such a crime is from three to five years. So hereafter, such an issue will not arise," says Akhila, a lawyer at the Madras High Court. "But question in this case is if the Statue of Limitations can be overcome in anyway," she adds.
Sudha Ramalingam, a human rights lawyer however argues in favour of some form of time limitation. "Every case must be handled as per the law. You cannot indefinitely keep quiet for practical reasons as well. If you come complain after 20 years there will be no evidence to prove your allegations and it will just be he said-she said in court. How will it result in any form of conviction?" she asks.
Experts further opine that complaints which come this late, can lead to more harm than good for the survivor.
"If a survivor wants to complain after a long gap since the incident, it has to be well thought out and not an emotional decision," says Vidya Reddy, of Tulir, Centre for Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse. "Are they ready to face any outcome that the case could have? Can they answer all the question in court? These are questions they must consider before taking this course of action," she adds.