(Illustrations: Aroop Mishra
Video Editor: Puneet Bhatia
Podcast Editor: Prashant Chauhan)
For years, Vidhi* did what she was supposed to do. She held her silence.
When she was six, she moved from Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh to a small city in Rajasthan with her Bengali mother after her father shifted abroad for work. She grew up in her pishi’s (paternal aunt) house, because her mother needed more hands on deck to look after little Vidhi.
Years later, she moved to the UK, met a man, got married and moved to the US with him.
Then, One Day, She Watched the Michael Jackson Documentary, Leaving Neverland.
She watched as two grown men with seemingly regular lives cried on television about alleged sexual abuse by a man they’d called their friend. She watched as they writhed and squirmed, then gave up and broke down about how they’d lost their childhood to sexual abuse.
“In over 30-plus years, nothing gave me a good understanding of what had happened to me – that it was never my fault to not have stopped it,” writes Vidhi over email, who wishes not to be identified by her real name. “The documentary helped me realise why everyone around me was oblivious to my ordeal even though they could witness the signs.”
Vidhi finished watching the documentary, turned to her husband and broke down. She told him what she had faced three decades ago and what it had done to her.
The Details Were Horrifying….
Breaking Down Before Her Husband...
What happened after Vidhi finally told her husband – anyone at all – everything after 30-plus years of utter silence? The couple grew determined to fight for justice; they were delayed, but not too late.
And what about the man who assaulted her, after all these years? I asked. Did someone in the family choose to punish him?
They did, Vidhi said, by deciding that social ostracisation was the best recourse. They wouldn’t speak to him in person anymore, they promised – nor would they ever leave little Vidhi alone with him again.
“You keep mum,” they told her. They would keep mum too, they promised.
But after 30 long years, she decided to break the deal.
The email was cryptic, horrific and enlightening in turns – and then, all at once.
It was from a couple Nilesh had never met, all the way from the US. A couple of strangers had just written to him to tell him that his former wife’s father – as in, his ex-father-in-law – was a rapist and a molester.
In the letter, the married woman – whom we now know as Vidhi – admitted to having been molested, abused and raped by Nilesh’s ex-father-in-law (as in, her cousin) 35 years ago, when she was a child.
Why were they writing to him? Nilesh had wondered almost immediately. The answer to his question was in the second sentence of the email, worded uneasily, but offered point-blank and without hesitation –
The sentence was ominous.
What followed was even more horrifying. Years of repressed pain and trauma, which had begun with a wellspring of abuse at a small-town home in Rajasthan in the 1980s (and then hushed up), poured in an email written to a perfect stranger. Three decades of silence rolled into one body of confessed truths.
Nilesh was horrified at first, because the email mentioned his son. Over and over again.
“Also, the fact that it was about a man I had once known very well, you know. For at least five or six years while I was married to his daughter. My son often goes over to live with him and his wife (his grandparents) – the more I read, the more disturbed I got – would he do the same thing to my young son?” he said over the phone.
Nilesh’s horror stemmed also from what the email was essentially telling him, that an alleged rapist – a man he knew – had been roaming free for years.
“It was so disturbing to think he’d gotten away with such a crime...”
How the Couple Used Social Media to Track Him Down…
How had they known to look for him? Nilesh had asked curiously.
Vidhi and her husband, *Stuart, detailed to him, over the same email, that they’d search for him, laboriously, on social media.
They’d looked for Vidhi’s alleged rapist first, Stuart said. They’d found his Facebook photo, where they saw him posing with a child in his lap – who, they understood from the comments – was his grandson. Next, they set out to look for this child’s parents. When they realised Nilesh was the name of the child’s father, Stuart scoured social media.
He had tried to look him up on Facebook first, but ran into too many people with his name.
Finally, he’d tried LinkedIn. There, he achieved success.
“I had seen a Stuart pop up in my ‘Who viewed your profile?’ feature on my LinkedIn, and I had wondered,” remembers Nilesh. “It was just a few days before their email.”
While Nilesh admits the email shocked him, there crept in a sense of scepticism (“That first email was vague, what if this was a hoax?” he confessed wondering). He wrote back to say he wanted to know more. It was over a WhatsApp video call – where he could see Vidhi and her husband clearly – that he was convinced.
Nilesh said that Vidhi described her entire ordeal to him in such excruciating and painstaking detail that he could no longer hold any doubt about its veracity.
“She spoke of that house in Rajasthan – the house she lived in with her mother and cousins where she said she was raped for years. She described what it looked like, who the people there were. She also mentioned a couple of friends of my ex-father-in-law – friends I had heard of myself.”
Over various meetings with this correspondent, Nilesh was brutally honest on what drew him to Vidhi’s story at first: keeping his son safe.
Gradually, though, he began to look at Vidhi’s story far more seriously – particularly when she sent him the details of the POCSO complaint she had filed online, 35 years later, from a desktop in Washington DC.
“The details of the abuse were shocking. I was agitated for days. I began to think, this woman had a terrible childhood. She deserves justice.”
That’s when Nilesh decided to take a more proactive approach. “I was a reactionary at first – suggesting possible legal recourse, who she could write to – the Ministry of Women and Child Development here, the NCPCR – but mostly, I was just looking out for my son.”
Nilesh says he was given the choice, either way.
“Both of them told me gently that it had taken them years to start this fight, and now they wanted to see it through – but I could decide how involved I wanted to be. They said, they trust the judicial process and just wanted to alert me about my son as it was their moral responsibility – but they left the decision to me. I, however, wanted to stand by her.”
Throughout our multiple conversations – digital and otherwise – I remained curious to know: had he told his wife, the daughter of the man Vidhi accused?
He hadn’t yet, he said. He worried that she wouldn’t take it right and, perhaps, disbelieving him, cause him to spend even less time with his son. “And I need to spend more time with him and keep him away from his granddad,” said Nilesh.
The implausibility of keeping her in the dark, however, was easily worked out – he told me a few days later – with him applying for custody of his son in court.
“I’ve spoken to my lawyer, been speaking to one ever since Stuart and Vidhi first contacted me. We’ve filed a contestation to the custody settlement, accentuated by the documents Vidhi sent me from the States (her POCSO complaint, her email interactions with the police thereafter).”
In the meantime, though, he’d have no control over his wife choosing to invite her parents over – or stay over at theirs, with her son. “Obviously, it’s uncomfortable. But what can I do?” Nilesh says miserably, more than a few times, when we bring up his son’s current living situation (in his wife’s home, not too far away, in the Capital) in conversation.
He’ll wait the few weeks he has to, he tells me.
Nilesh’s claim was accepted a few days ago and he is now waiting for the court summons to reach his wife and/or her family, he says.
“And then he’ll know? Along with your wife?” I ask.
“Yes, then they’ll know,” he replies.
“I would wake up at night to find him sitting next to me in the dark. He would put his hands and mouth on my private parts. I would lie there, terrified and disgusted… It was only as an adult that I realised what had happened to me. I also realised that I was not alone.”– Purnima’s Change.Org petition
In January 2018, Purnima Govindarajulu, the woman whose words the above are, came public with her story — of child sexual abuse, inflicted over years, at the hands of an older family member.
The video below, posted by Change.org, tells her story in a couple of minutes:
She’d Watched a Television Programme Too...
In a manner that eerily mirrors Vidhi’s own psychological breakdown, Purnima watched a television programme on child sexual abuse (CSA) one day, in Canada – where she currently lives – and remembered what she had blocked out, and told her cousin what had happened to her.
Purnima surmounted the hurdles of speaking to family, coming to terms with what had happened. She gave it a name – as dark and final as it sounded, fitting into a specific hierarchy of crime – ‘child sexual abuse’. She decided to take legal action. Here is where she suffered setbacks.
After speaking to the Canadian police – whom she reported then, as being “very kind” – she was directed to India (more specifically, Chennai) since everyone involved was an Indian and the Canadian police would have no jurisdiction over the case. When she tried to file an FIR against the man she claims abused her, however, she realised that the POCSO laws in India did not support reporting a case at a later time.
“It doesn’t look like a statute of limitations, but they’re not clear about it. It says nothing about when you have to report. But throughout that section it only refers to the child reporting, or the caregiver of the child reporting... teacher, parent, whoever. And a child is defined as someone under 18. So there’s no clear prohibition from an adult reporting. But there’s no clear instruction,” she told The Quint last year.
How Purnima Changed the Face of the Law
What did Purnima do? Refuse to give up and instead, petition the Ministry of Women and Child Development to clarify the letter of the POCSO law. Her appeals bore fruit – with then Minister of Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi clarifying, in October 2018, that there was no time limit for an adult survivor to file a case against the perpetrator of child sexual abuse.
However, as Purnima said in later interviews, lawyers continued to warn her that the WCD Ministry’s clarification on reporting abuse under POCSO 2012 does not make it clear if it applies to cases that happened before the law came into force.
“I met (then) Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad at the time too,” Purnima tells me, over the phone from Victoria, Canada, “and there were promises and assurances to clarify further. But with the government changing, I haven’t heard back yet.”
In a new interview to The Quint – that she recorded herself from her home in Victoria, British Columbia – Purnima elaborates on where her case stands today:
(Video Editor: Puneet Bhatia)
IV. PURNIMA & VIDHI
But where does Purnima and Vidhi’s stories intertwine and coalesce?
In April 2019, right after Vidhi had told her husband Stuart everything, he read up all he could find about adult survivors of child sexual abuse trying to belatedly report their cases. His relentless search led him to the extensive media coverage of Purnima Govindarajulu’s case.
He reached out to her and went to meet her. Vidhi, at the time, did not accompany him. She was still hesitant, she says, about taking any concrete steps to report her situation, to give the 35-year-old spectre a name, a shape...a legal form.
Stuart returned from that meeting, rejuvenated and full of hope.
What did Purnima tell him? I ask him. “She told us her story,” Stuart says simply. It helped, he says.
When I reached out to Purnima about the meeting, she said:
“So many survivors reach out to me today, after hearing about my case in public. When I heard Vidhi’s case, what really broke my heart was that her parents don’t support her. They still don’t want to take action against that cousin. I think that’s what really shattered her...”
It was from Purnima and through persistent Googling that Vidhi and Stuart understood she would have to report her case on the POCSO e-box on the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights website. Purnima had submitted her complaint here too – and then written to the NCPCR, although the case stalled and she couldn’t file an FIR under POCSO, owing to ‘ambiguities’ in the law. She was told, gently but firmly, that she could only do so under the IPC laws for rape.
Vidhi followed suit. She followed the promising trail of breadcrumbs that Purnima had, well over a year ago.
Within weeks, she found herself stalled at the exact same position that Purnima had found herself at, well over a year ago.
Despite having spoken up after 35 years, she now joins the queue of adult survivors, waiting to hear on a “clarification”.
V. It Isn’t Just About Purnima Or Vidhi Anymore...
“I would blame my mother or my brother, who is 11 years older to me, for not paying enough attention or knowing their child enough to figure out that something was wrong.”
“You know, funnily enough, I can’t – like, if I had to – I can’t even properly recall his entire face. But there are times when I think about it and I can just feel my body feeling the same touch again... I can feel that feeling I felt at that point in time.”
– Ishadrita, CSA Survivor, who offered her story with The Quint
(Podcast Editor: Prashant Chauhan)
“It was years later that I fathomed or grasped the reality of it. I guess a part of me just blocked the memory of it so I never thought I should (speak up).”
“Even now, you know, if I’m getting physical...that memory just haunts. I become crabby and I lose my temper. And I become a whole different person altogether. I just shrivel up.”
– Reshmi, CSA Survivor, who offered to share her story with The Quint
(Podcast Editor: Prashant Chauhan)
VI. What Does the Law Say Exactly?
It’s unclear – is probably the best way to describe it.
What Does POCSO Say?
While the POCSO Act does not itself specifically mention any statute of limitations (the time within which legal action must be initiated if a crime is reported), one section of the Act – Section 19 – constantly refers to ‘child’ when it lays out the ‘Procedure for Reporting of Cases’, for eg.:
“...where the report...is given by a child, the same shall be recorded...in a simple language so that the child understands contents being recorded.” (emphasis mine)
Also, see, in the same section:
“...Where the Special Juvenile Police Unit or local police is satisfied that the child against whom an offence has been committed is in need of care and protection, then, it shall...make immediate arrangement to give him such care and protection....” (emphasis mine)
Here is a screenshot of said section:
What Does the CrPC Say?
Section 468 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) 1973, however, lays down the statute of limitations for certain offences. Under this section, the stipulated time limit for reporting an offence that is punishable by a fine is 6 months. For offences punishable with imprisonment of up to one year, the time limit for reporting the offence is one year. For offences punishable by imprisonment for up to three years, the time limit for reporting the offence is three years. There is no specific time limit for offences that are punishable with imprisonment beyond three years.
Which means, if a child sexual abuse case under the CrPC falls under the first three stipulations – aka, if it is an offence inviting punishment of upto 6 months, one year or three years respectively, a child or the accompanying adult would have to report the offence within that stipulated time limit – and not any later.
Yet, even there, the CrPC provides leeway with yet another section – Section 473 which deals with ‘Extension of period of limitations in certain cases’. This says that “...any Court may make cognizance of an offence after the expiry of the period of limitations, if it is satisfied on the facts and in the circumstances of the case that the delay has been properly explained or that it is necessary so to do in the interests of justice.”
But how often is that done? According to a Hindustan Times report, “WCD ministry officials, however, said that despite Section 473 there have been many instances where law enforcement agencies have failed to lodge a complaint when child survivors of sexual abuse tried to lodge complaint after they turned adult.”
What Did Purnima Change?
What happened next? As a result of Purnima’s petition (which, once it received 10,000 signatures, brought her a meeting with Maneka Gandhi), the WCD Ministry announced its change through a press release on 16 October 2018:
“...Often, children are unable to report such crimes as the perpetrator in most cases is either a family member, a relative or closely known person. Studies have also shown that the child continues to carry the trauma of sexual abuse till very late in life. In order to overcome this trauma many grown up people have started coming out to report the abuse faced by them as children....”
“The Ministry of Law after examining the provisions of POCSO Act vis-à-vis provisions of CrPC has advised that there appears no period of limitation mentioned in Section 19 in regard to reporting of the offences under the POCSO Act, 2012. The POCSO Act does not provide for any period of limitation for reporting the child sexual offences. On receipt of the opinion of Ministry of Law, Smt. Maneka Sanjay Gandhi, Minister of WCD stated that “Now any victim, at any age, can complain the sexual abuse faced by him/her as a child”. She urged the victims to report the cases through POCSO e-Box.”
But Will it Help Her?
No, this will not help either Purnima or Vidhi – or indeed, any woman or man seeking to report child sexual abuse perpetrated against them before POCSO came into effect. POCSO cannot be applied retrospectively to case that happened before 2012; such cases would only have to rely on the Indian Penal Code (IPC). (Under Section 376 of the IPC – which includes offences of rape – there is no statute of limitations).
As Purnima herself mentions in a cautious self-gratulatory message on Change.org –
That, in essence, is what Purnima and Vidhi both claim to want to do.
Not About Them...
“This is not about us... about us wanting attention OR justice,” she tells The Quint from Victoria. “It is about preventing the same crime from being perpetrated against other children, decade after decade.”
Vidhi, over multiple WhatsApp conversations and long email threads, tells this correspondent almost exactly that. She has reason to believe, she says, that her perpetrator has done the same to someone else – and she needs to stop him.
Anuja Gupta, founder of RAHI Foundation for survivors of child sexual abuse and incest, and a woman instrumental in helping draft the POCSO law, however, remains circumspect about dealing with just the legal perspective of helping adult survivors heal, years after the offence.
“When Purnima approached Rahi last year and we worked with her, we realised that she was very clear about what she wanted to do, why she wanted to do it and how she wanted to do it. At no stage did we feel that she wasn’t ready to take the next steps. She had done a lot of work on herself in Canada. However, a lot of survivors haven’t reached that level of readiness and in some cases, bringing up their abuse might re-traumatise them.”
Anuja maintains, however, that the criminal justice system could still help in becoming a means for the survivor’s ‘truth to be told’:
“For survivors to be believed, it is important that the truth be told. In such a sense, the criminal justice system could help by providing an avenue. The truth is certainly one means to healing, although not the only one. For many survivors of CSA and incest, justice could come even by just talking about it years later, confronting the truth, going to therapy, working on themselves. It’s truly subjective.”
The Quint has also written to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India, and asked them for a clarification. Below is the text of the email sent to the WCD by this correspondent:
‘You Never Forget...’
Purnima told me during the course of our interviews – “Most survivors of child sexual abuse never forget (emphasis my own) what was done to them. The scars are deep and they remain, and will remain for life.”
Neither Ishadrita nor Reshmi, not Vidhi or Purnima herself – at various stages of grappling with and grasping at the memory of a deep, dark childhood memory, have forgotten. Will a new law, or even clarity in the existing letter of the law, shut up that memory, or erase it like it never was?
Possibly not. But even the promise of retribution – the promise of a law that will stand watchdog, that will treat your pain like the crime it truly was and not a hushed-up story – is a beautiful thing.
*Names have been changed to protect identities