The Curious Case of Absurd Limitations
Updated: May 26, 2021
By Aparimita Pratap, Alumni of West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences
University Grants Commission Regulations ("UGC Regulations”) to prevent, prohibit and redress sexual harassment, lays down a framework to prevent sexual harassment amongst students and employees in Higher Educational Institutions (“HEI”). The UGC Regulations prescribe for a time limit of three months from the date of the incident, for the survivor to file their complaint to the Internal Committee (“IC”). If extenuating circumstances can be proved, then the IC can exercise its discretion to extend the time limit to a maximum of six months from the date of the incident.
The experience of a five-year long law course did have its moments when the different power dynamics at play were prominently visible. For instance, a senior junior relationship made it very difficult for juniors, especially first years, to report their abusers to the HEI. Similarly, there were many abusers that held position of powers, “social capital” (through its shallow norms) and had close personal relationships with the survivors. These factors made the process of reporting arduous and unthinkable. However, awareness about rights and movements like #MeToo encouraged many survivors to file their complaints after several months or years from the date of the incident. Although #Metoo was majorly criticised for not taking legal discourses, this criticism is at odds with the very reasons the movement began, which are the restrictive laws and procedure which make it impossible for a survivor to file an IC case in the first place. It also exposed the specious limitation period of three plus three months, provided in the UGC Regulations, to be inadequate to deal with the issue of sexual harassment in HEIs.
There have been multiple studies that show how trauma, PTSD, social stigmatisation and lack of trust in authorities cause survivors to not report sexual abuse, or delay the reporting of such abuses. It is simply absurd that HEIs, which often do not even have trained support cells for survivors to confide in and no sensitisation or awareness on the issue, believe that a college student should be able to file their complaints to the IC within six months of the incident or they should forever forgo their right to be protected against sexual harassment.
While discussing the inadequacy of the limitation period, it is imperative that the issue of distrust in the authorities of the HEIs, be highlighted. Majority of the HEIs in India are in direct contravention of the UGC Regulations since they either have not established effective ICs in their HEI or the survivors bear the brunt of inexperienced members on the IC who are not effectively trained and sensitised to deal with cases of sexual harassment. These factors also create apprehension in the minds of survivors while they take a decision on filing a complaint to the IC.
The idea behind reducing the limitation period to three months is to ensure that the evidence is preserved and it is more “genuine” when presented before the IC. However, understanding the complexities involved in the reporting of an incident of sexual harassment institutionally has to be given regard to and collection of evidence is not a grave enough reason to deny survivors access to redressal mechanisms. Even after the passage of the limitation period, there is a probability as any, that the evidence produced before the IC is satisfactory. It appears to be unjust to then deny the survivors a chance to get justice due to the unproven effectiveness of grounds like limitation.
Prominent persons in the legal field like Senior Advocate Rebecca John, have identified a three month limitation period as a shortcoming of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (“POSH Act”). According to her, there are multiple factors like unequal power dynamics that make it difficult for survivors to file official complaints. Justice Sujata Manohar stated that it was time to rethink the POSH Act to also include cases where the incident had taken place in the past and were beyond limitation.
In the absence of legislative interference, at least judicial interference should be beneficiary in nature. For instance, the Delhi High Court in the case of X v. District Magistrate (South) and Another, provided a flexible approach in analysing the application of the limitation Period. The Local Committee adjudged that the complainant had filed a complaint in March 2018, for the incidents that occurred in July and September of 2017, thus falling well beyond the limitation period in the Act. Upon appeal, in light of the evidence suggesting that the limitation period was to be calculated from a different date, the Court sent back the complaint to the Local Committee. The court reversed the dismissal and asked the Local Committee reconsider the merits of the applicability of the limitation period based on the new evidence presented.
The lacuna in the law has given the courts a wide ambit and discretion to interpret the laws around sexual harassment at workplace or HEIs in a beneficial manner. Unfortunately, this has largely resulted in courts interpreting these laws in a manner that goes against the object and purpose of the law, which is to provide redressal to survivors. The UGC Regulations aim to safeguard the students and staff at HEIs against sexual harassment. Due to the rigidity of the limitation period, a survivor is forced to share the same space with their abuser instead of being protected, contrary to the aim of the UGC Regulations
Six months or beyond, it is the duty of the HEI to make itself a safe and secure environment for students and staff alike. The arbitrariness of such an absurd limitation, makes one wonder about the genuineness of those structures that were meant to protect us.
Illustration taken from freepik.com, available at - https://www.freepik.com/free-photos-vectors/medical