Two decades ago, a young mother Neelam Krishnamoorthy was excited as her daughter, Unnati had aced her 12th-grade board examination and was ready to join college. With a good result under her belt, Unnati had decided to take her brother Ujjwal to watch movie ‘Border’ at Uphaar cinema.
On 13 June 1997, 17-year-old Unnati and her 13-year-old brother Ujjwal went to watch a much-awaited movie on the first day of the release. Little did their parents know that it would be the last day they would see them.
A fire broke out at Uphaar Cinema in Delhi and Unnati and Ujjwal were amongst the 59 people who died of asphyxiation.
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Today, after a long and painful battle, the Supreme Court ruled that considering the advanced age of the convict Sushil Ansal and the period already spent by him in prison, the court decided not to send him to jail and rather asked him to pay Rs 30 crore as fine. However Gopal Ansal, the other convict was awarded one year in Jail and 30 crore as fine.
But, justice has not been served yet, especially for Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy who have faced unbearable pain of the demise of their children. They have fought valiantly to bring justice to them and the families of the victims.
Speaking to The Logical Indian, Neelam said, “It has been a long, arduous journey of 20 years that I cannot sum up in a few words. Nothing is worse than losing a child. It was a struggle to come to terms with the loss. My husband and I decided not to let the owners of the cinema hall walk free. They were responsible for 59 deaths as none of the victims died of fire injuries but choked to death due to non availability of gangway and exit on the right side The Ansals in their greed to earn extra profit had installed additional seats in the gangway. They had also installed a private viewing box for their family which blocked the only exit. The functional doors were bolted as the smoke engulfed the balcony and the people trapped inside were asphyxiated.”
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Neelam and her husband turned to Senior advocate KTS Tulsi who suggested them to form an association. The couple would go through obituary columns and contacted the families of the victims, later forming the Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT). They cut down on their business commitment and started their journey for justice.
Neelam says that she is absolutely disappointed with the judgement as the Supreme Court has shattered the hope of people in desperate need of justice. Each life is important, and it brings immense pain to me and the families of the victims to see these convicts walk free. She says that her fight is against the Ansals so that it sets an example to owner of other public spaces to ensure safety.
She urged the judiciary to change their mindset, as the age of the criminal doesn’t matter and a crime is a crime.
“If age is the factor, then why are people like Asaram Bapu, Subrata Roy, Choutala, 80-year-old (convicted for an economic offence) and other aged people in jail? They should also walk free citing old age. There is no uniformity of law. They have asked people who have committed economic crimes to surrender, but they let go of people who were responsible for 59 deaths due to their greed. What is this mockery?”, she asked.
Unhappy with the result, Neelam who fought 24*7 for 20 years says that the association will file a curative petition as she wants to exhaust all possible avenues.
“I should have shot the owners of the cinema hall, spent 14 years in jail and walked free today? Justice would have been served and the victims’ families would have been happy. The judiciary and the government comes under immense pressure when there is public outrage and media campaign.”
The gloomy day of 13 June 1997
It became the worst nightmare for movie lovers after the transformers installed and maintained by the Delhi Vidyut Board on the ground floor of the Uphaar Cinema Hall caught fire. Even on the fateful day, an explosion was heard by a security guard in the morning, and the fire in the transformer was brought under control by a fire brigade. Since the repair was not done properly, the hole in the fin of the transformer raptured and oil started leaking and the loose cable ignited the spark due to which the fire spread to the adjacent parking lot and set the cars ablaze, and the smoke spread to the cinema hall. 750 people in the auditorium escaped while the 59 people stuck in the balcony died due to asphyxiation because there were no proper means of escape, and around 100 were injured in the stampede.
In July 1997, The owner of the theatre, Sushil Ansal and his son Pranav were arrested in Mumbai. The case was transferred to CBI from Delhi Police within two days of their arrest. By mid-November, the CBI had filed a charge-sheet against theatre owner Sushil Ansal, his brother Gopal Ansal and 14 others.
The trial was started two years later by a bench headed by LD Malik. The charges levied were sections 304 A (causing the death of negligent act), 304 (culpable homicide), 337 (hurt) of the Indian Penal Code. The recording of witnesses started from 23 May 2001.
Since the trial was going at a slow pace, the Delhi High Court in petition filed by AVUT directed the trial court to expedite and wrap it up by 15 December 2002. Meanwhile, Ansals also sought repossession of the theatre, but their plea was rejected.
The case went on for another five years till 2007 and the trial court sentenced the Ansal brothers to two years imprisonment. Subsequently,the Supreme Court cancelled their bail in September 2008. The Delhi High Court in the month of December 2008, reduced their sentence to one year. After spending over four months in jail, the Ansals were granted bail by the Supreme Court in the month of January 2009.
Petition by the people
Neelam Krishnamoorthy, the President of Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT) filed a petition seeking enhancement of sentence and alteration of charges. In 2009, the Supreme Court issued notice on the petition.
The last years of trial
The Supreme Court though upheld the conviction in 2014, but due to dissent among the two judges with regard to the sentence the matter was referred to a larger bench. On 19 August 2015, The larger bench let off the Ansals with the period of sentence already undergone considering the advanced age provided they paid Rs 30 crore each to Delhi Government for a Trauma centre inlieu of their sentence.
AVUT sought a review of the verdict and requested to consider the gravity of their offence. The review was allowed for an open court hearing on 6 January, 2016.
The bench headed by Justice Ranjan Gogoi, Adarsh Kumar Goel and Kurian Joseph heard the review petition on 14 December 2016. On 9 February, 2017 the court by majority verdict showed leniency towards Sushil Ansal because of the advanced age related complications. While Justice Joseph and Justice Gogoi directed Gopal Ansal to serve the remaining 7 months in prison to complete his one year sentence. The court further imposed a fine of Rs 30 crore each.