The fateful afternoon of June 13, 1997, at the Uphaar Cinema theatre in New Delhi was one of the worst fire tragedies of the country. Fifty-nine lives were lost, and over a hundred were left critically injured in the fire that broke out during the screening of Hindi Film Border on that day. All the 59 deaths were a result of asphyxia. People who lost their family members came together to form the Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT) and fought for justice for 24 years; until the Delhi court announced seven years of jail term for the cinema owners Sushil and Gopal Ansal.
How The Events Transpired In The Last Two Decades
The Ansal brothers were arrested on July 22, 1997, and were in the custody of the crime branch of Delhi Police in Mumbai. The Delhi Police transferred the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) two days later. The CBI filed the chargesheet in November and named 16 accused, including Sushil and Gopal Ansal. In 1999, the trial began in a Sessions Court, and the accused were convicted with charges framed under sections 304 (culpable homicide), 304 A (causing death by the negligent act) and 337 (hurt) of the IPC in February 2001.
The testimonies of the witnesses began to be recorded in May 2001, and the Delhi High Court directed the sessions court to wrap up the case by December in the same year. In 2003, the High Court directed that the next of kin of the victims were liable for compensation ranging from ₹18 lakh to ₹ 7.5 lakh depending on the age of the victim. The accused's statements were recorded in 2004, and the testimonies of defence witnesses began in the following year. In 2007, the Ansal brothers were awarded a jail term of two years, and all other accused were also convicted. However, in 2008, the Supreme Court cancelled the jail term for Ansal Brothers and sent them to Tihar Jail.
In 2008, the Delhi High Court reserved a trial order against the Ansal brothers and upheld the conviction; however, reducing their jail term from two years to one year. In 2009, the Supreme Court received petitions for the enhancement of the period. After much differences among the bench, the case was further transferred to a new Bench, in which one Judge supported a one-year jail term, while the other sentences of the Ansal duo had already undergone.
Supreme Court's Judgement
In 2015, the Supreme Court allowed the two brothers to walk free after paying a fine of ₹30 crores each. In 2017, the Apex Court asked Gopal Ansal to complete his one-year jail term, while Sushil Ansal was allowed to walk free, citing age-related compensation. In 2020, the Supreme Court dismissed a curative petition from the AVUT members.
However, in 2021, a Delhi Court slapped a seven-year jail term for the Ansal brothers along with a compensatory fine of ₹2.25 crore each for tampering with evidence related to the fire tragedy at Uphaar Cinema. The Indian Express quoted the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Pankaj Sharma, who said that the accused deserved punishment, and he could reach the judgement after 'thinking it over for many nights'.