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Uphaar tragedy: I want to die, says a grieving mother

Neelam Krishnamoorthy | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:50 IST

The tragedy

  • On 13 June 1997, a faulty transformer started a fire in Delhi\'s newly-renovated Uphaar cinema
  • Due to the fumes and a stampede, 59 people died and 109 were injured

The verdict

  • The Supreme Court upheld the conviction of real estate moguls Sushil and Gopal Ansal
  • However the Uphaar owners were handed fines of Rs 30 crore each instead of jail terms

The hurt

  • Neelam Krishnamoorthy lost both her teenaged children in the tragedy
  • She says \'I have failed in the promise I made to my children - to get them justice\'
  • \'The court has set the wrong precedent for cases involving the rich and powerful\'
  • \'I have nothing left to live for... I only hope I die as soon as possible\'

On 13 June 1997, a renovated Uphaar cinema opened to the public in Delhi to much fanfare.

That very evening, a fire started by a faulty transformer during the screening of the film Border led to a stampede inside the theatre. Fifty-nine people suffocated to death, while 109 survived with injuries.

I lost both my children in that fire. My daughter Unnati was 17 and my son Ujjwal all of 13.

After 13 days of performing the last rites, I went and met senior advocate KTS Tulsi to seek legal advice on the matter. He told me the only way of going to the courts was if I formed a legal association.

So, the Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT) was formed, with nine founding members.

Over these past 18 years, from when the case first began to 19 August 2015, when the SC gave it's ruling, the one thing that had kept me going was the promise I made to my children. The promise that I would get them justice. Today, I have failed in my promise to them.

Fines not punishment enough

To say that justice has not been done is an understatement. The Supreme Court handed out fines worth Rs 30 crore each to real estate barons Sushil and Gopal Ansal, who owned Uphaar and a host of other properties in the country.

Is punishment enough for the loss of 59 lives in that unfortunate incident?

We expected that the accused would serve a sentence of one-and-a-half to two years. If that had been the case, we would have had some judicial closure. We can't feel closure otherwise.

We knew that they wouldn't be charged under Section 304 (2) of the IPC (culpable homicide not amounting to murder, which carries a maximum punishment of 10 years). They weren't chargesheeted under that and we weren't asking for that. All we wanted was judicial closure.

On 13 June 1997, 59 people died and 109 were injured where a fire broke out at Delhi's Uphaar cinema

Ram Jethmalani, the Ansals' counsel, managed to convince the court that since his clients are old and not in good health, they cannot be sent to jail. He argued that the money they pay will do good for society.

I fail to understand the rationale behind this. Why is their age being considered? If anything, they should consider their ages at the time when the crime was committed - they were in their fifties then.

In similar situations of conviction under the Juvenile Act, the age of the person at the time of committing the crime is considered for legal purposes. So why are the courts making an exception in this case?

Justice delayed

Ever since the case was first filed, the AVUT went to the Delhi High Court with the plea of expeditious hearing. We went to the High Court in the years 2000, 2002 and 2007. It was only on the last occasion that the court set a deadline for the trial to be concluded by 31 August of that year.

The trial was concluded in November 2007. The court convicted all 12 accused, including the Ansals and sentenced them to two years' imprisonment, soon after which, both were granted bail by the HC. As you can see, 10 years went into this.

While the case was being prolonged in the High Court, we simultaneously moved the SC for cancellation of bail for the Ansal brothers.

On 11 September 2008, they went to Tihar Jail after cancellation of bail. On 19 December, the Delhi High Court upheld the trial court order convicting the Ansal brothers, but reduced their sentence from two years to one year.

The interesting thing is, once the accused were sent behind bars, the lawyers were present in court every day. That case in the HC was concluded in precisely 26 hearings.

The Ansals got bail in January the following year.

The matter came on board in the SC in 2010. Between 2010-2012, Jethmalani sought eight adjournments in the case.

Normally, when the matter is on board, the court does not give adjournments, but in this case it did. The bench was also rescheduled.

Jethmalani took almost a year to argue in the SC. Harish Salve, the lawyer representing the CBI, did not get a chance to argue for more than two days. Similarly, Tulsi argued for two days on behalf of the AVUT.

After arguing the case for all these years, in the month of April 2013, the SC reserved judgement for another year.

Finally, in March 2014, the judgment was given, which upheld the conviction the Ansals, but again referred the matter to a three-judge bench on the issue of quantum of punishment, due to a difference in opinion.

I don't think there is another case in the world where a conviction has been upheld and then the sentencing is not done for another 17 months.

Blood money

So what is the net result of 18 years of battling it out in court? Rs 60 crore as donation. This is blood money.

What is Rs 60 crore? It is the cost of six flats from the Ansals' latest mega building project in Gurgaon.

Jethmalani has successfully used delaying tactics and the adjournment culture, which has been prevalent in the country for the benefit of his rich clients. It is always the accused who benefit from prolonged trials.

I am fighting another similar case against the Ansals, which is regarding tampering with evidence against them. During the course of the Uphaar battle, they had tampered with judicial records.

There may not be another case in the world where sentencing hasn't been done for 17 months after conviction

The Ansals were chargesheeted by the Economic Offences Wing in 2006, but charges were framed only last year - that too after I went to the HC.

Till date, there is only one prosecution witness who has been examined in the case. The trial is going on at a snail's pace. I think it will take another 20 years to conclude.

By the time it reaches the Supreme Court, and if I'm alive then, the SC will tell the accused "alright, this is a crime against the courts, maybe you can pay Rs 50 crore and walk off because you're too old to go to jail".

There is no logic in the way all this has unfurled.

Losing my faith

In the Uphaar case itself, a review petition will be filed in the SC by the CBI. I don't know what difference it will make now. I've already lost my faith in the judiciary.

Eighteen years ago, I lost faith in God. On 19 August 2015, I lost faith in the legal system of this country.

Ultimately, it is the job of the state of ensure justice for the victims. How many victims can really afford a lawyer?

Personally, I am not the retributive kind. But I do believe that justice, when accomplished, makes a lot of difference to society. It sends a strong message and sets up the effect of deterrence, however small it may be.

But what is the precedent the courts have set for society and the legal system at large in this case?

This is just the beginning, there will be many more to come. Now when the AMRI Hospital medical negligence case, the Carlton Towers case or the Kumbakonam school fire tragedy will come to the courts, the rich and powerful will use the precedent of this judgement and get away with their crimes.

At a very personal level, I have no hope left for the future. I only hope that I die as soon as possible. I want an end to the suffering. I've suffered enough.

It is difficult for others to empathise or imagine what it is like to live without your children. I was living with one hope - that I would be able to get justice for them.

Having failed miserably, as a mother, the guilt of having not fulfilled my promise is just too heavy. The judicial system has failed me miserably. I have absolutely nothing else to live for.

(As told to Soumya Shankar)

First published: 22 August 2015, 3:00 IST