A Mother’s Pain To See The People Responsible For Her Children’s Death Walk Free After 20 Years Of Fight
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 spend her summer vacations with his brother Ujjawal by taking him to the movies.
On 13 June 1997, 17-year-old Unnati and her 13-year-old brother Ujjawal 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 Ujjawal 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 accused and the period already spent by them in prison, the court has decided not to send them to jail and rather asked the duo to pay Rs 30 crore each.
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 because of the extra seats put up by the cinema owners for more profit. Because of their greed, the seats blocked the exits through which the victims could have come out. The functional doors were bolted from the outside as the smoke engulfed the balcony and the people stranded inside slowly gasped for their last breath.”
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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 every day and would try to contact the families of the victims, later forming the Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy. They quit their well-established business 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 accused walk free. She says that her fight is against the two so that it sets an example to other people and so that public places become safer for people.
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, 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 the deaths of 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.
“Would it have been ok if I had 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. But, that is not the way to do things. We should let the law take care of it. I request everyone who wants justice to cover their story on media channels as it creates an accountability in the judiciary and justice is served.”
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. For a few weeks before the incident, the transformers had repeatedly needed repairs, but they were not fixed properly. Even on the fateful day, an explosion was heard by a security guard in the morning, and the fire was brought under control by a fire brigade. Since the repair was not done properly, the hole in the transformer started leaking oil, 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. The people on the first floor escaped while the 59 people stuck in the balcony because of additional seats, illegal extensions and blocked exits died due to asphyxiation, 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 asked 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, and a year later, their sentence was reduced to one year. Sushil Ansal was imprisoned for over five months, and Gopal Ansal for over four months. The Delhi High Court granted them bail after a year but cancelled a few months later.
Petition by the people
Neelam Krishnamoorthy, the head 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 upheld the conviction in 2014, but considering the advanced age of the accused and the period already spent by them in prison, it decided not to send them back to jail. They directed the duo to pay fine of Rs 30 crore each instead of the jail term.
The activist of the AVUT sought a review of the verdict and requested to consider the gravity of their offence.
The convicts had paid the fine then, but the apex court decided to call them again.
The bench headed by Justice Ranjan Gogoi, Adarsh Kumar Goel and Kurian Joseph which had reserved the judgement finally gave the verdict on 10 February 2017 sentencing Gopal Ansal to one-year imprisonment and let go of Sushil Ansal considering his advanced age.