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Uphaar Fire Tragedy
Ansal brothers, 10 others convicted
S.S. Negi
Legal Correspondent

New Delhi, November 20
After a long drawn intense legal battle of 10 years in one of the country’s worst fire tragedies claiming the lives of 59 cine goers, a city court today found all the 12 accused guilty in the Uphaar cinema disaster case.

But businessmen brothers Sushil Ansal and Gopal Ansal, owners of Uphaar theatre in south Delhi’s upmarket Green Park, were convicted for a lesser offence of causing death by negligence under Section 304-A of the IPC, which carries a maximum sentence of only two years and fine and under some other provisions of the IPC.

Two officials of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), Shayam Sunder Sharma and N.D. Tiwari, whose responsibility was to monitor the activities of the cinema hall, were also found guilty under Section 304-A.

They were also found guilty under Section 337, causing hurt by putting human lives in danger, which carries a maximum sentence of six months, Section 338 causing grievous hurt by endangering personal safety, having the provision of a maximum sentence of two years.

Besides, the Ansal brothers were found guilty of the violation of the Indian Cinematography Act, not adhering to the guidelines laid down for exhibiting motion pictures.

However, four cinema officials, including its three managers and a gatekeeper, three officials of the Delhi Vidyut Board (DVB) and the Delhi Fire Service were convicted under the harsher Section 304 of the IPC, for culpable homicide not amounting to murder, besides under Sections 337 and 338.

The maximum sentence for culpable homicide not amounting to murder is life imprisonment and the minimum sentence is 10 years jail.

The three convicted managers of cinema are R.K. Sharma, Nirmal Singh Chopra, Ajit Chaudhary and gatekeeper Manmohan Uniyal. The three officials convicted under Section 304-a are A.K. Gera, Vir Singh and H.S. Pawar.

The Additional Sessions Judge, Mamta Sehgal, would pronounce the sentence tomorrow after hearing arguments from the prosecution and the defence.

The fire, which had broken out on June 13, 1997, during the screening of that year’s Hindi blockbuster ‘Border’ from a DVB transformer installed in the theatre’s basement, had caused 59 deaths due to asphyxia (suffocation) as they could not get away from the hall as all the exit gates were not opened.

The CBI, which investigated the case, had accused Ansals of making several changes in the sitting arrangement inside the theater, particularly in the balcony, to accommodate more seats and in the process blocking the gangway and some exit gates. One hundred traumatised persons had received grievous injuries.

The Delhi High Court in a parallel case had awarded damages of Rs 18 crore to the victims’ families on the petition by the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT). The damages were to be shared by the Ansals, the Delhi government, the Delhi Police and the MCD for their act of negligence.

But the case regarding payment from Ansals was still pending in the apex court. The cinema owners had claimed that they did not have the money to pay their share and wanted permission to sell the theatre to realise the amount.

But the permission was denied as the hall was sealed on the orders of the trial court as various evidences relating to the seating arrangement and change in the inside plan were vital.

A total of 16 accused, including officials of the DVB responsible for maintaining the transformer and those from the fire services and the MCD whose duty was to check safety measures, were charge sheeted by the CBI, but four of them had died during the 10-year-long trial proceedings.

The 59 victims belonged to 28 families, which had formed the AVUT mainly with the efforts of Neelam Krishnamurthy, whose two young children were among the dead and her husband had left his job in the Navy.

Both husband and wife led the fight to take on the powerful Ansals backed by a strong battery of lawyers, who approached the high court and the Supreme Court on minute issues during the trial proceedings. The court had examined in all 115 prosecution witnesses, including some relatives of the Ansals, who had turned hostile.

During the high pitched trial proceedings, Sushil and Gopal Ansals had claimed that they were not the owners of the cinema hall, while the CBI had contested their claim and alleged that they had “coerced” the DVB officials to install the transformer in the theatre. The CBI had also alleged that the owners had not put in place the essential emergency safety measures.

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Travesty of justice: Relatives
Akhila Singh
Tribune News Service

Neelam Krishnamurthy (Centre) president, Association of Victims of Uphaar, and other relatives of Uphaar tragedy victims, come out after the verdict of the case at Patiala Court in New Delhi on Tuesday.
Neelam Krishnamurthy (Centre) president, Association of Victims of Uphaar, and other relatives of Uphaar tragedy victims, come out after the verdict of the case at Patiala Court in New Delhi on Tuesday. — Tribune photo by Mukesh Aggarwal

New Delhi, November 20
Terming the verdict in the 10-year-old Uphaar fire tragedy case as a “travesty of justice”, the victims’ kin today expressed their intention to move the Delhi High Court against the conviction of Ansal brothers under the provisions of law, which invite “lighter punishment”.

“You kill an animal, you get five years of imprisonment, but killing 59 persons gets you only two years’ punishment,” said Neelam Krishnamurthy from the Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy. Gopal Ansal and Sushil Ansal have been convicted under sections carrying a maximum of two years of imprisonment.

“We hadn’t fought for 10 years to bargain for two years’ imprisonment,” said Naveen Krishnamurthy. The Krishnamurthy couple had lost both their children, Ujjwal and Unnai, to the fire. The couple has been active in pursuing the case at each step since June 13, 1997.

Present Manipur Governor S.S. Sidhu has born serious losses in the tragedy. He lost his daughter, daughter-in-law and five grandchildren in the blaze. “It was a man made tragedy in which I have myself suffered tremendously. Many small children lost their lives, while they deserved to blossom” said Governor Sidhu. He believes strongly that such a big tragedy could have been avoided if the management had not failed. “The wheels of justice move slowly in our country, but nevertheless we have faith in judiciary. The people responsible have been convicted.”

Durgadas had lost his son in the tragedy and he had been counting each hour since then, waiting for the judgement. “Our children can only rest in peace when the Ansal brothers get life imprisonment. I have been waiting for 10 years, five months and eight days.”

Two years is not what the families had actually expected. “The Ansals had the full knowledge of the lapse in the cinema hall so, therefore, the provisions that invite life imprisonment should have been invoked,” said Neelam.

Tarika Sharma is one of the mothers who lost her daughter in the incident. “Though there is some solace, we were expecting a tougher punishment,” she said.

However, the association has not lost hope in the judiciary. “We are not satisfied with the verdict and we have decided to approach the Delhi High Court now,” said Neelam on behalf of the association.

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