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December 29, 1997


Six months later...

Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy
    Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy
The morning papers all carried it. Bold headlines that announced her first victory.

Neelam Krishnamoorthy spread the dailies on her bed and glanced through quickly. It was on the front page, it wouldn't get lost like so many others did. And the readers would be reminded of another day, another headline which, just six months ago, woke them up to the cruel face of life. To a man-made tragedy on the evening of June 13, which cost 59 lives and caused injuries to 104 people when the Uphaar cinema in Delhi went up in flames.

Among the dead were Neelam's two children -- 16-year-old Unnati and 13-year-old Ujjwal.

Now her struggles were finally producing results. The Central Bureau of Investigation had filed chargesheets against the Ansals (builders of the cinema hall) and 14 others just the day before.

True, she still did not know the contents of the chargesheet. Though her husband Shekhar and she had waited at the CBI headquarters till late the previous evening, she had not been able to secure a copy of it. But this was progress, wasn't it? She was a step closer to her obsession -- justice for her children and the other victims, and measures to ensure that such an accident would never occur again.

That was the least she could do for her kids. That was what the unique Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy, an organisation sired by grief and anger, was all about.

"Everyone will see it," she remarked to Shekhar, "They will remember."

Being in the media eye, Neelam knew, was very important at this juncture. Without public sympathy, their case was as good as lost. She wasn't naive enough to believe the authorities would understand their anguish or anger. And would it make any difference if they did understand?

Would it change things, would they comprehend that it broke her heart to see children preparing for school in the morning, merrily waving goodbyes to their parents as they set off, as Ujjwal and Unnati used to?

Would it change the fact that each morning Shekhar and she hid in their bedroom behind drawn curtains, scared to look out, as disturbing memories of their children flooded back?

Would it in any way ease the agony of the evenings which they had spend since the accident, not talking, not moving, not even daring to look at each other? The torture of the nights when sleep refused to numb their minds, but brought painful images instead? Would it?

Neelam knew it wouldn't. The wound the tragedy left in them was permanent. And the only balm it would accept, that would ease the pain a little, was their mission.

She finished reading and reached for the telephone. To let the others know the only piece of good news they have had since the accident. She would call the Sawhneys first, then Harish, then Sidhu, Mann...

Madhu, Resham and Moksh Dang
      Madhu, Resham and Moksh Dang
Navin Sawhney does not remember much about that day. Nor of the next, or the day after. Everything had seemed to pass by in a haze. Even his 17-year-old daughter Tarika's funeral.

But he distinctly remembers the moment he decided to fight back. It was on the third day after the accident, two days after Tarika's funeral. He remembers the overpowering anger he felt when he picked up the morning papers and saw that advertisement.

"The Ansals were claiming that Uphaar wasn't theirs and they weren't in anyway responsible for the accident," he said. "That was when I decided that something needed to be done, that they shouldn't be allowed to get away with it."

But how? Sawhney did not know. All he knew was that his daughter need not have died if the Uphaar management had not piled mistakes on mistakes. If they had not continued with the movie even 12 minutes after the fire broke out. If they had called for the fire engine as soon it started. If the theatre manager had not walked off with the cash box instead of evacuating the victims. If the fire engines had not arrived with broken hose pipes, faulty sirens and empty water tanks. If the ambulances had arrived with oxygen. If... There were too many ifs.

"It is difficult to believe how easy it was to avoid the tragedy," Sawhney said. "And on top of that, the Ansals come out with such advertisements! How can they say they do not have anything to do with Uphaar, when it is common knowledge they own it?"

"Perhaps," he continued, "if they had not come out with that ad, if they had instead said they were sorry and spent some time with the relatives, our association would not have been formed. We would not have been so unified. We would not have fought as we are fighting now."

Unknown to him, Neelam and Shekhar were already planning legal action and had approached lawyer and former solicitor general K T S Tulsi for advice.

"It was he who said that if we wanted to win, we needed to form an association," Neelam said, "He said the people concerned were too powerful and big for us to fight them singlehandedly."

And thus was the AVUT formed. For the next days, it was a frantic hunt for other relatives' addresses. Neelam and Shekhar went through obituaries in newspapers, tried contacting the police, officials at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences where the victims were admitted, everything possible.

The going was tough, there was a lot of red tape to cut through. But there were enough sympathetic officials around, and slowly they made progress. Contact numbers filtered in and the couple set about calling up and meeting people. Complete strangers who, after the first word, became closer than relatives. People who could understand their anguish, people united by a common grief.

"We called many, many called us," Neelam said, "We met with them, spoke to them about our plans and they were all for it."

Sawhney, meanwhile, had heard about the AVUT from a friend. He phoned Neelam, who invited him over for a meeting. Since then, AVUT (it was formally registered on June 30), as he admits, is his family.

"We can't get our dear ones back. We know that. But we want to make sure that no one else suffers the same way we do. Our fight is to ensure that," Sawhney said. "All of us are in the same position, all of us have lost terribly. Only we can understand each others's pain. We derive strength from each other."

And it is this strength that enables him to carry on. Tarika's memory is too raw, too sharp -- it haunts him constantly.

"In our family there is only one topic. We try to change it, but always we return to it," Sawhney said, "Whatever I am doing, working, driving, anything... she is always there. When I go to bed I feel she is coming to say goodnight as she used to. At times, I feel she has gone for a holiday and will be back. But I know it isn't true..."

Fuelled by memories, Sawhney, like the 53 other members of AVUT, began his fight in earnest. He was by now treasurer of the organisation and, along with the other five executive members, shuttling between the Delhi high court, the Supreme Court and various government offices. They met the chief minister once, the lieutenant governor twice.

The petition which they had filed in the Supreme Court against 39 respondents -- comprising the Union government, the Delhi civic authorities, the police, the Ansal family, and the Uphaar management -- for compensation to the tune of Rs 1.22 billion had been shifted to the high court. The investigation, which till then was under the Delhi police, was transferred to the CBI.

And finally, after a long apprehensive wait -- every minute of which reminded them of the crushing power their opponents wielded, of the previous attempts to tamper with evidence -- the CBI had filed the chargesheet. Neelam had woken him up to tell him.

"Navin," she had said on the phone, "Go out and get all the papers. It's all there!"

Harish and Resham Dang
    Harish Dang with daughter Resham
Since that day, Harish Dang has not spent more than an hour in office. His mind does not stick to the price of steel, which is his business, anymore -- instead, he finds it clouding with thoughts of his dead wife Madhu and 10-year-old son Moksh.

And Resham? Since that day his daughter has been under psychiatric care. She had withdrawn into herself, hardly spoke to anyone. Her whole world was centred around him now -- just as his was around her.

"They say time is a great healer," Harish says as his daughter clamoured for his attention in the background, ''But I find it the other way round. I find it more and more difficult to cope with it as time passes. I don't think I will ever come to terms with the tragedy..." He paused to overcome the break in his voice.

"My daughter survived the incident," he continued. "She is young, only seven years. I have told her everything. But she has shut herself out. Doctors say she will be alright in time..."

If Dang has lost two members of his family, even worse is Raman Sidhu's plight -- he lost his wife, their two children, his sister and her three kids. Similar is Sudesh Datta's case. Having lost two generations of her family -- her son, daughter-in-law and their two children -- she has been left to care for her two-year-old grandson, Bhave. Alone.

For Datta, Dang, and the others, AVUT was a godsend. It's their lifeline, hope, life.

"When we first approached people, there was a lot of sceptism," Neelam said. "Many didn't believe it would really help matters. But there were a lot of people -- strangers -- who supported us. We used to gets lots of letters and phone calls from people we didn't know saying they were sorry and was there anything they could do for us? That gave us the strength to go on."

Soon after its formation, when AVUT members tried to get an appointment with Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, they found themselves facing the stone wall of bureaucracy. Faxed requests went unanswered, and PMO officials remained as unsympathetic as ever.

"Same was the case when we tried to see Home Minister Indrajit Gupta," Neelam said. "Despite waiting in his office for hours on two occasions, we couldn't get to meet him. He was too busy!"

Since its humble beginnings, the organisation has grown in strength. Today, it has 54 members, cutting across class and religion. AVUT meets regularly at its registered office in 804, Ashadeep, 9, Hailey road.

"On the 13th of every month we hold some kind of function," said Neelam, "Once we had a seminar on fire safety, then we conducted a blood donation camp which had an enormous response. We plan to have something or the other every month."

"You know," she continued, "Money doesn't mean anything to us. For me it is like toilet paper now. Even the damages we have asked for is not for us -- but to do something for the society. We plan to set up a centralised accident and trauma services in the city. Do you know that Delhi doesn't have one yet?"

The Delhi government had declared an ex-gratia compensation of Rs 100,000 to the nearest kin of the victim. But even six months after, very few have received it. And there are many who need the money desperately. AVUT, with the media strongly behind it, has been trying to lobby the government into paying up faster.

"We are now a group of men and women who are using our heads, not hearts," Neelam said.

"We know we are fighting powerful men and that anything can happen to us," added Sawhney. "But whatever happens, our fight will not die out. This (the chargesheet) is just the beginning. We have a long war ahead of us. And we are ready for it."

A Mother's Anguish

60 feared killed in Delhi fire
Most victims died of suffocation
Cinema fire one of the worst in Indian history
Friday's fire raises fears that many Delhi movie halls ignore safety norms
Transformer had caught fire in the morning

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