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The Rediff Special/ A Special Correspondent in New Delhi

Uphaar tragedy: The long struggle for justice

November 21, 2007

Neelam Krishnamurthy and her husband Shekhar
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As Additional Sessions Judge Mamta Sehgal pronounced the judgment convicting 12 people for the infamous Uphaar tragedy on Tuesday, there was no emotion on the faces of those waiting for justice.

They were waiting to hear the words for the last 10 years.

In a jam-packed courtroom on Tuesday, it was difficult to derive a conclusion. Are they happy or sad?

On June 13, 1997, the famous Uphaar Cinema in the Green Park neighbourhood of south Delhi became a "gas chamber." Fifty-nine people died and 103 got injured when a fire broke out from the generator room in the ground floor, and soon engulfed the entire theatre where nearly 300 people were watching the Bollywood blockbuster Border.

Just a day earlier, Rajinder Singh Rahi had decided to resign from the post of deputy superintendent of Tihar Jail to settle down in the US. He did resign; but for a different reason. Now he wanted to fight for justice. Rahi lost his son Sudeep in the fire tragedy. Sudeep died on the day he turned 22.

Kamal Bhalla, a housewife who survived the fire, went to watch the movie with her husband. She still recalls how many people ran over her husband's body in a bid to escape the fire.

M L Sehgal, an administrative officer at IIT-Delhi, had saved Rs1,00,000 to send his son to an engineering college. The money is still with him, but not his son. His younger son is still traumatised by the tragedy.

Naveen Sahni lost his only son Tariqa, 21.

Twelve people, including the owners of the theatre Sushil and Gopal Ansal, have been convicted for negligence, causing death and not ensuring safety of the theatre. Will this judgment bring cheer to the relatives of the victims? Is this what they were fighting for in the last 10 years?

"All these days, they (Ansals) never accepted that they were responsible for the tragedy. They gave arguments that the people themselves bought tickets in black and went to watch the movie. This statement was haunting me for years," says Neelam Krishnamurthy.

"They have now been held responsible for the crime. This makes me happy. I hope they now accept their responsibility," Neelam adds.

Neelam lost her daughter Unnati, 17, and son Ujwal, 13, in the tragedy. She has preserved all the clothes, toys and books of her children. Even today, the bedrooms of both Unnati and Ujwal remain the way it was on June 13, 1997. Neelam has not even removed the bedsheets.

Why did Neelam and her husband Shekhar do this? There was a pledge behind this emotional act. They duo wanted to bring to book the people who were responsible for the tragedy.

"Big people go unpunished. They have both money and muscle power. They keep making money without ensuring the safety of ordinary people," Neelam says.

"Compensation is not enough. These people should be punished so that others don't repeat the mistake. Responsibility should be fixed," she adds.

And it happened. The corrupt municipality, electricity department and Delhi police officials, who gave the no-objection certificate to the theatre without proper inspection of safety norms, have been found guilty.

The Ansals who owned the theatre, have been found responsible for running the "dangerous" cinema hall.

But it was not an easy task to fight the country's leading real estate giant Ansals, who own a business empire worth Rs 5,000 crore. The victims were all from the middle and lower middle class sections of society.

It was an uphill task given the state of the police and the judiciary in the country.

So Neelam and Shekhar started collecting the names and addresses of the victims published in the obituary columns of the newspapers. They approached a leading Supreme Court lawyer K T S Tulsi, who agreed to fight for them without any fee.

Gradually relatives of all the victims got in touch with each other through phone numbers. One day, they assembled at the municipality park just outside Uphaar cinema. And the Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy was born.

They decided to fight the legal battle together. Their opponents were the mighty people -- the Ansals, Delhi police, Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the Delhi Vidyut (Electricity) Board.

"We knew the Ansals could manage the police investigation and hire big lawyers. So we had to be united," Neelam says.

The association filed two separate cases. A civil suit for compensation, and a criminal case for causing death. Soon the pressure was on.

Neelam attended the court cases on each hearing regularly. She recalls: "Their goons used to threaten me. They used all kinds of abusive language in the court premises. Even a lady lawyer who happens to be the president of the bar association threatened me not to come to the court." The threatening stopped only after Neelam complained to the police.

On the request of the association, the case was later given to the Central Bureau of Investigation. Still the case moved at a snail's pace.

The Delhi high court had to ask the lower court twice to expedite the proceedings. "The pace at which the case moved was actually testing our patience. Each day was like a year for us," says Naveen Sahni.

The association's lawyer K T S Tulsi says: "We had to accept the charge of only negligence against the Ansals even though it meant a maximum sentence of just two years. If we had contested this, it would have taken another five years."

After losing their loved ones, it was very difficult for the association people to suffer each day of court hearing. All of them were from humble backgrounds.

Shekhar had a garment business in Delhi and in neighbouring towns. He confined all his business to Delhi so that he could concentrate more on the court cases. "We decided not to have children in future. We earned just enough for survival. What could we do with the money?" asks Shekhar.

Justice has now been done, but it still has to go a long way to be achieved. The case will now be appealed in the high court and then in the Supreme Court. The civil suit for compensation has also reached the Supreme Court.

So there are still years that elude justice, but the fight for justice over the Uphaar tragedy has definitely become a symbol of the power of ordinary people.

The Rediff Specials