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Uphaar verdict: The victims deserve an audacious legal ending

Last updated on: August 21, 2015 12:25 IST

IMAGE: Family members of the Uphaar cinema fire victims at the All India Institute Of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, in this photograph taken in 1997. Photograph: PTI Photo.

 

Sunetra Choudhury shares the agony of the families of those who lost their loved ones in the Uphaar fire tragedy after the verdict that let the accused escape a jail term, and hopes that the Supreme Court will eventually give a fitting punishment.

Of all the old cases stagnating in our courts, of all the litigants waiting around in those corridors of justice, gaining gray hair and increasing worry lines by the day, I thought that these two would get their happy ending.

After all, when you go through as much of the tumultuous journey as Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamurthy had gone through in the last 18 years after losing their teenage son and daughter in a cinema fire, how could the curtains go down on an end which wasn't a happy one?

I won't even attempt to relate just what it is that the Krishnamurthys and the parents of 23 other children who were killed in that same fire, have been through in these last two decades. What I want to do is to give an idea of the kind of agony that our legal system put them through.

It was basically a law course that lasted 18 years in a school tougher than that any army rookie has been sent to.

"I know the law now, I can fight my case and thank God I can, because otherwise they take you for a ride," Neelam told me when I met her last week. Even with this unofficial law degree, with their affluent background and assertive style that knew how to reach out to the media, the Krishnamurthys couldn't avoid a legal system in which a trial court took 18 years to deliver its verdict.

Fifty-nine people were killed in June 1997, but even two years later, they didn't have a regular judge to hear their case. Here's what happened, when the case started trial in 1999, then additional sessions judge L D Malik began hearing the case.

Just when she was getting acquainted with the nitty-gritty, she went on leave and then just 10 months after the trial began, Judge Malik was transferred. There was no explanation to the victims' families, nothing except a realisation that they all had to start things again.

The new judge was Mamta Sehgal and the case slowly started again in January 2000. It looked like the trial was getting back on track when in July, the then prosecutor B L Kalra suddenly announced in court that he was withdrawing from the case.

No one knew why, not even the Central Bureau of Investigation, and Neelam was again forced to play the role of the helpless victim.

"I just ran from the courtroom to the CBI's office who said they had no idea and then I had to go back to court," she said.

IMAGE: The Uphaar cinema after the fire. Photograph: PTI Photo.

 

Running from pillar to post is a terrible cliche, and the Uphaar families had just started receiving their unfair share.

What's more unfair than being delayed by the system, but having the accused get the benefit of it? "They (the Ansal brothers) were only given one year's sentence because of the delays that were caused. Did we cause the delays?" the families asked.

Of course not. That is an art perfected by the defence team who displayed their mastery of the art of adjournments.

Gopal and Sushil Ansal hired the very best defence team headed by Ram Jethmalani. It is not that the Uphaar families didn't have the best in Harish Salve as the CBI lawyer and K T S Tulsi as their own lawyer, but despite various Law Commission reports asking for time-bound justice delivery systems, no one gets fined or admonished for causing delays.

There is a particular story that the families tell you of 2002 when the hearings were on in the Supreme Court. It had been five years after the accident and the families braced themselves for another adjournment because the court was told Mr Jethmalani was unwell.

"The next morning I read in the paper that he had argued some matter in the Patiala House courts!" Neelam said.

Why didn't the families complain? They knew it would serve no purpose other than causing more delays. Just that year, Mr Jethmalani is said to have sought eight adjournments.

And yet, this is not the most incredible story that you will hear of the delays. One Ansal lawyer took refuge in the solar eclipse, saying his client was fasting, and the court relented.

One lawyer said they forgot their brief; the court was very understanding. And here's my favourite: One lawyer said he didn't come prepared, and the court was understanding and issued another date.

For each one of these adjournments, it meant a delay of a week and 10 days which all added up to the prolonged trial that is Uphaar. Mr Jethmalani in the last hearing before the quantum of sentence was pronounced made a promise.

He told the court there would be no more adjournments on the defence's part, and, of course, there weren't, because by the next date, his clients had escaped prison.

That's where I come back to my initial point of happy endings. It may have been an indescribable tragedy, but I refuse to accept it as 'The End'. I am an audacious TV reporter, and the families of the 59 who died while watching a film, deserve an audacious legal ending.

There have been many unusual, unprecedented, events in this case -- for the first time two Supreme Court judges differed on the quantum of sentence, for the first time it took 17 months between upholding conviction and sentencing.

For the love of justice, let there be another first -- for the Supreme Court to give a fitting punishment despite already ruling otherwise.

Sunetra Choudhury in New Delhi
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