20 Years Of Uphaar Cinema Verdict – Has Justice Been Delivered?

20 Years Of Uphaar Cinema Verdict – Has Justice Been Delivered?

While social media is busy marking the 20th anniversary of Bollywood movie Border, especially trolling the epic character of Mathuradas, a fight for justice that began exactly 20 years ago, on June 13, 1997, when 59 lives were lost in a fire at Uphaar Cinema in South Delhi, still goes strong.

The Uphaar Cinema fire tragedy, which occurred during a show of the movie Border, is a classic example of how the rich/ resourceful can play around with our ductile judicial system for so long.

In the past 20 years, India has seen four elected governments, 17 chief justices and four prime ministers, but none of them helped the cause of delivering efficient justice to the families of victims and punish the culprits proportionately.

It was only at the stage of the curative petition that the Supreme Court ensured that real estate baron and builder Gopal Ansal goes to prison. The other brother Sushil Ansal, nevertheless, escaped imprisonment. A petition has been filed by Ram Jethmalani, on behalf of Gopal Ansal, seeking mercy and is pending.

The Indian judicial system undoubtedly suffers from the ‘tareekh pe tareekh’ defect. It took 19 long years for the victim’s families to finally see partial success in nailing the culprits and still a mercy petition is hanging.

The whole journey of 20 long years has shown a mirror to the bar, the bench and the litigants as to how a case of such nature must not be contested.

Immediately after the tragedy, within a month, a magisterial probe had held the owners of Uphaar Cinema Sushil Ansal and his brother Gopal Ansal, along with Delhi Vidyut Board and City Fire Service, responsible for the incident.

It is only because of negligence of Ansals, in collusion with the authorities, and the greed for money by putting 52 extra seats blocking the exit routes, that the unfortunate event happened. The CBI filed a charge sheet in late 1997 and 16 accused were chargesheeted for causing death by negligence, endangering lives and under the provisions of the Cinematograph Act.

For the next 20 years, with deep anguish, the case dragged on at tortoise speed before the sessions court, the high court and the Supreme Court (SLP, review, curative, review of curative!) because of repeated adjournments and dilatory tactics by Ansals. The Ansals were found to be guilty, however, sentencing was not done proportionately on the ground of age, without properly construing that the delay has been due to them only.

In the classic case of R v Sussex Justices, Ex Parte McCarthy (1923), Chief Justice Hewart wrote – “It is not only merely of some importance but is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.”

With deepest regards to the judiciary and to lawyers appearing for parties, when I ask myself a simple question – ‘Does justice seem to be done here’, I am unable to answer the same in affirmative. With prayers for the departed souls, fingers crossed!

PS - Also read here, here and here.

Namit Saxena is a Lawyer practicing in the Supreme Court of India. The author can be reached at namitsaxenaoffice@gmail.com

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