A Mother Fights for Justice for Her Children Killed in Uphaar Fire

A Mother Fights for Justice for Her Children Killed in Uphaar Fire

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(This story was first published on 12 June, 2017, and has been reposted from The Quint's archives to mark the 21st anniversary of the Uphaar theatre fire tragedy)

Had I really known that after twenty years this was the verdict I’ll get, I would have actually picked up a gun and shot those responsible for the death of my children.
Neelam Krishnamoorthy, The Association of Victims of Uphaar Fire Tragedy’ (AVUT)

After years of relentlessly fighting for justice, perhaps for the first time, Neelam Krishnamoorthy is feeling lost and dejected. She says the courts have failed her and others who lost their loved ones in the Uphaar Fire tragedy on 13 June 1997.

The tickets for ‘Border’ that were found in the pocket of Ujjawal, Neelam & Shekhar Krishnamoorthy’s late son. 
The tickets for ‘Border’ that were found in the pocket of Ujjawal, Neelam & Shekhar Krishnamoorthy’s late son. 
(Photo Courtesy: Neelam & Shekhar Krishnamoorthy)

The Fire that Claimed 59 Lives

13 June 1997: Neelam’s children Unnati (17) and Ujjwal (13) were excited about seeing the new war film Border on the first day of release. The night before, Neelam had bought the tickets for the 3:15pm show at Uphaar Cinema in Green Park area of New Delhi.

Many patrons jumped from the windows to save themselves from the toxic smoke.
Many patrons jumped from the windows to save themselves from the toxic smoke.
(Photo Courtesy: Neelam & Shekhar Krishnamoorthy)

Unnati and Ujjwal were seated on the balcony on the extreme right hand corner. Around 4:55 pm, a spark in the transformer on the ground floor of Uphaar caused a fire, charring cars in the parking lot.

Remains of the burnt cars in the parking area of Uphaar Cinema.
Remains of the burnt cars in the parking area of Uphaar Cinema.
(Photo Courtesy: Neelam & Shekhar Krishnamoorthy)

Soon, toxic smoke filled the main auditorium. It was pitch dark and the auditorium turned into a gas chamber. People seated on the balcony started running for the exit doors but there were not enough exits. Fifty-nine people asphyxiated to death, out of which 23 were children. Unnati and Ujwal were two of them.

Unnati was 17 and Ujjawal 13 when they died in the Uphaar cinema fire.
Unnati was 17 and Ujjawal 13 when they died in the Uphaar cinema fire.
(Photo Courtesy: Neelam & Shekhar Krishnamoorthy)

The Accused

A magisterial probe done within a month of the tragedy held the owners of Uphaar Cinema Sushil Ansal, his brother Gopal Ansal, the Delhi Vidyut Board and city fire service responsible for the incident.

The sheer negligence of norms and the greed for extra money were the main reasons why the 59 people were killed. The Ansals had put in 52 extra seats in the balcony and a box for their own family, thereby completely blocking the exits on the right side of the balcony. These very exits could have saved the lives of Neelam Krishnamoorthy’s children and 57 others who were were seated on the right side balcony seats.

The slider below clearly shows how the extra seats blocked the exit routes.

It is in collusion with the authorities that the owners were allowed to close the gangways on the right hand side. My children were seated on the right hand side on A4 and A5. Had there been an exit and a gangway they could have walked out to safety, which was denied. The Supreme Court says that the owners did this to increase their profits. Just because they wanted to make some more money, why should my children lose their lives?  
Neelam Krishnamoorthy, The Association of Victims of Uphaar Fire Tragedy’ (AVUT)

There were also no exit lights, public announcement system to alert people, even the gangways were locked.

Right hand side of the balcony where there is no gangway. There is an 8-seater box where there should have been an exit.
Right hand side of the balcony where there is no gangway. There is an 8-seater box where there should have been an exit.
(Photo Courtesy: Neelam & Shekhar Krishnamoorthy)

The Trial and the Verdict

The Central Bureau of Investigation filed the chargesheet in late 1997. The 16 accused were charged of causing death by negligence, endangering life and relevant provisions of the Cinematography Act, 1952.

The case dragged on for years in the sessions, high and Supreme Court. In the course of the trial, 14 people including the Ansals were sentenced to jail terms ranging from 2 to 7 years. The Ansals were also asked to pay Rs 60 crores to the Delhi Government for the construction of a trauma centre.

All the 59 who died in the Uphaar Fire were seated on the balcony.
All the 59 who died in the Uphaar Fire were seated on the balcony.
(Photo Courtesy: Neelam & Shekhar Krishnamoorthy)

Finally, after a review petition by the CBI in February 2017, the Supreme Court of India sentenced Gopal Ansal to one year in prison, but his elder brother Sushil Ansal escaped a jail term because of his old age and the fact that he had served five months and twenty days as an undertrial.

Why don’t you see the age of the Ansals when they committed the crime? They were in their 40s and 50s. Why is the court seeing their current age? It was the Ansals who delayed and derailed the case. The trial took ten years in the trial court and six years in the Supreme Court. If the appeal is listed in 2010 and listened in 2014, it’s not my mistake! If the judges reserve the judgement and take one year to deliver the verdict, it’s not my mistake! I want to know why such magnanimity is being shown to the Ansals?
Neelam Krishnamoorthy, The Association of Victims of Uphaar Fire Tragedy’ (AVUT)

13 June: A Day of Remembrance

Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy with their son Ujjwal & daughter Unnati.
Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy with their son Ujjwal & daughter Unnati.
(Photo Courtesy: Neelam & Shekhar Krishnamoorthy)

Every year on 13 June, the Association of Victims of Uphaar Fire Tragedy (AVUT) meet for a memorial outside the Uphaar Theatre. There’s prayer and remembrance for the departed. And just one question: Have the guilty been adequately punished, is this the justice they wanted for the 59 deaths in the Uphaar fire?

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