Remembering Uphaar Tragedy: When Courts’ Kindness Buried Justice

On 13 June 1997, halfway through the screening of Border, a fire consumed Uphaar Cinema, situated in south Delhi’s Green Park area. 59 people were killed because of asphyxiation, while over 100 were injured in the fire and the ensuing stampede.

In 2015, the Supreme Court let off the accused Ansal brothers with a Rs 60 crore fine, to be given to the Delhi government towards the setting up of a trauma centre. The verdict was met with widespread public outcry.

It would be an understatement to say that the use (or abuse) of judicial discretion in sentencing is in a state of flux – it is in fact in a state of turmoil. A turmoil in which many victims, especially those lacking power, pelf or financial clout, perish.

The Supreme Court’s three-judge bench “reasoned” decision in the Uphaar Cinema fire tragedy, in which 59 people (mostly children) died and 103 were injured, is the latest in the steadily growing number of people who can negotiate their way out of punishment. And, for good measure, also get a good bargain when it comes to paying the fine.

It isn’t as if the deceased, the surviving victims and their kin were waiting with bated breath for the judgement. All their hopes were dashed for good on August 19, when the court tersely said that Sushil and Gopal Ansal, the owners of the movie theatre, would be directed to pay Rs 30 crore each, and “that’s it.” They would not be required to serve the prison sentences imposed on them. The only reason they were still waiting was to see what rationale or judicial logic the court would provide for its clemency.

And even here they had nothing but utter dismay in store.

Escape from the Uphaar inferno. (Photo: Reuters)
Escape from the Uphaar inferno. (Photo: Reuters)

Reasoning Behind the Courts’ Kindness

The bench was constituted because there was a split verdict earlier. Justice Tirath Thakur differed with Justice (now retired) Gyan Sudha Misra over the quantum of sentence. While Justice Thakur was agreeable with only a year’s sentence, Justice Misra was clear that the Ansals deserved nothing less than two years – the maximum punishment prescribed under Section 304A of the Indian Penal Code.

She provided an elaborate reasoning for her decision – the Ansals’ gross criminal negligence and subterfuge shouldn’t be treated leniently. It is true that the transformer which exploded and started the fire was not maintained properly by the Delhi Vidyut Board (DVB), but it is equally true that no victim died of burns; all were asphyxiated, she held. And for that, the Ansals could not evade culpability because it was because of their acts – illegal modifications to the structure, adding extra seats, closing off a crucial fire exit – that the victims lost their lives in such a manner.

She also criticised how the Delhi High Court in its 2003 ruling had reduced the sentence, without any cogent or convincing reasons, despite agreeing with the trial court’s finding of guilt. Of particular significance is her pointing out that appellate courts ought not to interfere in trial courts’ sentencing decisions – save in those cases where there have been manifest errors and injustice. Therefore, when the bench led by Justice Anil Dave sat to consider the matter, it was naturally expected to take a comprehensive and analytical view of all conceivable factors. Because, justice must not only be done but also seen to be done. It is here that the judgement is found severely deficient.

No reason was provided for reducing the fine from Rs 50 to 30 crore, except for recording the Ansals’ submission that it was excessive. Senior Advocate Rajeev Dhavan, who once represented the brothers but then recoiled in embarrassment and disgust, has detailed how smugly tightfisted and resolutely brazen they were, trying every trick in the book to delay the judicial process. Shouldn’t convicts’ conduct be taken into account while determining sentence?

The bench seems to have disregarded how the court itself decided in the same case in 2011. It drastically reduced the amount of punitive damages set by the high court, but provided extensive reasons. If there is reasoning, one has a fair chance to praise, criticise or critique a judgement. But in the absence of any reasoning, one would be left with bewilderment, or worse, might impute motives.

The melee around Uphaar Cinema. (Photo : Reuters)
The melee around Uphaar Cinema. (Photo : Reuters)

Dubious Reprieve

According to the court, the Ansals are “fairly aged” and hence it wouldn’t be “fruitful” to send them to prison. Again, it leaves one baffled – which theory of penology did the judges follow? And, in a case of this nature, when the law is flawed – it provides for a woefully inadequate sentence – isn’t it all the more imperative for the court to give a sentence which would act as a deterrent by sending out a strong message?

Moreover, even if assuming that the judges were reluctant to be harsh on these two senior citizens who have been assiduously resisting the judicial process and accountability since 1997, there was nothing stopped them from at least upholding the sentence of two years, and then suspending it. The Ansals would have stayed out of jail, but the court wouldn’t have come across as jettisoning objectivity.

In 2012, the Law Commission of India released a consultation paper on manmade disasters, in which it took the Uphaar case as an example and strongly recommended that definite guidelines or legal provisions be framed so that subjectivity in sentencing and awarding fines and damages is ruled out.

The Supreme Court’s judgement, which shall stick in the craw of victims and conscientious believers in justice, makes perhaps the strongest case for those recommendations to be discussed and enshrined in the law.

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