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I lost my children in Uphaar fire. There’s no justice if mothers like me are let down

The advanced age of the Ansals was considered while letting them buy their way out of a jail sentence. No one thought of the lives of my 17 and 13 year olds.

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I believe we need a judicial system that provides justice to its people without inordinate delays and the possibility of the system being manipulated by the powerful and wealthy. As an ordinary citizen of this great country, I approached the courts in India 24 years ago when my children Unnati (then 17 years old) and Ujjwal (then 13 years of age) were snatched away from me when they perished in the man-made fire at Uphaar Cinema in New Delhi on 13 June 1997. I was devastated by the loss of my children, but firm in my belief that I would get justice. Twenty four years later, I am still seeking justice. Neither has time healed the grief and pain of loss, nor has the judicial system served its purpose. I can therefore say with complete conviction, backed by personal experience and a deep sense of hurt, that justice can be served only if and when mothers like me are not let down time and again by a judicial system that is putty in the hands of powerful, wealthy and corrupt men and women.

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The trial…and tribulations

When I started my journey to get justice for my children, I was dealing with a single court case, namely, the Writ Petition filed by AVUT (Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy) and later the criminal Case filed by the CBI. The criminal case was being heard by the Additional Sessions Judge. The accused challenged the interim orders in the higher court with an intention to delay the trial. The AVUT had to move the high court to get directions to expedite the trial. With the passage of time, the number of cases increased, be it with regard to petition filed by Ansal Theatre & Clubotels (P) Ltd for release of Uphaar Cinema, bail cancellation of the Ansals in the high court and the Supreme Court.

Negotiating all these cases and dealing with them meant shuttling between one court to another. Apart from attending the hearings, I also had to have conferences with a team of dedicated lawyers to prepare for the cases. This meant dedicating myself wholly and unequivocally to this task. It amounted to thousands of hours and over two decades of painstaking preparation. This unending mission took its toll and I had no time to realise that I was ageing and needed some rest.  It also meant standing for countless hours in different courts, through weather changes, health issues, abuse and threats hurled at me.

I did all this because of a promise I made to my children that I would get justice for them. But all the while, I knew that justice would not bring back the children. It could only benefit other mothers and fathers, and children. All the while I was certain that the judicial system would not fail me.

However, it is important to mention that the sections under which the accused were charged was not in my hands at all. And therefore, in the main case, the maximum sentence the Ansals could have got was two years jail as they were charged u/s 304 A IPC. Even though they were sentenced to two years, the highest court in the land thought it fit to let the criminals buy their way out of jail for a price! Is it surprising then that I lost all faith in the system? The advanced age of the Ansals was taken into consideration while letting them buy their way out of a jail sentence, but no one thought of the lives of my 17 and 13 year olds being cut short because of the sheer greed and corruption of the criminals?

Today, 24 years after my tragic and irreparable loss, I feel vindicated to some extent by the verdict of the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Dr Pankaj Sharma with all five convicts sentenced to seven years’ simple imprisonment u/s 120B/409/201 IPC in the  evidence tampering case. The court has done all in its power and authority by giving a sentence of seven years.

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The battle continues

But even as I feel a sense of peace and relief, I know for a fact that I have to be alert and ready for battle again. The loopholes department provided by a system that has not seen review and reform for ages, and the dirty tricks department is at work even as I write this article. Feigning illness is a popular tool used by many convicts, and Sushil Ansal may have wielded the same tool to his benefit. The other brother will not be far behind and will be setting his battery of lawyers to work to discover loopholes that will help him skip jail.

Will the system ever look into these loopholes and tricks and ensure that they cannot be used by unscrupulous criminals? If not, there will be more Uphaars and Ansals, as indeed there already are and no one is held accountable.

I hope the appellate court would not show undue sympathy to the plea’s and applications of these criminals, as the crime committed by the convicts was against the very institution of justice, and as such they should be dealt with sternly, and set a precedent for deterrence and retribution.

Neelam Krishnamoorthy is President of Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT) and author of Trial By Fire. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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