Uphaar tragedy: Closure seems to be a distant dream

On Saturday morning, a congregation of a hundred-odd people had assembled there to commemorate the 18th anniversary of what can be said to be the worst-ever public catastrophe in the national Capital.

Sitting with a stoic expression, the bespectacled man listened to the hymns chanted for the departed souls of all 59 persons — including 20 children and 15 women — who died in the Uphaar tragedy in 1997. The familiar faces around him still demand justice, which even the Apex Court of the nation couldn’t give them, despite having upheld the conviction of the accused Ansal brothers — Delhi’s top realtors and owner of the cinema complex — around one year and three months ago.

The bespectacled man introduced himself as Raman Sidhu, a retired banker, who lost his wife, two daughters (aged 11 and 13), his only sister, two nieces (aged nine and 13) and his nephew (aged six) in the incident. He says, he was never a cinema buff and had an important meeting to attend, so he hadn’t joined them for the matinee show of JP Dutta’s Border.

“I drove off from my office at Connaught Place but had to leave the car at AIIMS, where the road was blocked after the incident. I left my car and ran all the way to Uphaar, only to find my family missing. I was told that the dead and injured had been moved to AIIMS and Safdarjung hospitals. At AIIMS, I found the bodies of my sister and my daughters and, within an hour, I found the bodies of the rest at Safdarjung,” says Sidhu.

The Sidhus weren’t alone. The list of victims include the Kochhars (with two daughters aged 11 and 15), the Dangs (with one daughter aged 16 and sons aged six and nine), and several like them. While the youngest in the list was a one month old girl named Chetna, the oldest was one 72-year-old Katar K Malhotra. There was also an Indian Army official, Captain Manjinder Singh Bhinder, his wife and four-year-old son, there to witness the popular war movie in the big screen. 

Every person in Saturday’s gathering wore a black band in the arm as a symbol of protest for the first time in 18 years. “Even though the country is supposed to be heading towards ‘Achhe Din’, it seems like there will never be any for the Uphaar victims unless they get justice. If our Prime Minister really wants us to be proud Indians, let him take steps to improve the justice delivery system,” said Neelam Krishamoorthy, the moving force behind the Association of Victims’ of Uphaar tragedy.

The Uphaar victims have been fighting a protracted battle to bring to book Sushil Ansal and Gopal Ansal. Amid huge public outcry, the case was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

The trial court had in 2007 convicted Ansals and others, 10 years after the tragedy. The matter then moved a Delhi Court, which in 2008 acquitted six of the 12 convicted persons and reduced the sentence of Sushil and Gopal Ansal to one year. Thereafter, the victims and the CBI filed petitions in 2009 in the Supreme Court, seeking enhancement of the sentence.

After several adjournments, the Apex Court concluded hearing in the matter in April 2013 and about a year later in March 2014 pronounced its judgment, upholding conviction of Ansals. Though the judges concurred on the findings but there was a dissent with regard to sentencing and the matter was referred to a three-judge Bench. One year and three months on, the order on sentencing is still pending.

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