From being called a “menace” to getting a reduced jail sentence to being allowed to walk free with a fine, the legal fortunes of the Ansal brothers have successively improved over an 18-year trial for the Uphaar fire.
On Thursday in the Supreme Court, they not only escaped a stringent charge under IPC section 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) that could have fetched them life terms but also succeeded in avoiding the two-year jail term prescribed as the maximum under Section 304A (causing death due to negligence).
In November 2007, a sessions judge convicting them had blamed their “greed” for causing the fire. “The deviations with regard to the seating arrangement in the balcony, which resulted in the death of many patrons and injuries to many, had been effected with greed in mind without taking note of the injury that may be caused,” sessions judge Mamta Sehgal had said.
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The judge had held the brothers were “in real and effective control of the theatre and management of the company”. Holding them responsible for various structural deviations, the court said they “connived” with administrative authorities and corrupted them to utilise every corner of the building for more profits, without concern for the safety of patrons. “An entrepreneur who corrupts the official of the government is a menace to the society,” the judge said, sentencing them to two years but underlining that the two-year jail term was “not sufficient” for incidents like this.
After the brothers appealed, Delhi High Court agreed with the trial court on various structural and fire safety deviations. “When a large body of persons such as cinema viewers are closeted in a fully enclosed space having limited exits and who were virtually entrusting their life and well-being to owners of the cinema, who effectively managed it, the duty of such owners is a very high one, even in normal circumstances. In this case the risk factors kept increasing with each departure from the norms.”
Yet it said “imposition of the maximum sentence is not justified. Ends of justice would be served if the sentence is modified to rigorous imprisonment for a period of one year and fine Rs 5,000 under section 304-A.” It also rejected a plea by the victims to charge them with culpable homicide.
The Ansals as well as Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT) appealed in the Supreme Court. In March 2014, Justices T S Thakur and Gyan Sudha Misra were unanimous that the Ansal brothers had “contemptuous disregard” for the law and affirmed their conviction.
“The brothers were at the helm of affairs at the time of the tragedy and therefore they cannot escape the blame and pass it on to others, including the municipal or electricity authorities. They owed a duty of care to the people who went to the cinema,” said Justice Thakur, adding the deaths were mainly due to the inability of the victims to exit the cinema hall.
Also read: From the fire to the fine
Justice Misra too held the brothers guilty of “gross criminal negligence”.
But the two judges differed on the sentencing. Justice Thakur said it should be one year each while Justice Misra said it should be two years each, with the second year substituted with a fine of Rs 100 crore to be paid equally by the brothers. She also directed that in view of his advanced age, Sushil Ansal’s jail term would be what he has already undergone.
The matter was referred to a three-judge bench, which held Wednesday that no further jail term was called for.