Until 1997, they were a happily family of four in Kalkaji, both children going to school and the parents running a flourishing business after having married outside their communities at ages 19 and 18.
That June 13, Unnati and Ujjwal, 17 and 13, went to watch Border at Uphaar Cinema. Since the fire that snatched their children, the lives of Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy have revolved around getting justice for them.
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They were dejected Wednesday after the Supreme Court allowed Uphaar owners Gopal and Sushil Ansal to walk free after a fine. “I have spent more years fighting this case than I got to spend with my children,” Neelam said of a trial that has been 18 years long. “I couldn’t get peace for my children. I will never have peace,” Neelam told The Indian Express outside the Supreme Court.
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They had led the battle for justice for families who had lost members to the fire. The Krishnamoorthys’ own families had urged them to let the matter rest and move on with their lives, but they were stuck on fighting the “biggest builder lobby”, the people they held responsible for the death of 59 people.
“We went and met advocate K T S Tulsi who advised us that we should get organised if we wanted to take on the builder lobby,” said Neelam. Nine families of 28 got together to form the Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT).
“We got in touch with other people after reading obituaries in the newspapers,” says Shekhar. “People who met us us too put us in touch with others who had suffered.”
As conveners of AVUT, the couple were in court for every hearing over the 18 years.
Ten years ago, following several visits to Delhi High Court to get the trial expedited, they won a trial court conviction of 12 accused, with a two-year sentence to the Ansals. Then the appeal in high court dragged another year, at the end of which the conviction was upheld but the sentence reduced to one year. The next appeal by both sides played out in the Supreme Court until 2014. Though it held the Ansals guilty, the sentence took 17 more months.
Along the way, AVUT filed two more cases in trial courts, one for the destruction of evidence and the other for alleged threats and an attempted attack on Neelam Krishnamoorthy. “I have lost count of the number of applications I have filed in the last 18 years,” Neelam said.
The destruction-of-evidence case is still pending. The chargesheet was filed in 2006 and charges were framed in May 2014 ; only one witness has been examined since.
“They are getting the benefit of a prolonged trial. Their lawyers kept taking adjournments. Ram Jethmalani argued for months over the sentencing,” Neelam said.
Shekhar said that Wednesday’s verdict has made them “lose faith in the judicial system.”. “Rich people can kill anyone’s children and pay blood money and get away with it. This compensation money will go to the government. Essentially, you are paying the government to shake hands with the corporate people and let them get away with anything,” Shekhar said.
The other parents: Long wait, then sudden jolt
Naveen Sawhney, 70
Father of Tarika, 21
Sawhney, a marketing consultant, came to the Supreme Court expecting it to hear the CBI and then announce yet another adjournment for hearing out AVUT lawyers. He was unprepared for the verdict, which he found sudden. “The sentencing case has been pending 17 months,” said Sawhney. “We must have attended some 5,000 hearings in 18 years. Never did we expect something like this could happen.”
His daughter Tarika, who died in the Uphaar fire, had just graduated and was engaged to be married. “She was pursuing an IT course and supposed to move to the US after the wedding,” Sawhney said.
“Money power has won today. We got convictions from all three courts and yet there is no sentence to them. We didn’t want compensation; we wanted them punished,” Sawhney said. About the fine, he said: “What is the point of giving money to the state to create a trauma centre? It’s their duty to set up hospitals.”
R S Rahi, 58
Father of Sudeep Rahi, 22
His son and three others had gone to watch Border; three of the four died. Then a Delhi government officer, R S Rahi resigned to take up the legal battle.
“We have not had a good experience with the justice system over the past 18 years,” Rahi said Wednesday after the verdict. “The fine of Rs 60 crore means nothing to the Ansals. We wanted a change in society. We wanted that what we went through should never happen to anyone again.”
He did not attend the hearing Wednesday; he hadn’t anticipated the verdict. “We didn’t think anything was going to happen and didn’t go today. Nothing had been happening since last year,” he said.
“Our government has this policy that every earlier tragedy will be forgotten after the next one happens,” Rahi added. “There is a saying that
fits our justice system. ‘You show me the man and I will show you the rule’. They won because they have power and money.”