The Supreme Court on Wednesday held businessmen Gopal and Sushil Ansal guilty of criminal negligence in the Uphaar cinema tragedy, upbraiding the brothers for their “contemptuous disregard” for the law.
The fire which broke out on June 13, 1997, when the cinema was screening the film Border, claimed 59 lives and left more than a hundred injured.
Despite the verdict, whether the Ansals would serve time in jail under penal charges remained undecided after the two judges on the bench differed on the quantum of punishment. Justice T S Thakur and Justice Gyan Sudha Misra referred the matter to a three-judge bench.
Upholding the Delhi High Court verdict of 2008, Justice Thakur said the brothers would undergo a sentence of one year each, as awarded by the HC. The HC had cut by half the two-year sentence awarded by the trial court.
However, Justice Misra, holding that the Ansals should undergo a sentence of two years, substituted the second year’s sentence 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 sentence would be one that he has already undergone.
Justice Misra said the fine money would be used to build a trauma centre on a five-acre plot in west Delhi’s Dwarka area, to be allotted by the Delhi government. The trauma centre would be treated as an extension of the Safdurjung Hospital, Justice Misra said. The question of the sentence will now be decided by the larger bench.
Justice Thakur said in his judgment that the Ansals were more concerned about making money than ensuring the safety of their customers. Their “contemptuous” disregard for the law led to the loss of lives, he said.
“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,” the court said.
The deaths were mainly due to the inability of the victims to exit the cinema complex, which led them to suffocate, the court said.
The civil liability of compensation was decided by the Supreme Court in 2011. It ordered Rs 10 lakh each for the next of kin of victims above 20 years of age, and Rs 7.5 lakh for victims under 20 years. The Ansal brothers, who owned Ansal Theatre and Clubotels (P) Ltd, which ran Uphaar cinema, were asked to pay 85 per cent of the total compensation awarded.
The apex court was simultaneously hearing a petition by the Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT) for enhancement of punishment to the Ansals. Besides the Ansal brothers, three other convicts, Harsarup Panwar, Bir Singh and Brij Mohan Satija, have filed appeals challenging their conviction.
Neelam Krishnamurthy, who lost her daughter Unnati and son Ujwal in the tragedy, is spearheading the legal battle for the victims. Krishnamurthy, along with the families of other victims, had sought more stringent punishment so that such incidents did not recur.