Book: Trial by Fire
Author: Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy
Publication: Penguin Random House
Price: Rs 299
There is no statue of justice in the Supreme Court of India. In its stead, there is a dull, black sculpture designed by Chintamoni Kar. Titled Mother India, it depicts a woman enveloping a child, who holds a book in its hand. A book etched with the scales of justice. The iconography of the scales does not end here. The visual repeats when the Supreme Court is viewed from a height. The court complex is crowned with a dome in the middle that extends until it perpendicularly cuts two large columns flanking it. In celebratory moments, we may compliment the CPWD (Central Public Works Department) masons for having cemented aspirations of justice into the very stone of the court.
Despite the design, reality can be different. Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy, who lost their teenage children, Unnati and Ujjwal, in the Uphaar theatre tragedy narrate such an incident in Trial by Fire. The Uphaar fire on June 13, 1997 not only led to the loss of many lives, but it was also a tragedy for a legal process that punished grieving parents with the hope of justice over 18 years — only to disappoint. The blame cannot be solely pinned on the courts. Several persons and institutions contributed in frustrating justice.
Any apportionment must start with the Ansal brothers, who built a private viewing box for their family and increased seating capacity for profit by blocking emergency exits. The Supreme Court has concluded in both its judgments that this criminal disregard of fire safety regulations resulted in the death of 59 persons, including Unnati and Ujjwal. But this is only the start.
The local licensing authorities renewed licences without even physically visiting the premises for years. A political establishment offered tacit support to the accused and active apathy to the relatives of the victims. Even the police failed to prosecute the accused as per the gravity of their crimes. In itself, the Uphaar tragedy was preventable if not for a perfect, systemic failure. Yet, as the Krishnamoorthys detail, this is how lives end and how things continue to persist in India.
But let this not obscure a sentiment that pervades large sections of public opinion. The rule of law is not the Rule of Law when it comes to prosecuting the moneyed, the powerful and the resourceful. There is a well-founded basis to such cynicism. Litigants have high expectations from the courts, which are viewed as institutions to correct wrongs and repair grievous injuries. Civics textbooks advocate such virtues when they say courts determine justice with fairness. The restrained criticism in the book concludes that these promises are broken both by the delay in the criminal justice process and its eventual result.
The long pendency of the Uphaar case was not by accident nor can it be attributed to faults that arise in routine litigation. Multiple judicial orders were passed for the conduct of an expeditious trial. Such orders were circumvented by legal stratagem and obstruction by counsels. Frequent adjournments were sought, vexatious applications were filed and even the original court records were “lost”. As the case stretched, the entourage and lawyers of the accused subjected the Krisnamoorthys to physical intimidation, derision and verbal abuse.
Such a long delay came to benefit the Ansal brothers not only during the conduct of the trial but also in the ultimate punishment they received. After their convictions were upheld, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court could not agree on the quantum of punishment for imprisonment. This led to a reference to a larger bench which decided, on the basis of their age, to levy a fine of Rs 60 crore in total and limit the time of imprisonment to that they had already served. To the relatives of the victims, this seemed like blood money where the delay caused by the Ansals ultimately paid off.
One has to remark on the restraint of the book as it avoids naming individuals, preferring to blame the system. The latter chapters of the book bring objectivity to such criticism by making specific policy suggestions. Trial by Fire shifts the guilt of the Ansal brothers to the reader. In itself, this is not a bad thing. If only for a moment, it teaches the value of life by placing the scales of justice in our hands — in the hope that things will change.