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Monday, April 06, 2020

Uphaar Tragedy: The 23-year-old legal battle ends, leaving families heartbroken

Halfway through the screening of Border, a fire broke out at Delhi’s Uphaar cinema, owned by brothers Sushil and Gopal Ansal, on June 13, 1997, leaving 59 people dead. Trapped inside the hall, most died of asphyxiation. The fire, one of the deadliest in the country, also left over 100 people injured.

Written by Somya Lakhani | New Delhi | Updated: February 24, 2020 11:22:56 am
Uphaar cinema fire, Uphaar cinema, Ansal brothers, Gopal Ansal, Sushil Ansal, Uphaar cinema victims, Uphaar cinema fire death toll, Uphaar cinema fire accused, delhi city news, Indian Express The Uphaar fire was one of the deadliest in the country. (Express Archive)

For 23 years, families of the victims have fought a legal battle to find justice and closure. On February 20, the battle came to an end when the Supreme Court rejected the curative petition of the Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT). The plea had sought reconsideration of the 2017 verdict, which had given relief to Sushil Ansal considering his “advanced age-related complications” by awarding him jail term he had already served.
A three-judge bench comprising Chief Justice S A Bobde, Justice Arun Mishra and Justice N V Ramana rejected the curative petition saying “no case is made out”.

The Indian Express spoke to five families who lost their loved ones about the 23-year-old battle, the emotional toll, and trying to move on.

Unnati (17) and Ujjwal (13) Krishnamoorthy

Every time Unnati and Ujjwal had a sibling squabble, their mother Neelam would put them in two different rooms as punishment. “It was the harshest punishment for them, they couldn’t handle the separation; so 15 minutes later, they would make up,” said Neelam, looking up at the ceiling to ensure tears don’t roll down her eyes.

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On June 13, 1997, the inseparable siblings died at Uphaar, leaving their parents Neelam and Shekhar shattered. “We were in our late 30s and people said ‘why don’t you try having another child’… But my kids are not toys that I can replace them. We promised our children that we will spend our lives getting justice,” said Shekhar, seated in their Noida home, where the two moved last December.

In 1997 began the couple’s journey of fighting for justice for the 59 who died — from memorising various laws and Acts pertaining to the case to forming AVUT. “We didn’t even know the difference between a civil and criminal case; the first few months, we didn’t even know what was happening in the courts… All we heard was the word ‘adjournment’,” said Shekhar.

The two started by flipping through obituary columns across newspapers to get in touch with families of other victims in order to fight this together. From then to now, Neelam has kept the families together, the fight moving, and has memorised each date and Act.

At their new house, there’s a room full of paperwork about the case, while the adjacent room is a keeper of their memories as they have re-created their children’s room. “The same mattress, the same bed, their clothes, books, toys… We can’t give that away. Every night, we hold each other’s hand and pray we won’t wake up in the morning and every morning, we are disappointed to see another day. So, we go to the kids’ room for a bit and then start the battle,” said Neelam.

In the last 23 years, the couple has narrated every moment of June 13, 1997, countless times to the media — how she peeped into the kids’ room early morning before leaving for a chore, a kiss that Unnati planted on her cheek, and the father-daughter sharing a private joke about chicken in soya sauce that the four had for lunch.

She also remembers the two panicky messages she sent to her children over pager when they didn’t return home till late evening: “Getting worried, call back.” Late at night, she saw Unnati’s body on a stretcher and fainted, and was told by Shekhar when she regained consciousness that “Ujjwal’s body was on a stretcher nearby”.

Unnati would have been 40 years old, Ujjwal 36, this year. “I would have been a grandmother, I love kids. It would have been nice, I would have been happy,” said Neelam.

Despite bouts of depression and alleged threats from people associated with the accused, the Krishnamoorthys carry on.

“This is our only motive, our only reason to live. You smile because you can’t be a grouch but after a tragedy like this you are dropped out of social calendars. Friends who partied with us three times a week said, ‘Neelam and Shekhar aren’t the same people… no longer the life of a party, they will just sit in a corner and talk about the case.’ People expect you to move on, there is no moving on,” said Neelam.

Madhu Nagpal (35)

About a decade ago, when Shyam Nagpal’s youngest daughter Surabhi was in school, she asked him and her sister Megha to enact ‘mummy’s humma humma’ dance moves in the car. “Oh, Madhu loved that song and would sit next to me in the car and jive to it any time it played on the radio. So, for Surabhi, her sister and I enacted that… It was a way for her to get to know her mother,” said Shyam (63), seated next to a photo of his wife in the dining room of their Vasant Kunj house.

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Surabhi was 11 months old and Megha was four-and-a-half-years old when their mother Madhu died in the fire.

“Six people had gone for the movie, including my wife and Megha. Madhu managed to get out but went back in as she and Megha got separated. I found Madhu at Safdarjung Hospital, dead, and Megha was injured and at AIIMS… Time doesn’t heal, you just painfully learn how to live without a person you love,” said Nagpal, a smile forming a crease on his face.

A Buddha artwork bought from Triveni Kala Sangam, winter coats and pullovers, saris and jewellery — the Nagpal house is full of memories of Madhu. “Megha knew her mother… for her it’s someone who existed but doesn’t anymore; for Surabhi, her mother is a person she has come to know through photos, songs, and stories,” said Nagpal.

Apart from re-enacting Madhu’s dance moves, Nagpal introduced the girls to Mohd Rafi’s songs that their mother loved, took them to Cactus Park where the couple went for walks, holidays to Neemrana Fort which the two often visited, and meals at her favourite restaurant, Fujiya, in Chanakyapuri. On October 16, her birthday, the Nagpals get flowers for Madhu, cut a cake, go out or have dinner at home.

“We have fought this for 23 years but the delay and the rejection of our curative petition is painful. The delay is not the fault of the victims or their families. It’s a flaw in the judicial system,” said Nagpal.

Often, he wonders how life would have been had Madhu been alive. “Six days after she died, I wrote a poem, ‘… Madhu, the saga of your life has been a poem — an incomplete poem.’ There’s no closure,” said Nagpal.

Tarika Sawhney (21)

Memory played an odd game with Deep Sawhney aka Tony chachu in 2017 when he chanced on the remix of popular ’90s track ‘Chalti hai kya nau se baarah’. Two decades ago, when the song, a part of Salman Khan-starrer Judwaa, first aired, his niece Tarika (21) had said, “Tony chachu, picture dekhne chalte hain.”

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This was in February 1997. Four months later, Tarika was among the 59 people who died in the fire that broke out at Uphaar cinema during the screening of Border. “You can’t forget such repressed memories, they find a way to come out daily,” said Deep, as he fought back tears, sitting next to Tarika’s father Naveen at their Anand Niketan house. Tarika’s mother Rita passed away last year.

Naveen held a framed photograph of Tarika with her teddy bear; the stuffed toy is still in the house. The watch Tarika was wearing at the time of her death has been given to Deep’s daughter.

“We laugh, attend birthdays and weddings, socialise… par andar se deemak lag gayi hai. Bringing up a child and suddenly losing her is a phenomenal disaster for a parent. We don’t watch movies in halls but now I tell my son Tarun that we can’t live in phobia. He has never watched a movie in a hall with his wife and son… We have to move on,” said Naveen. At the time of the incident, Naveen was at work. He was heading the sales team of Kwality ice creams at the time.

On the day of the incident, Tarika, who was set to join an IT course and get married to her high-school sweetheart and move to the US later that year, had stepped out to buy a birthday present for her elder brother.

A last-minute plan with colony friend Ruby Kapoor took the two young women to Uphaar cinema. “I went looking for her at Safdarjung Hospital where bodies were just piled up, while Tarun went to AIIMS. He called me from there and…,” said Naveen, unable to finish the sentence.

The same evening, the Sawhneys found Ruby’s body too. “Ruby’s parents were in Vaishno Devi, we brought her body home from the hospital, with Tarika’s… You know what it feels like when justice is denied and delayed? Like someone is scratching your heart,” said Deep.

Sudan family

Satya Pal Sudan (81) remembers what the anchor during the 10 pm news segment said about the Uphaar cinema blaze on June 13, 1997: “12 laashe padi hai, maathe pe likha hai unidentified.”

Seven members of his family, including his one month-old granddaughter, had not returned home from an outing that day, and he feared they might have gone to Uphaar to see Border.

Around 10.30 pm, he sent a relative to AIIMS to see if any of the 12 unidentified bodies were of his children, their spouses and kids.

“Can you believe it? All seven died… the baby was found snuggled next to his mother, my daughter-in-law. A part of me died that day,” said Sudan.

Last year, his wife passed away, and now Sudan, who used to work at the American Embassy, lives alone, and his three daughters visit him often.

“Our house was small and we didn’t have space to keep the seven bodies, so I took them directly from the hospital to the crematorium in Mehrauli. Seven people, seven pyres… there was no space,” recalled Sudan, who is currently nursing a fracture in his leg.

Days before his wife died, the 81-year-old said the two spoke about the 23-year-old battle for justice, visits to the courts and the Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT).

“We have been with the Uphaar victims’ association from the very beginning… Before going away, my wife had told me to remain in the association… and so I will. The other families are my family now… Only they understand the pain,” said Sudan.

Vikas Sehgal (21)

On June 13, 1997, with Rs 250 in his pocket, Vikas Sehgal and his college friend Himanshu Jain reached Uphaar cinema to watch Border. It was a sold-out show but there was a man near the hall selling tickets in “black”.

“I had given Vikas Rs 250 in the morning for khaana-peena, I had no idea he would go for a movie,” recalled his father Mohan Lal Sehgal (73).

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In the evening, as Mohan Lal left IIT-Delhi, where he worked in the admin department, he encountered a massive traffic jam and road closures. A passerby told him about a massive fire at Uphaar cinema.

“When I got home and inquired why Vikas wasn’t back yet, his brother said he had gone to Uphaar for a film,” said Mohan Lal.

Around 10.30 pm, he reached AIIMS, then Safdarjung Hospital in search of his son. “Verandah mein bodies bas phaiki hui thi,” said Mohan Lal.

The same day, Mohan Lal had turned 50. “I have not celebrated my birthday since. My younger son’s daughters want to celebrate their daadu’s birthday but how can I? Vikas had completed his B.Com Honours and was so good at cricket and tennis… All his medals and certificates are at home,” he said.

The 23-year-old battle has left the Sehgals tired and heartbroken. “My wife and I went into depression, my younger son got into an engineering college the same year but couldn’t go. There is no moving on… The case has been exhausting, thakaawat ho gayi hai,” he said.

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