Reproaching their “contemptuous disregard” for the law, the Supreme Court on Wednesday held business tycoon Gopal and Sushil Ansal guilty of criminal negligence in the 1997 Uphaar cinema fire tragedy case. The inferno, during the screening of movie ‘Border’, had claimed 59 lives and left more than 100 maimed.
However, whether the Ansal brothers need to serve a jail term or not is yet to be decided since the two judges on the bench differed on the aspect of punishment.
Though the bench of Justices T S Thakur and Gyan Sudha Misra agreed on the culpability of the duo, it was divided on the quantum of punishment for the Ansals. The matter has now been referred to a three-judge bench to decide the appropriate punishment.
Upholding the Delhi High Court verdict of 2008 on their conviction, Justice Thakur said the duo would undergo a sentence of one year each, as awarded by the High Court The trial court had awarded the Ansal brothers two years’ imprisonment but it was reduced to one year by the High Court.
However, Justice Misra, holding that the Ansals should undergo a sentence of two years, substituted the second year sentence with a fine of Rs 100 crore, to be paid equally by the brothers. She said the money will be utilised for building a trauma centre in Delhi’s Dwarka area in a 5-acre plot, to be allotted by the Delhi government. This trauma centre, Justice Misra said, would be treated as an extension centre of the the capital’s Safdurjung Hospital.
She also directed that, in view of his advanced age, Sushil Ansal’s period of sentence will be one that he has already undergone.
Justice Thakur in his judgment said the Ansal brothers were more concerned about making money than ensuring safety of cinema-goers. “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… They owed a duty of care to people who went to the cinema,” he said.
The deaths were mainly due to the inability of the victims to exit the cinema complex, which led them to suffocate to death,” the bench said.
The civil liability of compensation in the case was decided by the Supreme Court in 2011. It had ordered for Rs 10 lakh each for the next of kin of victims over 20 years of age and Rs 7.5 lakh for victims below 20 years of age. Ansal brothers were asked to pay 85 per cent of the total compensation awarded.
Besides the Ansal brothers, three other convicts — Harsarup Panwar, Bir Singh and Brij Mohan Satija — have filed appeals challenging their conviction.