In India, fire tragedies are relatively uncommon. Several destructive fires have ravaged the area, claiming the lives and livelihoods of many innocent people. The majority of them demonstrate a lack of understanding and disregard for safety regulations, reinforcing the urgent need for effective fire safety precautions. India is one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries, susceptible to almost all-natural and man-made tragedies. Legislation, regulations, and rules play an important role in requiring occupants to install the necessary fire prevention system. This article will discuss legal issues surrounding one of the most well-known fire tragedies, the Uphaar Cinema Fire Tragedy.
What was Delhi’s Uphaar Cinema Fire Tragedy?
One of the country’s biggest fire tragedies occurred on the tragic afternoon of June 13, 1997, at the Uphaar Cinema theatre in New Delhi. The fire that broke out during the exhibition of the Hindi film Border on that day caused the deaths of 59 people and left over a hundred severely injured. Asphyxia was the cause of all 59 fatalities. People who had lost family members came together to establish the Association of Victims of the Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT) and struggled for justice for 24 years until Sushil Ansal and Gopal Ansal, the theatre owners, were sentenced to seven years in prison by a Delhi court.
During the inquiry, 16 people were charged with causing death by carelessness. Sushil Ansal, proprietor of Uphaar cinema, and his brother, Gopal Ansal, were charged. Gopal Ansal was sentenced to one year in prison for the 1997 Uphaar fire disaster on February 9, 2017. While Gopal will spend the remaining six months of his sentence, Sushil Ansal will get away due to his “advanced age.” The Uphaar theatre owners were also fined Rs 60 crore by the Delhi government. The Delhi Vidyut Board and the Delhi Municipal Corporation were urged to compensate the victims’ relatives.
What happened to the Uphaar Evidence Tampering Case?
On November 8, 2021, the Patiala House Court in Delhi sentenced businessmen Sushil Ansal and Gopal Ansal and others to seven years in prison for tampering with crucial evidence in the 1997 Uphaar fire tragedy case.
The prosecution argued in front of the court that :
- Punishment should be strong enough to send a message to society. It was claimed that the accused are a potential threat to the judicial system, having received a passport while hiding important details of criminal proceedings.
- Convicts are incorrigible individuals, as seen by their attitudes and behaviour. Sushil Ansal and Gopal Ansal, the accused, have been dissatisfied as various cases have been brought against them by various individuals or institutions, all of which are extensively recorded, and they are not first-time offenders anymore.
- Their advanced age cannot be used as a mitigating factor since, at the time of the offence, they were both mature adults who committed the offence knowingly in order to get an acquittal by obstructing the trial process via conspiracy. Sushil Ansal and Gopal Ansal, two more defendants, conspired with court employees, shown by evidence, and they should face harsh punishment regardless of their age or other mitigating considerations.
On behalf of AVUT (Association for Victims of Uphaar Tragedy), it was argued that the maximum sentence be imposed on the convicted, considering the gravity of the offence and the fact that they are no longer first-time offenders. They argued that the offence is more serious than the primary offence of Uphaar fire, which is punishable under section 304A of the IPC (offence causing death by negligence) because the offender demonstrated the audacity and arrogance to temper the evidence in order to absolve themselves of liability.
It was contended that victims are entitled to fair compensation under Section 357 of the Criminal Procedure Code. During the proceedings, the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India said, “Tampering with court records is worse than murder and decoity.”
Argument on Behalf of the Convicts and Order of the Court
Convict Gopal Ansal:
Gopal Ansal said that since AVUT was compensated in the main Uphaar case, he could not be considered a victim in this case. Age, health, and the convict’s contribution to society through income tax must all be regarded as mitigating factors. The Court considered AVUT as a victim and disregarded mitigating circumstances as it is not any person or association that has been victimized but the justice system.
Convict Sushil Ansal:
Sushil Ansal argued that age and medical complications play a major role in sentencing convicts. He cited the order of the Supreme Court of India “having regard to the advanced age of the accused and other peculiar facts and circumstances, if Sushil Ansal pays Rs. 30 crores, then the sentence will be reduced to the period already undergone”. Considering his re-formative approach and creditable work for society, he should be granted a minimum sentence. According to the Court, participating in various charitable activities and operating educational institutions cannot be considered mitigating factors.
Convict P.P. Batra:
He contended that no overt act has been attributed to him and no direct pecuniary loss was caused on account of tampering and that the main Uphaar case resulted in a conviction, obviating any consequential loss. He faced trial for about thirteen years, and during this period, he had been through immense financial and mental strain. This long trial and the strain were themselves punishment. The court noted that having a lower rank in the legal department would not constitute mitigating circumstances to escape punishment as he is an educated man working in the legal department, having full knowledge of the consequences of the acts and indulging in the same for the sake of his employers and, obviously, for his personal gain.
Convict Dinesh Chandra Sharma:
It was submitted that he had already been awarded the most severe punishment in the departmental inquiry, whereby he was dismissed from the service and faced economic losses. He has already served more than four and a half months of imprisonment in the instant matter. He submitted that he is a reformed person as post this case, he indulged in acquiring education and taking care of his family and has clean antecedents. Considering the gamut of mitigating factors in his favour, he should be awarded the minimum punishment. The Court observed that being educated and the custodian of the judicial record, he entered into a criminal conspiracy to eradicate the portion of the record. The mitigating circumstance of acquiring degrees is required to be disregarded.
Convict Anoop Singh Karayat:
He argued that 73 years should be a mitigating factor in sentencing minimum punishment. The convict had an unblemished career during his service with the Indian force and had a reputation in society, and he had suffered the ordeal of trial for approximately 13 years. The court observed that being an educated and decorated officer, he should not have conspired with the other convicts to cause the disappearance of important pieces of evidence to screen the offender.
For the purpose of compensation, AVUT (Association for Victims of Uphaar Tragedy) will be considered as a victim.
The Apex court referred to Section 2(wa) of the Cr.P.C., Section 39(1)(viii) of the Cr.P.C., and Section 357 of the Cr.P.C. The word “victim” has a broader connotation, and the same cannot be restricted to informants or complainants only.
AVUT was a victim in the main Uphaar case and provided compensation in civil proceedings. The trial of the said case was hampered, which affected their legal and constitutional rights to a fair trial and led to agony and mental trauma for the victims.
While construing the scope of “victim”, a pragmatic approach has to be adopted as the injury, as defined in Section 44 of the IPC, includes any harm to the mind also. Merely because the acts committed by convicts were prevented from taking their intended shape, is hardly a reason to assume that no injury was inflicted on AVUT.
The mischief committed by the convicts in the main Uphaar case leading to the present case would not preclude AVUT from being categorized as a victim. The ingredients of the definition of “victim” and “injury” are satisfied if it is prima facie proved that any person or aggregate of persons received any mental or emotional injury owing to mental trauma or suffering caused to them.
The rights of AVUT cannot be watered down merely because they have not been officially named as victims in the charge sheet. However, a broader look is required through the prism of statutory provisions and judicial precedents to consider them victims for the purpose of compensation.
Sentencing Order of the Court
While sentencing, the court noted that the cornerstone of the judiciary is based on the people’s trust and confidence, and any action aimed at undermining that bedrock cannot be tolerated and must be dealt with with the greatest firmness. After balancing the mitigating circumstances against aggravating circumstances, the court convicted Sushil Ansal and Gopal Ansal under Sections 201 (tampering of evidence), 120B (criminal conspiracy), and 409 (criminal breach of trust by public servant) of the Indian Penal Code of 7 years of imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 1 crore each. It also imposed a fine of Rs. Three lacs each on others, namely Dinesh Chandra Sharma, Prem Prakash Batra, and Anoop Singh.
It is not about compensation; it is about how delayed justice eventually results in the tragedy being forgotten. This repeatedly occurs in our country, and the uproar subsides. Candle rallies and protests fade. The narrative fades away towards the magazine section. If the wealthy and powerful are charged, they may delay the process and wait out of jail. Individuals must ultimately move on, and pursuing justice becomes a chore rather than a commitment. Life gets in the way of constantly shifting court dates. After 24 years of fighting legal battles like Uphaar, it feels like justice remains unserved.
– Sahid Ahamad
(Content Writer, LawDIKTAT)
- Nupur Thapliyal, ‘Uphaar Fire Tragedy: Delhi Court Sentences Sushil Ansal, Gopal Ansal To 7 Years Imprisonment In Evidence Tampering Case’ <https://www.livelaw.in/news-updates/uphaar-fire-tragedy-delhi-court-sentences-ansals-7-years-imprisonment-for-tampering-evidence-185083> accessed 16 November 2021.
- ‘Two Decades after Uphaar Cinema Fire: Haunting Ambience, Battered Seats, Soiled Film Rolls | India News News, The Indian Express’ <https://indianexpress.com/photos/india-news/haunting-pictures-of-uphaar-cinema-gutted-in-fire-20-years-ago-4703681/> accessed 16 November 2021.
- Utkarsh Anand, ‘Uphaar Fire: Ansals Escape Jail, SC Rules Rs 60-Cr Fine Adequate | Cities News, The Indian Express’ <https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/delhi/uphaar-fire-tragedy-no-jail-for-ansal-brothers-asked-to-pay-rs-30-cr-each-to-delhi-govt/> accessed 16 November 2021.