Picture Courtesy: https://www.hindustantimes.com/delhi-news/uphaar-tragedy-court-issues-production-warrant-against-gopal-ansal/story-jeVYjqcKYedMOcveL6aC8O.html
This article was written by Navnoor Kaur, a student of Institute of Law, Kurukshetra University.
One morning, about 1000 people gathered to watch a super-hit patriotic movie. With lots of enthusiasm and excitement, they enter the cinema hall. The theatre was filled with wave of patriotism and suddenly the waves of patriotism were overtaken by the waves of fire. The cinema hall was set on fire by some electric sparks. There was hue and cry. Everyone rushed to escape. Some managed to do so but others got stuck due to blocked exits and illicit extensions. Soon the fire gulped down 59 lives. Some lost their kids and some lost their siblings.Many lives were scorched by that fire. Then the hunt for justice began and the battle continued for two decades. This might look like the script of a Bollywood movie but unfortunately it’s a real life incident which shook the entire nation. Lets dig into the case in details.
FACTS OF THE CASE:
- On the morning of 13 June, 1997; Uphaar Cinema Theatre in South Delhi was screening the film ‘Border’.
- On the very same morning, the two transformers installed on the ground floor of cinema building caught fire.
- The transformers were maintained by the digital video broadcaster.
- The transformersfrequently suffered from various defects but were not duly repaired.
- On the day of accident, another repair was made but it caused loose connections which led to periloussparks. Consequently, the hall was set on fire by the sparks.
- While around 750 people somehow managed to escape; there were still many who were stuck in the hall.
- Illegal extensions, blocked exits and additional seats added fuel to the fire.
- Soon the hall was filled with smoke, killing 59 people due to asphyxia and more than100 were injured in the consequent stampede.
- On July 22, 1997; theatre owner Sushil Ansal and his son Pranav were arrested in Mumbai.
- Soon the investigation was transferred from Delhi Police to CBI.
- On 15th November, 1997; CBI filed chargesheet against theatre owners Sushil and Gopal Ansal and 14 others.
TRIAL IN SESSION COURT
( Sushil Ansal v. State Through Central Bureau of Investigation):
A Session Court presided by LD Malik started the trial on March 10, 1999. Charges were framed by the court under various sections, namely Section 304, 304 A, 337 and 338 of IPC. The trial court convicted Sushil and Gopal Ansal for commission of offences under Section 304A, 337 and 338 read with Section 36 of IPC. Both were sentenced to undergo rigorous imprisonment for two years and a fine of Rs. 5000. They were also convicted under Section 14 of the Cinematograph Act, 1952. They were fined Rs. 1000 or imprisonment of two months under Cinematograph Act. 10 other accused were also convicted by the High Court.
APPEAL TO HIGH COURT:
Aggrieved by the judgment of the trial court, all the 12 accused went into appeal in Delhi High Court. Moreover, the Association of victims of Uphaar tragedy also filed a revision petition contending that the accused must be convicted under Section 304A IPC.
Delhi High Court upheld the conviction of Ansal brothers but reduced the sentence under Section 304A to rigorous imprisonment of one year. The sentences under Section 337 and 338 were also reduced to rigorous imprisonment of three months and one year respectively. The conviction under Section 14 of Cinematograph Act was also upheld. All the sentences were to run concurrently.
APPEAL TO SUPREME COURT:
All the convicted persons filed appeal before the apex court except the gatekeeper who served out the awarded sentence during the proceedings. The Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy filed appeal for retrial under Section 304 Part II.The Supreme Court ruled that the sentence awarded by the High Court should be increased to maximum period of two years as provided under Section 304A. But the bench of Justice GS Mishra and Justice TS Thakur opined that it would be better to charge a substantial amount of fine rather than increasing the period of sentence and a fine of Rs. 100 crores was imposed on Ansal brothers. Then the appeal was filed by the victims and the matter was referred to a three judge bench to determine the question on quantum of sentence. The bench observed that the ends of justice would meet if the accused are directed to pay fine which can be further used to set up or upgrade Trauma Centers in NCT of Delhi. SC directed the appellants to pay an amount of Rs. 30 crores. It further laid down that if the said amount is paid within three months, the sentence would be reduced to the sentence already undergone. If the said amount is not paid within three months from the date of order, the appellants will have to undergo the rigorous imprisonment of two years including the already undergone sentence.
The Association of victims of Uphaar Tragedy filed a review petition with regard to sentence awarded to Ansal brothers by SC. SC declined the prayer for review of sentence of Sushil Ansal and the earlier sentence of a fine of Rs. 30 crores was upheld. However, Gopal Ansal was sentenced to imprisonment of one year along with fine of Rs. 30 crores. This was the view of majority (Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Kurian Joseph).As per Justice AK Goel, there was no merit in the review petitions and the same were dismissed by him.
Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy convener Neelam Krishnamoorthy expressed her dissatisfaction with the judgment and said that it is an accused friendly system meant for the rich.
The Hon’ble court has acknowledged that the matter called for enhanced punishment but the court also expressed its boundaries set by law. It could not provide punishment beyond what is ascribed by law. But the case in itself calls for inclusion of a new provision in criminal law to deal with the cases of strict liability when the public at large is involved. The owners of open properties having hazardous substances must be bound by criminal law and not by mere compensation. The nation has already witnessed the tragedies like Uphaar and Bhopal. Now it’s high time to bring the notion of strict liability under the umbrella of an offence. Section 304A is meant to deal with the cases of accident and not tragedies like Uphaar where hundreds of people were affected. Also, paying a compensation of 30 crores is not a big deal for the people who could afford the highest paid lawyer in the country. So its high time to amend the law on strict liability cases to avoid more Uphaars.
 (2014) 6 SCC 173