NEW DELHI—Real estate barons Sushil and Gopal Ansal on Wednesday escaped being jailed in the 18-year-old gruesome Uphaar Cinema fire tragedy in which 59 people died with the Supreme Court asking them to pay a fine of Rs.30 crore each and restricting their jail term to the period already undergone by them.
Overturning the pleas of Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the victims’ association, a three-judge bench of justices A.R. Dave, Kurian Joseph and Adarsh Kumar Goel asked them to pay the total fine of Rs.60 crore in three months and deposit it with the Delhi government, which in turn will spend the money on welfare schemes. While Sushil had spent over five months in prison, Gopal was in jail for over four months immediately after the tragedy.
The bench rejected the submissions of senior advocate Harish Salve, appearing for CBI, that the convicts be sent to jail to serve the remaining jail term. “My instruction from CBI is to press for their custody,” Salve said, when the court sought his views. Senior advocate K.T.S. Tulsi, who represented the Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT), also said that the convicts not only be jailed, but rather their punishment should be enhanced.
Fifty-nine people, trapped in the balcony of the theatre in South Delhi, had died of asphyxia following the fire and over 100 were injured in the subsequent stampede on 13 June 1997 during the screening of Bollywood film “Border”.
Earlier, a bench of justices T.S. Thakur and Gyan Sudha Mishra (since retired) had on 5 March 2014, held real estate barons Sushil and Gopal Ansal guilty, but differed on the quantum of sentence to be awarded to them.
It had concurred in holding that there was “contemptuous disregard” of civic laws on part of the Ansals that led to the tragedy as they were “more interested in making money than ensuring safety of people”. Justice Thakur had concurred with the 2008 verdict of the Delhi high court which had awarded one-year jail term to both Sushil and Gopal Ansal.
However, justice Mishra had reduced the jail term to the period already served in jail by Sushil considering his age and enhanced the sentence of Gopal to two years. During the hearing on Wednesday, senior advocate Ram Jethmalani began his submission accusing employees of Delhi Vidyut Board (DVB) and said they escaped as they were government servants.
On the morning of the fateful day, a minor fire had broken out in the transformer and the DVB sent some small time ‘mistri’ instead of experts to fix the problem, he said. “Mr Jethmalani, you cannot argue against the conviction. We can hear you only on quantum of sentence,” the bench said, adding that the previous bench had already upheld the conviction.
“File a review, if you want to challenge it,” the court said. There was sharp exchange of words between Tulsi and Jethmalani when the former objected to the narration of facts. “You sit down. I am entitled to raise it again and again,” Jethmalani told Tulsi. Earlier, the Ansals had challenged their conviction and claimed they were in no way responsible for the tragedy as the fire had been caused by a faulty DVB transformer.
The CBI had filed an appeal challenging the alteration in conviction and reduction of sentence by the Delhi high court on 19 December 2008. The sentence for the Ansals was reduced to one year as against the two-year sentence imposed by the sessions court. AVUT had also approached the apex court seeking enhancement of sentence to the Ansals. Two judges of the apex court bench had upheld the conviction, but they had differed on the quantum of sentence. The matter was then referred to a three-judge bench.