Though a recent court verdict brought some solace to Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy, the parents of two teenagers whose lives were snuffed out in the Uphaar Cinema fire 24 years ago, their fight for justice is still far from over.
At their home in Noida, photo frames of the children rest on a wooden cabinet next to one of decorated walls in the living room. Unnati was 17 and Ujjwal 13 at the time of their deaths. The daughter was a movie buff, and the parents always obliged her and Ujjwal with movie tickets for the latest releases. On June 13, 1997, the parents were only following custom.
“It started like an ordinary day and like how I would always do, I booked tickets for my children for a movie and never realised that I am buying tickets for their death,” Neelam recalled.
Unnati, who had recently completed her Class 12 and enrolled for a Company Secretary course, and Ujjwal, who aspired to be a marine engineer one day, went for an afternoon show and were supposed to be back by around 7 pm.
The Krishnamoorthy family had a habit of calling home from a pay phone in case they were running late.
“This was the understanding in the whole family that if you were late, you’d call home and inform that you were going to get late by half-an-hour, one hour, so that the person sitting at home doesn’t worry. So it was a standard practice with the children and Shekhar and I did the same,” she remembered.
Contrary to the familial tradition, on that day, the parents did not receive a call or a message on the pager.
Incidentally, Neelam and Shekhar were visiting a relative who was recuperating from an open heart surgery. On her way back, Neelam called on the house landline, but no one answered.
“That time my children used to carry a pager. So I sent a message saying we are getting worried, call back. And there was also an understanding that they would take 15 minutes to call back. Then the 15 minutes lapsed and I started to get really worried. This was at around 7-7:30 in the evening. They were supposed to be back by that time,” she said.
The next day was Father’s Day. Neelam was aware that Unnati was particular about such occasions and got gifts for her parents. The parents always rounded it off with return gifts.
These thoughts aggravated Neelam’s worries. She kept calling on the house landline hoping that her children picked up.
“I kept calling up the landline but there was no response. Then I told RPG, which was the service provider for the pager. I told them to keep repeating the message because I was worried about my children,” shared Neelam.
By then, the mother started to feel a little odd about the situation. She said,
“Obviously as a mother I had that (intuition). So when we reached home and I found out that the house was locked and they hadn’t reached, I immediately went and prayed.”
A devastating fire took place in the national capital’s Uphaar Cinema on June 13, 1997 and claimed 59 lives and left several injured.
Among the 59 dead were the Krishnamoorthy's children.
Neelam lit a lamp and prayed for her children’s safety as soon as she got home. She followed it up by calling Uphaar Cinema, hoping nothing untoward had happened, but no one picked up.
Sensing something was wrong, the couple decided to call the nearest hospital - All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).
“So I called up AIIMS, but couldn’t get through to them as well. There were many casualties that day so the landlines were busy,” recalled Neelam.
Just then, the parents received a call from one of Unnati’s friends. The friend wanted to speak with Unnati. He was aware of the fire so he enquired with Neelam about Unnati’s whereabouts, hoping she hadn’t gone to Uphaar Cinema.
“I told him Unnati had gone for a movie. He asked where. I said Uphaar. So he said aunty there has been a fire there,” shared Neelam.
The thought of a fire had never cross Neelam’s mind. She wanted to believe that her children were safe and seated in the cinema hall.
But when she asked Unnati’s friend of there being any casualties, he told her there were seven.
“So I said ok and just dropped the phone. Because he had said seven, I started praying that my children weren’t among those seven. We just rushed to the hospital and the friend also came along,” Neelam recollected.
The couple witnessed chaotic scenes at Uphaar Cinema and was asked to go to either AIIMS or Safdarjung Hospital. They decided to check first at AIIMS.
“I don’t know why we thought of AIIMS. Probably it was something. Shekhar was in the car and Unnati’s friend and I just got off and ran towards casualty ward and we enquired. They said, 'Sorry ma’am we wouldn’t know the names but you can look in casualty.' Some people were taken upstairs...” Neelam said before a pause.
“I went around looking for my children. In the meantime, Unnati’s friend said ‘I’ll look at the list with the names’. Shekhar also came. I told him let’s go to Safdarjung. While we were there a woman walked up to me and asked, ‘Who are looking for?’.”
Neelam said that she was looking for her 17-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son. The woman held her hand and said, "Can you just come with me?" Neelam asked her where was she taking her to which she replied, "Just come with me."
The woman didn’t seem to be a doctor or a nurse. To this day, Neelam doesn’t know who the woman was.
“Maybe a social worker. But I am not sure. She took me to the OPD block there. There were dead bodies in the hall and from a distance I saw Unnati on a stretcher. I saw her sleeve of the chudidaar (top) and fainted,” she recalled.
On regaining consciousness, Shekhar told her that even Ujjwal was no more.
The Krishnamoorthys were a close-knit, happy family. The Uphaar Cinema fire snatched away everything from the parents, changing their lives forever.
Neelam’s book Trial By Fire is an account of the couple's painful memories. For the parents, Unnati and Ujjwal were very loving and affectionate, good students and interested in music. Like any other 90s kid, they both loved playing and watching cricket. The two also loved going out and making friends, and were clear on the careers they would choose. Neelam and Shekhar couldn’t ask for more.
“Ujjwal said he wanted to get into marine engineering. He would say I want to go on work for six months and take it easy for six months. He would tell us that I can’t work like you people. You people are always talking about business,” the mother pointed out.
Neelam even promised Ujjwal, who loved singing, to produce an album for him when he turned 18.
Shekhar was a singer and used to be a contracted artiste of Magnasound having a couple of albums to his name back then.
While Neelam is from Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, Shekhar, a Tamilian, was born in Patna, Bihar. The couple met in Delhi, got into a relationship and performed a low-key civil marriage. Unnati and Ujjwal completed the family.
“We had a good life. We started a business together. We were working together. We grew it. We brought up the children together. It was remarkable,” reminisced Neelam.
After mourning the loss of their children, the Krishnamoorthys engaged in a long-drawn legal battle. Initially, when Neelam and Shekhar decided to take the fight to the courts, they didn’t even know the difference between a civil and a criminal case.
“I didn’t know what the courts looked like, how they functioned, I knew nothing. Neither did Shekhar. But somewhere, we had been working with a lot of Europeans. I was well aware that our rights had to be protected and I realised that right to life of my children had been snatched away,” said Neelam.
The people who came to grieve with the couple talked about reading in the newspapers that the cinema hall’s doors were shut, that people couldn’t exit and that victims jumped to save their lives.
Neelam, still grieving her children’s loss, couldn’t read the news of the tragedy. But one thing became clear to her - that the people in the cinema hall didn’t have to die and could have been saved.
“After 13 days, when people had come and gone, Shekhar and I decided to read the papers and see what had really happened,” she said.
The couple, struggling with trauma, sought answers to the many questions surrounding the incident.
“When you watched a movie, who bothered about the owner? Now you know that a particular cinema belongs to whom. Now the chain is there. Earlier it was only Sudarshan Cinema, Delight Cinema or Uphaar or Novelty,” she said.
It became important for the couple to understand the versions of those who had survived the tragedy. According to some, the movie kept running while the fire was raging, while others spoke about doors being shut. From the survivors’ accounts, the couple discerned that there were also those who came out unscathed, indicating that people could have been saved.
The couple thereafter decided to take legal action against the owners of Uphaar Cinema and discussed their plan with some lawyer friends.
“They were very honest with me. They said you need good lawyers,” Neelam said.
On their lookout for sound legal advice, the couple managed to meet Senior Advocate KTS Tulsi. One of the things Tulsi is stated to have told Neelam was to form an association to fight the case.
“He said he would do it pro bono. There was a ray of hope. In the 90s, there were some good people around, which we don’t have now,” asserted Neelam.
Shekhar, Neelam recollected, asked her how she was going to fight the case. She responded saying there will be “a way out”.
“In our business, we used to take orders. At that time there was no internet. But we had to do our sourcing of items for export. Similarly, I said we would find a way out. We went home and first thing we did was take out newspapers,” she said.
The couple sifted through the obituary columns in newspapers, noting down names and numbers of the families of the victims of the Uphaar fire. Some of the families they spoke to were dismissive, whereas a few others were receptive.
“It was understandable because everyone had been so traumatised,” Neelam pointed out.
The Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT) was formed on June 30, 1997 after the victims' families, including Neelam and Shekhar, came together and empathised with each other. There has been “no looking back” ever since.
The Association’s first decision was to file a civil writ. By then, an inquiry had also been ordered by the Lieutenant Governor through the Deputy Commissioner (South). This inquiry yielded a finding on July 3, 1997.
Neelam was insistent on getting a hold of the report. However, her visit to the government office was unsuccessful.
“Initially it was refused to me. I had to tell them that I was the one who had lost her children. I told them you are giving it to the media, to the government but you are not giving it to me,” she said.
The report is stated to have mentioned lapses on the part of the licensee, the licensing department, the fire department and the municipal corporation.
Neelam proudly said how the plea under Article 226 of the Constitution of India in the Delhi High Court courtesy Tulsi's legal advice, “opened floodgates” for coming times.
“Nowadays everyone files it under (Article) 226. I’m glad we opened the floodgates. I distinctly remember, one of the defence counsel told the Court, if you allow this, floodgates will open. Court said 'Doesn’t matter, let it be opened',” revealed Neelam.
The case also saw the appointment of a court-appointed Commissioner with whom Neelam and Shekhar visited a charred Uphaar Cinema. For Neelam and Shekhar stepping inside the place where Unnati and Ujjwal died was traumatic.
“I was a little hesitant even before I put my first step inside. Shekhar just held my hand and said don’t worry, 'I am with you. We will do it together',” said Neelam.
The couple decided to go to the balcony, where the children sat during the movie. The mother stated,
Their seats were A4 and A5, under which the parents saw strewn soft-drink bottles.
“My son didn’t have his glasses on when I saw him last. So I thought they must be there somewhere there. They must have fallen off. I don’t know for how long we were there,” she said.
Shekhar then heard some people enter the balcony area, and Neelam told him that she didn’t want anyone see her cry. He held her hand, and Neelam was back to what she calls “activist mode."
Although the visit brought back painful memories, the couple found it helpful for the case.
One of the case’s outcomes, besides compensation to the families of the victims, was the creation of a trauma centre at Safdarjung Hospital. Neelam highlighted that although it was meant for ordinary citizens, it is ironic that during COVID-19, it was only used for VIPs.
“Ordinary people lost their lives and it was due to efforts of ordinary people that the trauma centre had come up. We gave a representation to the government that you should dedicate one wing to the victims of Uphaar tragedy, but they dedicated it someone else. Credit always goes to the politicians.”
The criminal case investigation was initially handed over to the Delhi Police’s Crime Branch, but later transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
“We hadn’t even asked for a transfer. This is one case where victims didn’t demand for a CBI inquiry because we were happy with the police investigation,” declared Neelam.
The CBI investigation culminated in 16 accused being chargesheeted in 1997. However, charges were framed against 13 out of the 16 accused in 2001.
“The trial went on at a snail’s pace and in the meantime, the evidence was tampered with,” Neelam informed.
On November 20, 2007, all accused, including the Ansals, were sentenced to a two-year jail term. They were, however, not taken into custody as it was a bailable offence.
“I took the permission of the Court and said in Court that I was willing to pay double the amount of money on offer if I could get any of the five lives back. It can be any one, not my children,” she said.
She now thinks that if the judiciary had come down heavily in the Uphaar case, fire incidents that followed thereafter could have been avoided.
In 2015, the Supreme Court had enhanced the imprisonment period of the Ansal brothers from one year to two years, but clarified that if the convicts paid a fine of ₹30 crore each within three months, the imprisonment would be reduced to the period already undergone. The Bench had considered the age of the convicts while passing its order.
The day this verdict came out was the only time Neelam says she cried.
“When I came out of court, I burst into tears. That was the only time in my life I couldn’t control myself. I felt traumatised, let down by the system. I lost faith in the very system I had faith in from 1997 till 2015,” she said.
In 2017, the Supreme Court, acting on the review petitions of AVUT and the CBI, directed Gopal Ansal to go back to jail for a year but spared older brother Sushil Ansal jail time on account of his advanced age. The Court, however, upheld the compensation of ₹30 crore each. In 2020, a curative petition challenging the 2017 verdict was dismissed.
The couple has since has followed the tampering case, losing count of the hearings they have attended.
“Thousands,” said Neelam, when asked to put a number. She added,
“I have gone to courts more than some of the lawyers would have gone.”
Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, Neelam and Shekhar went to court for every hearing. For them, the health scare was not as important as getting the trial concluded.
The trial in the tampering case concluded recently, where all accused were found guilty and awarded jail sentences. The order, however, is under challenge before a higher court.
After a long-drawn legal battle, one that continues, the couple seems to have all but lost hope.
“Somehow, I have become immune to the entire system. It was very important for me, but I didn’t have any expectations. Because when you have expectations and you go with that and you don’t get it, you are disappointed. And I had already lost faith in the system so I was not expecting anything,” said Neelam, as Shekhar keenly listened.
If having to cope with the loss of their children was traumatic, the time that followed has made Neelam observe people's lack of sensitivity and sympathy. According to the couple, victims “don’t have any place” in the court of law.
“Public prosecutors are over worked. They have 60-70 cases day. If victims are coming to courts, they should be welcomed because the justice system is meant for them and not for the powerful,” the couple opined in unison.
“If you are not going to allow the victims, then close the courts,” said Shekhar.
Neelam argued that people who commit crimes should be held accountable when they commit crimes, and not let off on account of their age later, because the fight to justice takes years.
Though the legal battle came at a cost, Shekhar insisted that it was a promise he made to the children, come what may.
“I used to travel a lot because of the business. After they were gone, we realised there was no one who was going to demand from me. My children weren’t there. Neelam decided and told me that Shekhar ‘I am going to fight’. We brought our business to almost 15%. We don’t need the money. After all, we earned the money for our children. When they are not there, it is not required. I look back and ask Neelam how did we sustain for 25 years. She said it is the strength of our children,” Shekhar said.
“They are always behind us,” intervened Neelam, adding,