13 June 1997: The Uphaar Cinema fire tragedy occurred

Delhi’s Uphaar Cinema fire of 13 June 1997 killed 59 people and became a symbol of poor safety norms in India’s public places. The blaze started at around 5.10 pm when the audience was glued to the screen, watching the 3-6 pm screening of the Hindi film Border.  

Minutes earlier a security person at the premises had heard two explosions in quick succession. When he went to the parking space on the first floor, he saw smoke billowing out of the transformer room. Ominously, oil had spilt over the floor. He and another staffer ran upstairs, shouting at people to get out. But by then most of the cars were engulfed by flames and the fire had spread throughout the building.

Soon, there was a distinct burning smell inside the theatre and smoke started filling the hall. The panic turned to horror as the lights went off. There was a stampede as people tried desperately to escape. But the exit doors were locked. Most of the victims died on account of suffocation, rather than burn injuries.

Fire brigades took about an hour to bring the blaze under control. The victims were taken to AIIMS and Safdarjung hospital, but it was too late for many of them. Raman Sidhu, a bank manager, lost nine family members in the tragedy, including his wife and two children.

Investigations revealed that on the same morning of the fire, the transformer, which the Delhi Vidyut Board had recently installed, had caught fire. A patch-up job was done, but no shows were cancelled.

Probes by several organisations including the police, fire department and CBI revealed several violations including lack of a proper PA system to announce an emergency; absence of emergency lights; blocked exits and gangaways; and multiple violations of electricity laws.

The theatre owner Sushil Ansal and his son Pranav were arrested in Mumbai on 22 July. In November 1997 the CBI filed a chargesheet against 16 accused including Sushil and his brother and co-owner of Uphaar Gopal Ansal.

The quest for justice

In February 2001 a sessions court framed charges against the accused under various sections such as culpable homicide and causing death by negligent act. In April 2003, the Delhi High Court ordered Rs 180 million in compensation to relatives of the victims.

In November 2007, the sessions court convicted the Ansal brothers under Section 304-A (causing death due to negligence) of the IPC read with other sections relating to endangering safety of people. The duo was also found guilty under the Cinematography Act. Ten other accused were convicted under various acts. The Ansal brothers were given a two-year jail term.

But the relatives of the victims were far from satisfied. Neelam Krishnamurthy, who lost her two children in the blaze and was spearheading the cause of justice for the Uphaar victims, told the Times of India: “When my children died, I had two choices — either to sit back, cry and accept whatever happened as fate or fight for justice. I chose the latter. I didn't want to blame destiny for whatever happened. If at all God exists, would He want so many people to die in such a brutal way? That's when I made a promise to my children and myself to punish those responsible for their death.”

In December 2008, the Delhi High Court upheld the trial court order convicting the Ansal brothers, but reduced their sentence to one year. Overall, the conviction of six of the 12 accused was upheld.

In March 2014, the Supreme Court held Sushil and Gopal Ansal guilty of negligence for the Uphaar theatre fire, but they were not taken into custody as the judges gave a split verdict on the quantum of sentence.

Even after a long and exhausting judicial process, it is not clear if the victims’ families will get the justice they seek. Also, question marks remain over how much has the country learnt about fire safety in the years after the Uphaar tragedy.

Also on this day:

1909 — E.M.S. Namboodiripad, Chief Minister of Kerala, was born   

1965 — Maninder Singh, Indian cricketer, was born 

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