By Sayantan Ghosh:
On September 12, I was at a protest organized by the Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT) held against the recent decision of the Supreme Court in the Uphaar Cinema fire tragedy case. 18 years ago, in June, while an afternoon show was playing inside the Uphaar cinema behind which I live now, the parking lot caught fire which spread throughout the building rapidly. 59 people lost their lives that day, most due to suffocation rather than burn injuries, and several more were left bruised, both physically and emotionally, and remain to be even today. For those of us who were very young when it happened and rely only on archived information, an article in Caravan summed up the causes of the ‘mishap’ as “a faulty power transformer, sparks in an overfilled garage, cars on fire, thick smoke rising into the theatre, pandemonium, cut power, blocked balcony exits.”
Once standing tall and buzzing with spectators, dressed in light bulbs and garish posters every other Friday, now the cinema lay like a ruin. On the 19 August 2015, The Supreme Court of India finally ruled that the owners of the cinema, Sushil and Gopal Ansal, were responsible for these deaths and should serve the maximum sentence of two years rigorous imprisonment for their crime. However, after spending around five and four months in jail respectively, they were able to walk free by paying a penalty of Rs 60 crore as a fine imposed by the SC.
Neelam Krishnamoorthy—a resident of South Delhi who lost both her children in the accident—has pioneered this movement for the past 18 years and has been fighting for what she believes will be justice for the lives lost that day. Several distinguished and well-known faces associated with politics and art, like Brinda Karat, Kavita Krishnan, Shubha Mudgal, were seen standing by Krishnamoorthy’s on Saturday both on stage and off, speaking their minds openly.
To see so many people at the gathering, many of who didn’t necessarily suffer a personal loss after the incident, was heartening. Numerous faces volunteering for the act, some who had not even been born in 1997. Yet I was compelled to ask myself the question whether it would have received more attention if the nature of the crime was less complicated. Public memory and its temporary nature has been the subject of many discussions in the past. Any act of injustice prompts immediate resistance from most of us who can think rationally, and yet it doesn’t take too long for the same to get replaced by something else. The media frenzy, the constant debates, tweets and tickers dominating our screens, there is no real escape from this behavior either. The more macabre the case, the longer we like to stay with its ‘updates’. And like most of us, I am both a participant and victim of this pattern.
But even this madness has a certain method. Whether it’s a heinous act of cross-border terrorism or a communal crime, there is an instantaneous social media uproar which often (not always!) helps in bringing attention towards the subject, if not anything more. When an atheist blogger is killed in another country, we protest. When a beloved renowned writer is shot dead inside his own house, we protest. There is undivided opposition from the free speaking public on the internet when a tiffin carrier bomb kills many, or even when a mother strangles her own daughter. As long as our hands are carrying a weapon, or become a weapon themselves, there’s a collective cry of defiance. But the day the Uphaar judgment came out, there were merely a handful in my small circle of acquaintances, who were even aware of it. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been either if I had not been living so close to where it all transpired.
No one walked in with a gun on 13 June 1997 and showered bullets on the victims, no chants by religious fanatics were heard who locked them inside and set them on fire. This was a crime of pure greed and negligence. The additional seats installed for revenue blocked the exit points, the property was entangled in licensing violations, the electricity supply had tripped and many were trapped inside in complete darkness with no one from the management or staff to offer help. When we enter a public space outside our homes, whether a cinema, restaurant or parking lot, we display a certain amount of trust in those who are responsible for the safety of those places. So when due to dereliction of their duty and show of absolute thoughtlessness later (delaying the judicial process, equating the lives of actual people with compensatory ‘blood money’, etc.), so many lives are lost, why is the voice of common people like us not as fierce?
On Saturday, Neelam Krishnamoorthy relayed how the defence lawyers used to defer the hearings by asking for another date citing various reasons, sometimes as silly as cricket matches and marriage functions, much like the famous Sunny Deol scene ‘tarikh pe tarikh’. Many others referred the Ansal brothers as ‘Ansal bhaiyo’ which was strange to hear, as if they were also one of us. And perhaps they are, because I don’t suspect that their intention ever was to harm anyone. And yet when they faultered they failed to stand accountable for their guilt. They even escaped the wrath of the opinionated social media, unlike Babu Bajrangi or David Headley, perhaps only because they were not ‘present’ at the scene of the crime. After the verdict, Ms. Krishnamoorthy said that she has “lost faith in the judiciary”, my decision to write this essay is only because I have not. Like Sunny Deol in Border, the last film which many of those stuck inside Uphaar on that fateful day will have ever seen, I hope our courts and its many custodians take note of the burning anguish still pertinent inside so many hearts and eventually save the day.