There is strength in unity: Uphaar warriors Neelam & Shekhar Krishnamoorthy (IANS Interview)

Placed with love and grief, Unnati’s and Ujjwal’s photo frames stand on a wooden cabinet even after 26 years of no justice in the capital’s Uphaar cinema fire tragedy.

It is their parents Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy’s remarkable hard work, bravery and unity in fighting the case that is keeping 28 families of 59 victims still hoping that they will get justice one day.

For the victims’ families, who were left helpless and pained to lose their loved ones, Krishnamoorthy formed AVUT (Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy) on June 30, 1997, barely 17 days after the tragedy. Starting off as a nine-family association, it is a 28-family powerful registered society now.

Starring Abhay Deol and Rajshri Deshpande, the web series ‘Trial by Fire’ is based on the 2016 book of the Krishnamoorthys, ‘Trial by Fire: The Tragic Tale of the Uphaar Fire Tragedy’. The tragedy raised important questions about our social values and our ability as a nation to implement and enforce some of the most basic laws governing the safety and survival of our people.

Besides so many lives lost, more than 100 people were injured.

At 4.55 p.m. a swirling mass of smoke engulfed the balcony section of the cinema hall in posh south Delhi. In the absence of fire exits and ushers to help the patrons, the people seated on the balcony found themselves trapped. By 7 p.m., 59 people had died. Among them were Unnati (17) and Ujjwal (13).

Excerpts from an interview with the Krishnamoorthys:

IANS: How did you decide to form the Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT)?

Krishnamoorthys: It was Senior Advocate K.T.S. Tulsi’s guidance to us to form an association to fight the case. While Shekhar was sceptical about it, I (Neelam) told him that we will find a way. We started looking for numbers of families in newspapers’ obituary columns every day. We managed to get nine families and on June 30, 1997, AVUT was born out of “anger and grief”. However, everyone joined the journey with time.

IANS: Many people were not open to the idea of AVUT. How did you convince them?

Krishnamoorthys: On contacting them, I understood that they need time to grieve. We started after the 13th day itself when people were performing the last rites. Moreover, I knew it would take some time considering that people are not prepared to take on the rich and powerful or the government. People feared! That fear is still lurking around and it is high time that we come out of it. Somebody has to start.

IANS: Talking about your legal battle, how many hearings have taken place?

Krishnamoorthys: In 26 years of no justice, we have lost count. It must be in thousands because there are multiple cases in different courts.

IANS: Time and again, the courts have been favouring the Ansals, stating their old age. What is your say on this?

Krishnamoorthys: (They cite the instances of the imprisonment of civil rights leader Stan Swamy and of a 98-year-old man who was recently released after serving five years in jail.) It is not the old age, it is the money. There should be some parity.

Twenty three children lost their lives to the tragedy and youngest being 30 days old, why hasn’t the Supreme Court considered that? D.Y. Chandrachud, in one of his judgments, has himself said that we are having two parallel legal systems, one for the rich and one for the poor. Would they let a poor man walk free like Ansals? The courts are there to deliver justice and we should all be treated on par.

IANS: One of the chapters in your book is ‘In India, life comes cheap’. What made you title it that?

Krishnamoorthys: When the High Court had awarded Rs 18 lakh each to victims above 20 and Rs 15 lakh each to families of the children, the Ansals challenged the amount before the Supreme Court. The court very gladly listened to them and reduced it to Rs 10 lakh and Rs 7.5 lakh, respectively. Where in the world is life so cheap? Our children are children of a lesser God, to them.

IANS: Sushil Ansal has claimed that the sale of your book be stopped as it has only a one-sided narration.

Krishnamoorthys: If I am writing a book, will I go ask him about what I need to write in my book? It is that simple. I (Neelam) am the author and what goes in my book are my thoughts. Moreover, it is all facts.

IANS: Something we are sure of is that you are not going to give up. How far or near do you see yourself from getting justice?

Krishnamoorthys: For us, it’s a never ending saga. Till the last day of my life, I will probably end up in court because they have failed to deliver justice to us. However, till the time I am alive, I will continue. I will not give up. On August 19, 2015, I was so angry and frustrated and I had said that if I had another choice, I would have picked up a gun and shot them (Ansals). At least, my children would have been at peace.

IANS: After so many years, do you think safety measures are in place?

Krishnamoorthys: After we have raised our voices and a lot of other tragedies have happened, I think, safety measures have been taken in many places but not enough. There are a lot of public spaces like restaurants and shopping malls running without no objection certificates.

IANS: What is the takeaway from the series?

Krishnamoorthys: The relevance of fire safety in public places, people being aware of their rights and if you are fighting a rich and powerful lobby, or the government, getting together and fighting them are the three takeaways. The biggest, however, remains the justice being denied to us despite Ansals being convicted twice by the court in two different cases.

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