Uphaar tragedy: Age brings respite for Ansals, but does the same rule apply for others too?

The recent verdict of the Supreme Court on the Uphaar Cinema tragedy of 1997 throws up several questions.

Debobrat Ghose September 25, 2015 12:37:31 IST
Uphaar tragedy: Age brings respite for Ansals, but does the same rule apply for others too?

New Delhi: Can advanced age be a valid reason for not sending a convict behind the bars? If yes, then how do we approach the case of old people in our jails? The recent verdict of the Supreme Court on the Uphaar Cinema tragedy of 1997 throws up several questions.

In its order on Wednesday, a three-judge bench of the apex court headed by Justice Anil R Dave held that one of the owners of the theatre was too old to be in jail. “We have noted the fact that as appellant No 1 (Sushil) is fairly aged, it may not be fruitful to ask him to undergo rigorous imprisonment. On the ground of parity and on the peculiar facts of this case, appellant No 2 (Gopal) may also not be constrained to undergo the sentence, if he also pays the same amount of fine,” the order said. Sushil Ansal is 75, while Gopal Ansal is 67.

Uphaar tragedy Age brings respite for Ansals but does the same rule apply for others too

Representational image. AFP

Legal experts say this is a first of its kind verdict since Indian law doesn’t discriminate convicts on the basis of age, except in the case of juveniles. Social workers and the NGOs working among the elderly inmates in Delhi’s jails view it as an ‘anomaly’.

“If age is a factor then every old man would be free,” said Himanshu Rath, head of the Agewell Foundation said, adding, “Judges have their own way of giving a verdict based on evidence and the way the case has been presented, but prima facie no law restricts a convict from getting imprisonment on the basis of age. Even, a 90-year old person convicted in a crime could be sent to jail.”

Citing the case of Section 498A of the IPC, Rath added, “There are many women above 70 who have been thrown into the prison after their daughters-in-law brought charges of harassment against them. While many charges of this nature are true, in some cases it is misuse of the law. But, since, it’s a non-bailable offence, these aged people suffer in jails.”

According to Delhi Police’s prison statistics for 2013, as many as 402 men and 64 women in the age group of 50-65 were behind bars as under-trials. Those above 65 included 39 men and eight women. In the convicted category, 335 men and 39 women were between 50-65 years of age; and 88 men and 13 women above the age of 65 years.

Kiran Bedi, former Delhi Prisons’ Inspector General and now a BJP leader, who founded India Vision Foundation that works in the field of prison reforms said, “There is a need to analyse how many actually go to jail at an old age. In fact, the convicts go to jail at mid-age, and over the years they grow old in the prison. We can’t generalise any incidence and it’s rare when an old person has been sent to jail. Moreover, a judgment depends on a case-to-case basis.”

The judgment added, “We are conscious of the fact that a matter of this magnitude may call for a higher sentence, but the court has to limit itself to the choice available under the law prescribing sentence.” But, legal experts point out, it mentioned no other strong reason apart from ‘age’ as to why the Ansal brothers were not being sent to jail under Section 304A, which entails a maximum two-year jail term.

“We can’t comment on a judgment passed, but no citizen is discriminated against on the basis of age. There are instances where poor have been sentenced to imprisonment even when the person was above 60,” added Solomon George, president, Delhi Brotherhood Society – a social organisation that works for the rehabilitation elderly people.

A lawyer-turned-social activist told Firstpost on condition of anonymity, “There’s an anomaly in this. The three-judge bench gave the verdict based on various factors. The case has already taken 18 years to arrive at this end. But to hold that the convicts are old and can’t be jailed, and the jail term has been substituted by monetary fines, is not being fair to the families of those who were killed in the accident.”

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