When age is a bar (to jail time): Uphaar verdict is a gift to other pending cases

The Supreme Court has explained why the brothers Ansal will not serve time for that devastating fire at Uphaar cinema which killed 59 people.

Sandip Roy September 24, 2015 12:38:01 IST
When age is a bar (to jail time): Uphaar verdict is a gift to other pending cases

The Supreme Court has explained why the brothers Ansal will not serve time for that devastating fire at Uphaar cinema which killed 59 people.

It boils down to old age. Sushil Ansal is 74 and as the court puts it “fairly aged” and therefore “it may not be fruitful to ask him to undergo rigorous punishment”. Gopal Ansal is 67 but he’s getting a reprieve as well thanks to his older brother “on the ground of parity”.

When age is a bar to jail time Uphaar verdict is a gift to other pending cases

A file photo from the Uphaar fire tragedy. Ibnlive

The court also said its hands were tied because although people might think a tragedy of Uphaar’s magnitude might call for “a higher sentence” they could only go by what the law prescribes.

That's true. Under IPC Section 304A or causing death due to rash or negligent act the maximum jail term is only two years. If they had charged them under culpability of homicide instead as was done to Salman Khan in his hit-and-run case they could have faced up to ten years.

The fact is ten years or two years, the Ansal brothers get away with a fine instead and five months already served. The Court might have intended to show generosity to someone elderly. After all its business is about justice not vengeance. “The sentence should neither be excessively harsh or ridiculously low,” the justices opined. But the Ansal verdict and its explanation is worrying because the Supreme Court is the fountainhead of judicial wisdom in this country and it is sending out a disturbing message even if that was not the Court’s intention at all.

If you are a defendant, and you are rich enough, you can procrastinate, buy enough time and eventually you might be able to buy your freedom via a fine. Manage ho jayega.

The Uphaar fire happened in 1997. “When this incident occurred, Ansal brothers were in their 40s and 50s. It is extremely unfair,” says Neelam Krishnamoorthy who lost her teenaged children in the fire.

The court’s magnanimity will be perceived as the system’s weakness, a loophole which defendants will exploit to the hilt aided by high powered lawyers. Our cases drag on for years and years anyway. Now the court has given that procrastination more legal incentive.

No wonder there has been so little progress in the AMRI hospital fire case in Kolkata where over 90 people, many of them helpless patients, asphyxiated to death in 2011 spurring national outrage. As has been written here before, while six board members, many of them prominent businessmen in the Shrachi and Emami groups, were promptly arrested with great alacrity, the case soon entered the doldrums. “Whether a rickshaw-puller or an influential person, the law is the same for everyone,” said Mamata Banerjee in 2011. A chargesheet was filed against 16 people in 2012 but that’s about the only progress in the case since process has been delayed incessantly through perfectly legal means.

“Now, whenever there is a hearing, one accused or the other comes and files an appeal asking for permission to travel,” a lawyer for the victims told The Telegraph. Three of AMRI’s directors were invited to join Banerjee’s delegation to Singapore in 2014 reported Business Standard. The directors who were out on bail, presented that invitation to the court for permission to leave the country.

“There was a hearing last October. The next hearing was in January, then in March 21 and the next today," complained Dhananjoy Pal who lost his 14-year-old daughter in the AMRI fire at hearing in June 2015. At that time the defence lawyer was asking the judge to have the next hearing after Durga Puja in mid-October.

At this rate petitioners fear the trial would drag on for 20 years which is not inconceivable given the Uphaar timeline. And if the Uphaar verdict is any indication, it would all be moot since the defendants would be “fairly aged” by then.

Cardiologist Mani Chhetri in whose name the hospital licence was, is 95 and already “fairly aged”.

S K Todi who got the land to set up AMRI hospital at throwaway prices during the CPM days is 72.

Dayanand Agarwal, the hospital’s executive director is 68.

Radhe Shyam Agarwal, executive chairman of Emami is currently 69.

Radhe Shyam Goenka, the director of Emami is 68.

They must all be heaving a sigh of relief today at the court’s magnanimity. The math moved in their favour today as the clock keeps ticking. The court has inadvertently showed canny lawyers yet another way to play the system.

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