Last month the Supreme Court (SC) gave its verdict in two cases where two mothers have taken on the system. In the Nitish Katara murder case, mother Neelam Katara fought a powerful political lobby. The Delhi High Court (HC) has given Vikas and Vishal Yadav a sentence of 30 years; however, the SC will decide the quantum of sentence next month.

In the Uphaar cinema fire which killed 59, the SC held the Ansals (brothers and real estate tycoons Gopal and Sushil) guilty of ‘criminal negligence,’ but spared them a jail term for a penalty of ₹60 crore. Neelam Krishnamoorthy, who lost both her children in the fire, wanted this case to set a precedence where corporates are held accountable for man-made disasters.

For Katara, the court’s decision has been a consolation, for Krishnamoorthy, a blow.

Ready for battle

Neelam Katara has a visitor, so I wait in the dining area. “It is the new SHO. Every time a new officer takes charge, they come and say ‘hello’,” says Katara. Her life changed on February 17, 2002, when her 23-year-old son Nitish went missing from a wedding in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh. Previously, Katara’s days had revolved around her job at Kendriya Vidyalaya, two grown-up sons and an ailing husband. That life was erased the day she identified Nitish’s burnt body on the highway at Khurja. For the past 13 and a half years, a policeman has been stationed round-the-clock at her railway colony home in New Delhi. The house appears to have shut itself to anything new. A car stands covered in the courtyard, the verandah is strewn with abandoned furniture and the centrepiece in the living room is a large photograph of Nitish.

The day she got an FIR filed against Vikas Yadav — son of then Rajya Sabha MP DP Yadav — and his cousin Vishal Yadav over the disappearance of her son, courtrooms have been her arena and police, lawyers, judges and witnesses, the principal actors. The case dragged on for six years in the trial court, another six in the Delhi HC and a year more in the SC. Forty-three witnesses testified, and all except three turned hostile. Up against the “UP mafia” — complete with political muscle — the former education officer quickly realised she needed to be pro-active.

“I learnt over the years how bad, bad can be,” says Katara. The sessions court in Ghaziabad, where the trial began, was the Yadavs’ home turf. She went for the hearings alone, while a battalion came for the accused. “The place was full of their people in black gowns, you couldn’t figure out if they were lawyers or not.”

Kamini Jaiswal, senior lawyer, has been Katara’s guide all along, but that didn’t make finding a counsel in Ghaziabad easy. The case turned when she got it moved to Delhi. Katara didn’t realise the significance then, but remembers the doorman at the court telling her, “Hume bolna nahi chaiye. Par aaj jo hua, bahut achchha hua. Yeh bahut badi cheez hai (I shouldn’t be saying this. But whatever happened today is remarkable).”

In Delhi, Katara was up against endless adjournments, and excuses stretched from the interesting to the bizarre. “The lawyer said he was dehydrated in an air-conditioned room and cannot argue. Another time, a pressure cooker had burst at home and the lawyer’s daughter was hurt. Since his wife worked, he wanted to be home.” Witnesses would often not turn up, and if they did, would be sent off.

Katara regrets how misinformation kept her away from the courts when witnesses were being examined. She was witness number 33, and was instructed to remain at home till her turn came up. “Later, people told me I was a complainant, I could have been there. My presence would have made sure that the children (Nitish’s friends) did not say the things they did.” She would read their statements later; one said Nitish was hot-tempered and picked fights with truck drivers; another cited family pressure for turning hostile.

Katara learnt quickly and attended every hearing thereon. “I knew the facts,” she says. So when the public prosecutor dropped Bharti, whose relationship with Nitish had led to his murder, Katara appealed to have her back as witness. Bharti’s lawyers exhausted all excuses to keep her away. Katara remembers a medical certificate furnished for Bharti’s absence stating she had a sprained ankle. It was certified by a gynaecologist! The court allowed it. It took Katara four-and-a-half years of courtroom drama to get Bharti to testify. Though Bharti turned hostile, and said her brothers were kind and loving, Katara says her testimony helped as it exposed her relationship with Nitish. It was when Bharti, a prosecution witness, was cross-examined by the public prosecutor that Katara realised something was amiss. “I learnt the meaning of hostile when Bharti turned hostile. I saw the implication of hostile and hostility... I am sure on that last night if Nitish had said (to the Yadavs) he wouldn’t meet Bharti again, he would have lived,” she says.

Katara was also shocked at the fear that gripped Nitish’s friends. No one, except a senior couple, from the management institute where he and Bharti were classmates attended the funeral. Instead strangers — such as a man Katara met at an ATM in central Delhi who was following the case from Libya — often provided moral support. When Vikas and Vishal spent weeks in hospitals instead of in prison, junior doctors she’d never met before informed her of it. Katara subsequently filed RTIs to know how the Yadavs could be in hospital. In this unequal battle, the inordinate delays tested Katara physically, mentally and financially. She lost her husband soon after the trial began and she sent her younger son abroad to make sure his life was not lost in the courts. The legal battle cleaned out the couple’s retirement benefits and she has learnt to live on little. “You think, ‘Can this car pull on for another two years?’”

With the SC upholding the conviction, a weight has been lifted and her legal team is filing a reply on the quantum of sentence.

Was she ever afraid during the last decade? “There is something more important than fear. It is not the absence of fear. God didn’t make me a chooha (mouse), so I will not hide in a hole. It is about justice for my son.”

The other verdict

August is special for Neelam Krishnamoorthy. Her children, Unnati and Ujjwal, whom she lost in the Uphaar fire in 1997, were born this month. When the SC reserved judgment in the criminal case against the Ansals (the owners of the cinema) for August, she felt it was a good omen. The trial court and Delhi HC had found the Ansals guilty, sentencing them to imprisonment. But on August 19, though the SC upheld the conviction, it traded Ansal’s imprisonment for a combined fine of ₹60 crore. For Krishnamoorthy, her children died a second time. The court cited Ansal’s age for avoiding a prison term. For the first time, she broke down in public. “I couldn’t believe my ears. It is not that I didn’t hear them properly, I was sitting in the second row. I walked out crying and people told me the brothers were smiling as they walked out.”

That image still rankles Krishnamoorthy. For her husband Shekhar and her, this case was never for windfall gains. She says, “I am not going to get my children back even if the SC hangs them [the accused] or sends them behind bars for 10 years.” The corporate sector, she says, should not be allowed to endanger lives by compromising fire safety norms, as had happened in Uphaar. It was proved in the courts that the people in the balcony died as the gangways and exits were blocked, the public address system didn’t work. The intention was profit and convictions prove it, she adds. “I fail to understand why our children should pay with their lives because the Ansals chose to make profits? I felt I was sitting in a panchayat and it was a khap panchayat faisla (decision). It is definitely not an SC judgment.”

Birthday cards the siblings exchanged sit in her living room at her DDA apartment in Kalkaji. There isn’t a speck of dust on them, or the wear-and-tear of 18 years. Sitting beside them, Krishnamoorthy says quitting is not an option, “It is a promise I made to my children that I will get them justice. It is a mother’s promise, it has to be kept.”

The CBI is likely to file a review against the verdict. And to Krishnamoorthy, the criminal case was among the five she had filed. Now she may be battle-ready, but the couple who have a garment business had never been to court before this case. In court, she would only hear the term ‘adjournment’. On one occasion the counsel said it was solar eclipse and his client had not eaten, on another it was a cricket match. “I also heard a junior counsel saying his senior couldn’t argue as he had lost his voice. The next day, I read in the papers that he was arguing in a 2G case at the Patiala Court.”

She quickly realised knowledge was her best weapon. “I read up the CrPC, the IPC and other judgments. I would assist the public prosecutor. I would carry judgments in my handbag to prove my locus standi. Our dining table is full of court documents. Between Shekhar and I, we know everything about Uphaar.” When frequent adjournments became the norm, Krishnamoorthy approached the Delhi HC thrice to have the trial expedited. It took eight years to prove the Ansals guilty.

Partly because of their active participation, none of the 115 witnesses — other than the Ansal family — turned hostile. Her pro-active stance, though, made her unpopular among the kin of the accused. “They don’t come to the court alone but surrounded by six-footers. When I would enter the court, they would put their leg across the aisle. The judge saw this and instructed I be allowed to use the judge’s entrance,” she says, adding that she was openly threatened and abused in court. Despite the threats and the CBI’s request that she take protection, she says, “I don’t need protection. I have no wish to live, especially after the judgement. They have offered money umpteen times, each time I have declined.”

The judgment has been a shock, but that has emboldened her to fight the other cases. She is curious to see how the tampering-of-evidence case (several documents related to the incident had gone missing or were mutilated) will play out. A chargesheet was filed in 2006 and until now only one witness has been examined. “In another 20 years they will say it is a prolonged trial. You are 100 years old now. So pay the courts ₹50 crore and go.”

Irony has been the hallmark of the Uphaar trial, as each higher court has shrunk the quantum of punishment, and also slashed the compensation for the victims. “In 2003, when the Ansals were supposed to pay ₹5 crore to the victims, they said they had no money. All we have is a small flat and Uphaar cinema. Until we sell Uphaar, we cannot pay. The same Ansals, when they were asked to pay ₹60 crore now, didn’t take two minutes to say ‘We will pay it in three months.’”

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