This family was born after 59 people died. The grief over the deaths bonds its members. But what gives this collective its impetus is an unwavering, dogged determination to ensure that justice is done. It's what makes them a family, insist members of the Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT), a group of 28 Delhi families who lost their loved ones in a fire caused due to negligence at the capital's Uphaar theatre in June 1997.
A fortnight ago, some six years later, the AVUT family's struggle and steadfast belief in justice won over the cynicism of our times. And the Delhi High Court—in an unprecedented ruling—directed the owners of the Uphaar theatre, along with civic authorities like the Delhi Vidyut Board, to pay the victims' kin compensation to the tune of Rs 17 crore, plus other damages amounting to over Rs 3.5 crore. "Let them appeal against the verdict in the Supreme Court, we'll see them there. Also the criminal case against them is still on, we'll fight them to the finish," declares AVUT's Neelam Krishnamoorthy, who has attended over 1,000 hearings in various courts after she lost both her teenage children in the fire. "The lesson here is that there's no getting away with harming little people, because when little people get together they can take on the most powerful."
How they inspire, these simple lessons. Lessons we have been compelled to unlearn over time. That power belongs to the people. That together we can take on the world. That justice does prevail. Yet periodically, if rarely, these simple lessons do make fleeting appearances in today's world. And headlines announce that an AVUT, a small victims' collective, has won the day against power and pelf: won against the Ansals, one of India's richest realtors, against a typically insensitive government, and won despite the snail's pace of the judiciary. This, not as activists but as victims, plunging into spontaneous struggle, without any anticipation of the issues, the time-frames involved, without prepared leadership. And there are many like AVUT in the country, far-flung little groups of people affected by some calamity or the other, groups that have decided it's best to fight their own battle, to alleviate personal suffering, and even to ensure that others never suffer like them again.
It would, of course, be easier for victims to resign to their fate, to reinvent life and live on. Neelam Krishnamoorthy and her husband Shekhar were beseeched by relatives to have children again. Give up your obsessive, elusive pursuit for justice, they advised. It doesn't work in India. But the couple didn't relent.
Just as Mumbai-based Kavita Gadgil, 52, who lost her son, Flight Lieutenant Abhijit Gadgil, in September 2001, didn't. She refused to mourn unquestioningly, refused to forget and forgive. The MiG-21 Abhijit was flying on a routine surveillance mission in Rajasthan had crashed barely 30 seconds after take-off. After a frustrating year-and-a-half of trying to get the Indian Air Force to reveal the reasons for the accident, Kavita's own 'research' revealed a pattern in such mishaps.
Dubbed 'Flying Coffins', the MiG-21, she discovered, was an ageing aircraft with a high crash rate. The record of the 40-year-old fighter jet fleet was a chronology in horror; in the last decade alone, about 100 MiG-21s had crashed, and since Abhijit's death 14 more had gone down. That's when, five months ago, Kavita set up the Abhijit Air Safety Foundation. At once, more than 10 families of dead pilots joined in to form a core group. On a single day this January, the foundation's website received 2,495 page requests and 30 e-mails. Says Kavita, "Our fight is for all the Abhijits who have died in the MiG-21, and those who are still out there in the flying coffins.We'll unite all those who have lost their men to MiG-21 crashes and act as a pressure group." The mission is to have the government admit that something is wrong with the aircraft and phase it out.
These are interminably long battles. As any member of the Bhopal Gas Pidit Mahila Udyog Sangathan (bpgmus), a Bhopal gas victims' collective, will wearily corroborate. It will soon be two decades since the noxious fumes from the Union Carbide Corporation factory leaked out to kill and maim people here in 1984, yet 60,000 compensation cases are still pending in the claims courts set up in 1992. Those who did receive damages did so after 10 to 15 years, and without interest for the intervening period. "To call the amount handed over to us compensation is a mockery of the word, it was dole," fulminates Abdul Jabbar, convenor of bpgmus. "The government received $750 million from Union Carbide in an out-of-court settlement. Most of it is still with them even though they claim that the distribution of compensation is almost over. The government is playing daaku with us!" And the victims are being victimised over and over again, distraught, frustrated but still together. As Shamsunnisa, 65, paralysed and in penury, says, "My husband died of cancer because of the gas leak, our compensation was a pittance, it went towards repaying debts. My only hope is in sticking on with others like me."
A sentiment that drove Kashmir's Pervena Ahanga into joining cause with others whose relatives have disappeared without trace in Kashmir. Pervena's son has been missing for over a decade after being picked up by the authorities. She quickly realised that her efforts to recover her son were doomed to fail. Together with human rights activist Pervez Imroz, in 1994, she brought together the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (apdp). And ever since, it has been difficult for the government to ignore the problem. "Our mission is to know the whereabouts of our loved ones," says Imroz. "We believe that 8,000 Kashmiris have disappeared after being arrested by the government, and while now the government agrees with us on this undeniable fact, it keeps playing around with the figures." Last month, frustrated with lies and half-truths, the apdp went on a week-long hunger strike in Srinagar, seeking a probe into the cases of disappeared persons. Seven-year-old Sahil Meraj participated in the protest. His missing father's photograph stuck on to the placard he grasped in his little hands, Meraj lisped: "My father was arrested by the army six years back, I've not seen him since." On hunger strike with others like Pervena was Bhakti Ahmad, whose son Farooq remains 12 forever in her memory, the age he was in 1990 when he stepped out of the house to visit a friend and never came back. "One son I lost in a crossfire, the other went missing. There are thousands like me in Kashmir. Let the government know, I am not alone now." She believes her Farooq will come back one day.
For, there is strength in numbers. And solace. It's not easy dealing with victimhood alone. Eighty-five-year-old Sumair Singh Bhadoria is glad to be a member of the ccb Depositors Welfare Association, a group of affected people who got together when Lucknow's City Cooperative Bank went bust in March 2001—the bank owed about Rs 79 crore to its depositors. About 17,000 people lost their life's savings, and 15 per cent of them were pensioners like Bhadoria. "Thank god for this association," says he. "Through it, I have come across many with whom I share my plight. At least now we can hear out each others' sorrows. Otherwise who was there to empty out my heart to?" And who else would pursue their case with as much vigour as this motley group of fleeced depositors. Besides registering several cases in the courts, the association regularly dashes off petitions to authorities it thinks can help, even to the prime minister.At any rate, whatever be its success in the long run, the association members today thrive on the meaningful togetherness they have spun. Says member Ashok Sur, "We try our best to help each other, particularly the older ones among us who are practically left with nothing." For instance, the association asked a grocery store to send basic supplies to the affected retired persons.
Yes, humanity still thrives despite what the sceptics say. The will of common men and women to tirelessly pursue justice remains indefatigable, even heroic. And despite all our cynicism, we are galvanised by those who fight for themselves. Inspired when AVUT's Naveen Sawhney, a 59-year-old who still refuses to make peace with his daughter's terrible death due to the negligence of others, says, "After our cases are over we'll fight for injustices done to others like us, teach them how important it is to be together and persistent while fighting against injustice, just how important it is to fight." Little People can change the world, it's time the world knew of it.
Soma Wadhwa with Priyanka Kakodkar in Pune, Zafar Meraj in Srinagar, Sutapa Mukerjee in Lucknow, K.S. Shaini in Bhopal