Justice, it is said, must not only be done but must also be seen to be done. For the families of 94 children who were killed in a fire at a Kumbakonam school in 2004, justice has been fully denied.
Thirteen years on, the wounds of their tragic loss are still raw and may never heal. On Thursday, the Madras High Court delivered another painful blow on their open wounds, allowing nine people in the case, including the prime accused – the founder of the Sri Krishna Matriculation School to walk free.
After running from pillar to post for 13 years, families of the victims are heartbroken that the justice system has let them down. Among them is Inbaraj, who lost his two sons – ten-year-old Anandraj and eight-year-old Praveenraj – in the fire, and is now in a state of shock.
"This judgement comes as a complete shock for me because I thought they would all be imprisoned for life. How is this even fair? If there are no schools in Tamil Nadu with thatched roofs today, it is because of the 94 children who died in Kumbakonam. Why has this been forgotten?” he asks.
Blaming the government for its failure to ensure speedy justice for the victims, Inbaraj notes that the state treated one of India’s worst fire tragedies like a petty crime.
“The government clearly did not argue in court to its full potential. They bring in famous advocates for personal cases from Delhi, why can't do the same for this case? The court claimed that the accused were old and therefore did not send them to jail. But it did agree that they are responsible for the deaths. If the government doesn't appeal further, we will take the accused to Supreme Court," says Inbaraj.
Memories of the blaze continue to haunt Saravanan, a jeweller from Kumbakonam, whose seven-year-old son Lakshminarayanan was killed on July 16, 2004.
"Do the lives of our children not matter because they are poor? I saw those burning, screaming and twitching in pain with my own eyes. And those responsible are going to roam free. I don't even know if it is my son's body that I brought home and did the last rites for. The bodies were all burnt beyond recognition. We are not able to understand why this is happening,” mourns Saravanan.
But the fight for justice isn’t the only battle for the families of the victims. Their fight for compensation continues, even as they struggle to move on with their lives. “We are yet to get Rs 2 lakh of our compensation even now," says Saravanan.
The main accused Pulavar Palanisamy, the founder of the Sri Krishna Matriculation School, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment by the trial court, will now walk free after his sentence was modified by the Madras High Court. While the HC bench comprising M Sathyanarayanan and VM Velumani also modified the imprisonment sentence of A5 - Vasanthi, the cook - to the period already undergone by her, the conviction and sentence of seven others in the case were set aside.
"It seemed like a water tight case, but it just slipped through our fingers. The court by doing this has made it seem like people can get away with such crimes if they are influential enough. Most of us still can't get over what happened to our children and here the people responsible for it have been set free," cries Suryakumari, the mother of nine-year-old Karthiga, who was killed in the fire.
(Edited by Anna Isaac)