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When radical lawyer-activist Girish Patel's prophecy on "cchote Hitler" came out to be true

Girish Patel (left) at a #NotInMyName demonstration in Ahmedabad in July 2017
By Darshini Mahadevia*, Ghanshyam Shah**
Girish Patel, a prominent presence and voice in the radical section of Gujarat’s civil society, human rights lawyer and social activist, breathed his last on 6 October 2018, at the age of 86 years. Girishbhai, as he was popularly known, was the son of a sanitary inspector in the Ahmedabad municipality. His career began in 1958 as a professor in one of Ahmedabad’s law colleges. He went on to study at the Harvard Law School where he got his Master of Laws degree and also learnt about the vast philosophical aspects of law. He then studied at The Hague Academy of International Law.
In 1964, he returned to Ahmedabad and joined the teaching profession, becoming the principal of a law college and also a member of the university senate. In 1972, he became a member of the Gujarat State Law Commission where he served for three years. Later, in 1975, he started his law practice in the High Court of Gujarat.

Radical Stance

As a teacher, he actively supported the university teachers’ union, which had then engaged in a struggle against the established vested interests and corrupt practices in education. With several other teachers, he also supported the 1974 students’ (Navnirman) movement. It initially had a radical agenda on price rise and starvation.
The first stage of the movement succeeded in ensuring that the then Chief Minister Chimanbhai Patel, stepped down. Girishbhai, however, was keen that the movement must transcend then existing political party structure, must aim at restructuring of society, the creation of different forms of political and economic organisations for participation.
But, a majority of the teachers and students were not interested in re- structuring the society. This meant that he and his co-activists were sidelined. Later, he realised that reactionary forces, including the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, began occupying centre stage in the movement.
Though it did not turn outright communal, he once observed that the movement’s disintegration provided “a fertile ground for the emergence of an organised or fanatical party” (2002). That was the reason why he was not an enthusiastic supporter of the JP (Jayaprakash Narayan) movement.
While opposing the Emergency, like many other left-oriented activists, he rejected the dichotomy between the civil and democratic rights of the deprived sections. These rights were “not simply bourgeois illusions,” he said and argued that the have-nots needed them more than the rich and the powerful.
He asserted that the struggle for civil, political and democratic rights, and the struggle for social, economic and cultural rights are one – integral, invisible and inter-dependent. The human rights of all can become real, effective and meaningful only in a democratic state, economy and society, Patel argued (2009).
With this perspective, he along with a few other like-minded activists formed the Lok Adhikar Sangh (LAS) in 1977 to fight for basic human rights of the poor and the deprived in Gujarat. The LAS assumed its role to be a supporter of ongoing social, political and economic rights movements rather than directly engaging in a mobilisation of the masses.

Confronting Civil Society

He combined social activism by participating in social movements for rights with legal fights in the courts. In the early 1980s, he supported land rights strug- gles of tribals in Valia and the Dangs in south Gujarat.
The state and the hegemonic civil society labelled the area as “Chambal Valley” of dacoits and Naxalites. Girishbhai was involved in a fact-finding committee and later also provided legal help to the tribal leaders (Shah 2018). During the same period, he opposed the anti-reservation agitation led by the upper castes. Later, he actively participated in the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) led by Medha Patkar against the construction of dam on the river Narmada.
He was branded as “anti-Gujarat” as a result of this. Girishbhai confronted not only the government and dominant classes but also the civil society. He countered self-styled rationalists quo modernists as well as mechanical Marxists who had faith in the doctrine of “historical inevitability, the unilinear progress of society and inherent superiority of the model of development -- westernisation and industrialisation.”
He repeatedly emphasised the rights of tribals and other have-nots to life, development, access and control over natural resources, to participate in the decision-making pro- cess and so on. He argued that right to work includes the right to use of, access to and command over resources.
He often asserted that the true role of the judiciary was to further the democratic revolution and he imaginatively interpreted various laws from the perspective of subaltern so that the have- nots get relief if not justice. With the innovation of the public interest litigation (PIL) in 1980, he was the first to file a PIL in the High Court of Gujarat.
Over a period of time, he filed more than 200 PILs on issues of shelter, rehabilitation, minimum wages, livelihood, atrocities on Dalits, Adivasis, women and so on. His efforts were successful in releasing around 300 bonded labourers, and also providing relief to several workers for getting their dues in wages and other rights.
He also succeeded in getting a court verdict that for all the rights, including that of minimum wages of the contract workers, the “principal employer” was considered responsible. In other words, a public sector entity cannot shrug off its responsibilities with regard to the workers’ rights by subcontracting certain tasks to private entities.
In regard to industrial pollution in Gujarat, with his efforts in the courts, he was instrumental in focusing the attention of the High Court of Gujarat, and thus the state government to the very high levels of industrial and chemical pollution throughout the state, compelling some of the industrial estates of Gujarat to construct common effluent treatment plants. However, he soon realised that his success had very limited value in con- trolling pollution as industrialists with money power manipulated the legal pro- visions in their favour.
One of the PILs he filed was for sugar cane workers. Having read about the subhuman conditions of life of the sugar cane workers in south Gujarat, written by a social anthropologist Jan Breman in 1974 (translated in Gujarati in early 1986), on behalf of the LAS, he filed a PIL in 1987 demanding the enforcement of all laws related to the Inter State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Condition of Services) Act, 1979 in general and payment of minimum wages in particular. He won the case and the court asked the sugar factories to pay the prevailing minimum wages to the sugar cane workers.
Then came the question for the implementation of the order against the quantum of work they did. It required calculation of wages with a new formula. But, the LAS had no wherewithal in terms of people to ensure implementation of the court order. He then mobilised local activists to list the sugar cane cutters and supervise the implementation of the court order. With these efforts, nearly one lakh sugar cane cutters collectively received Rs 3.5 crore more than what the factories intended to pay (Breman 1990).
Other segments of civil society organisations hardly took interest in the struggle. They wanted to avoid confrontation with the dominant classes. Sugar cooperative factories have succeeded in manipulat- ing the government administration and the condition of workers remained more or less the same. Unlike many activists, Girishbhai was always self-reflective, open to criticism and willing to work on his mistakes. He later admitted that
“…it was an unplanned strategy on our part with no sufficient experience or roots in the field. We functioned in an action-reaction mode, facing challenges as they came since we could not foresee what would come up. We wanted to involve the workers in our action which also we tried but we did not succeed.” (2009)

No Dogmatism

He was not dogmatic in his approach. While fighting a legal battle, Girishbhai often tried to assess the courts’ attitude and space within the legal system for the deprived to get benefits for their survival. For instance, in 2005, he advised the activists engaged in preventing a large- scale eviction of the slum dwellers because of the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project to demand their rehabilitation rather than challenge the validity of such projects in the name of “development.”
Looking to the changed politics and the inclination of the judiciary, he felt that the court would not even admit a PIL if it was to stop the riverfront project. He, therefore, persuaded the activists to demand fair rehabilitation. The PIL was admitted and the high court immediately gave a stay on any eviction without rehabilitation. On the court’s directive the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation was compelled not only to pro- vide alternative accommodation to the affected people of the riverfront, but also to appoint a representative of the victims in supervision of the process of rehabilitation.
According to him, he won a few cases and lost several or nothing happened in many cases. He was not unaware of the limitations of a PIL to get justice for the poor. At the same time, on the whole, in his view the experiences with legal battle through a PIL had not been “completely negative or totally disappointing or frustrating.” His purpose was to use available space in the oppressive system for the survival of the poor. It can act, he believed, as a catalytic agent to reinvigorate mass consciousness for rights. At the same time, he conceded that the dominance of propertied classes had increased in the state as well as the judiciary under the neo-liberal policy regime. In that situation, the PIL’s efficacy as a tool to actualise the rights of the marginalised was diminishing.
Like several secularists, he was very disturbed by the 2002 anti-Muslim may- hem in Gujarat. In his angry reaction, he raised several questions to fellow radical secularists: 
“Why this successful arrival of chhote Hitler in Gujarat? Why the macabre dance by the killers of the Mahatma Gandhi in the land of Gandhi himself? Why this Hindu tribalism and medievalism in ‘naya Gujarat’ in the 21st century? What is still more disturbing and horrifying is the boast of the elites of Gujarat and the fear of those who are committed to democracy, secularism and social justice, that ‘What Gujarat is today, India will be tomorrow’, as the former always claim with pride that Gujarat is forever ‘a path-breaker for India’. Will this turn out to be true?” (2002)
He was greatly disappointed when this came out true in 2014. 
While engaged in struggles, he frequently felt the need to evolve “a common and comprehensive ideological frame- work” to make human rights struggle a national people’s movement for human rights of the oppressed and protection of constitutional values against rising anti-democratic forces. He supported and encouraged a few young activists to pursue the task of social justice.
One of them was the late Mukul Sinha, founder of Jan Sangharsh Manch who fought the cases for the victims of the 2002 communal massacre. The poet-singer duo Charul and Vinay, the founders of Loknaad give voice to the victims of violence and exploitation, and express vision of humane society for all. And, Anand Yagnik, a lawyer fights legal battles in the High Court of Gujarat on the issues of land acquisition, environment and distress of farmers.  
---
*Professor, CEPT University, Ahmedabad. **Former professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi
This article was first published in "Economic and Political Weekly" (October 20, 2018). Republished with the permission of Prof Ghanshyam Shah

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