Skip to main content

A top Gujarat High Court lawyer who lived and worked for the underprivileged

Singing "Vaishnav jan to tene re kahiye", Gandhi's favourite, also of Girish Patel
By Rajiv Shah
When I came to Ahmedabad to join as assistant editor of the Times of India in 1993, I didn’t know Girish Patel was a senior advocate of the Gujarat High Court. Apart from assisting the then editor, Tushar Bhatt, my job was to specifically look after the editorial page, which also meant I should be selecting from among the letters to the editor that we would get, edit them appropriately, and put them in the Letters to the Editor column.
Apart from those who would genuinely write letters, reacting to, particularly disagreeing with, this or that story or comment that appeared in the paper, there were what I would then call “professional letter writers”, too. They would regularly write letters to the editor always profusely praising the paper, just to see their name appearing in the paper. I found this annoying, and the first thing that I did to give them regular space.
Medha Patkar
Among these regular letter writers was Girish Patel, too. Initially, I would looked at his letters skeptically, but I found his contents interesting, as he would go out of the way to criticize the Gujarat government, often opposing the Narmada dam and the corporate policies of Gujarat and Government of India policies – something that other “regulars” wouldn’t ever do.
Written in clear and lucid English, I would take his letters. I don’t remember having dropped any of his letters. Sometimes his letters were too long, so I would try to meticulously trim them. While other “regulars” would make complaints to my editor that their letters were “not appearing”, Girish Patel – whom I had never met or known – didn’t once object to his letters being trimmed.
I ensured that all his letters were published, as far as possible, till I was shifted to Gandhinagar to cover the Gujarat government in 1997-end. At a recent meeting held in Ahmedabad to commemorate him (he died exactly a year ago, on October 6, 2018 at the age of 86), I was a little surprised to know this: All his letters were published in a book form in 2011. The book was displayed at the entry gate of the meeting, too.
I met Girish Patel through Achyut Yagnik, a journalist-turned-activist and one of the best social scientists I have known. I met him perhaps in connection with an oped story I was planning. Thereafter, I must have met him one-to-one a couple of times, though I would surely meet him in social functions. Sometimes I would also talk to him on phone. After I was posted in Gandhinagar, I somewhat lost touch of him.
All that I knew of him was: He was a top human rights lawyer, didn’t charge fees from poor, fought mainly cases of the underprivileged sections in the High Court, most the  judges would give him due respect, and, most important, he was a lone fighter for the Narmada dam oustees in Gujarat siding with the anti-dam Narmada Bachao Andolan's (NBA's) living legend Madha Patkar. 
Manishi Jani
Interestingly, at the commemorative meeting, Gujarati litterateur-social activist Minishi Jani quoted Girish Patel as stating that his main job in the High Court was to keep judges abreast with the fact that all’s not well in the outside world, telling them that the unprivileged need justice. He said this in the High Court during an argument, revealed Jani.
I immediately thought what a few young lawyers, one of them appearing in the Gujarat High Court and other in a local Ahmedabad court, said while interacting with me over a cup of tea recently. The first one said, “If you don’t live a lavish life, have a top, new car to dive, and wear branded clothes, the clients believe we wouldn’t be in a position to win the case.”
Another lawyer quoted an incident: “Once I introduced a client to a lawyer, who would complain to me he didn’t get cases. The client later told me whether the lawyer could win a case for him. The lawyer was so badly dressed. So I had to tell the lawyer that he should at least dress properly, so that a client approaches him.”
What a contrast, I thought. Girish Patel was always in simple clothes. I saw him in kurta-pyjama, but even otherwise he would stand out dignified among others, who were proud of living an elite life. I was told, despite being a top High Court lawyer, and at the fag end of his life, he didn’t have enough money pay his huge hospital bills, which were paid by his well-wishers.
I reluctantly attended the commemorative meeting, as I had thought there would be hackneyed speeches in praise of Girish Patel. Surprisingly held at surprisingly at Gujarat Vidyapeeth (because the powers-that-be generally “ensure” that non-political activists who think differently, especially dissenters, don’t get any place for such meetings), no doubt, there were a few run-of-the-mill speeches. But some of the tributes were revealing.
Ashok Choudhury
Veteran human rights lawyer Mahesh Bhatt said Girish Patel was the “founder” of Public Interest Ligitations (PILs); Medha Patkar pointed towards how Girish Patel was the lawyer who stood by the first initial oustees of the Narmada dam when it began being built in mid-1980s; theatre person Saroop Dhruv noted how Girish Patel stood by freedom of expression in the court of law; Prof Ghanshyam Shah reflected on Girish Patel's view, called him a "true internationalist”.
Several speakers recalled how he stood by 2002 riot victims, even joined protests against injustice meted out to them by the then Modi government. I was told, the rioters had once warned Girish Patel: That had not been a Patel by caste, he would have met the same fate as the minorities.
But more than these speeches, what was indeed telling was what one of the organisers of the meeting, Anand Yagnik, a High Court lawyer trained under Girish Patel said: That the gathering in the Gujarat Vidyapeeth consisted of not just activists and lawyers who knew Girish Patel, but mainly those with whom Girish Patel stood by during his life time, whether they be Narmada dam oustees, migrant tribal wage workers of South Gujarat, farmers of the Dholera region and Mahuva regions, or Dalits of Ahmedabad.
Patkar, interestingly, was the only speaker who took with her on the dais about a dozen Narmada dam oustees for whom Girish Patel had fought legal battles, recalling how he is still relevant to the oustees. All of them shouted slogans in the memory of Girish Patel. Another speaker, Dr Kanubhai Kalsaria, former BJP MLA and now in Congress, spoke out names of the farmers fighting along the coastal areas of Saurashtra, and for whom Girish Patel stood by. Each of these persons stood up happily from their chair when their names were called.
A Gujarat tribal leader, Ashok Choudhury of the Adivasi Ekta Parishad, was sitting just behind, quietly, listening to all the speeches attentively. A very silent worker, I don’t know why he didn’t speak, though he knew Girish Patel very closely. Later, a friend, Ashok Shrimali, who is with the Ahmedabad-based NGO Setu, told me, “More than 100 tribals from the eastern tribal belt, all supporters of Ashok Choudhary, had come to pay respects to Girish Patel.”
---
Pix by Ashok Shrimali

Comments

Terri Meeks said…
You have a real talent for writing unique content. I like how you think and the way you express your views in this article. I am impressed by your writing style a lot. Thanks for making my experience more beautiful. Goldberg, Persky & White P.C.

TRENDING

Australia least prepared to fight Hindu 'extremism', admits diaspora NGO group

Tiranga rally in Sydney: Cause of stir among diaspora By Our Representative  The Australian Alliance Against Hate and Violence (AAAHAV) has said that Australia is “least prepared” to counter the allegedly “rising threat of Hindu far right extremism”. Calling upon politicians, federal and state governments to “urgently recognise the threat far-right Hindu extremism”, it asks “to take concrete steps to address this threat.”

Young environmentalist's arrest 'sinister', even parents not told of her whereabouts

By Our Representative  The Coalition for Environmental Justice in India (CEJI), a civil society network, has said that it is “highly disturbing” that Disha Ravi, a young woman climate activist from Bengaluru was “picked up” in what is referred to as a “closely guarded operation” of the Delhi police. Disha, 21, has been remanded to police custody for five days after she was taken from Bengaluru to Delhi.

Mukesh Ambani's earnings during Covid 'can lift' 40% informal workers out of poverty

By Dr Gian Singh*  The Inequality Virus Report released by Oxfam, a non-profit organization, on January 25, 2021 on the growing inequalities in different parts of the world, sheds light on the growing economic, educational, healthcare and gender inequalities in India. The report has revealed that the wealth of billionaires has increased by 35 per cent during the lockdown period in the country.

US forensic revelation enough evidence to release Sudha Bharadwaj, others: Civicus

Counterview Desk  Civicus, a Johannesburg-based global alliance of civil society organisations and activists claiming to have presence in 175 countries with 9,000 members and working for strengthening citizen action, has sought immediate release of Sudha Bharadwaj, arrested in 2018 under the anti-terror Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and accused of having links with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.

Golwalkar's views on tricolour, martyrs, minorities, caste as per RSS archives

By Shamsul Islam*  First time in the history of independent India, the in-charge minister of the Cultural Ministry in the current Modi government, Prahlad Singh Patel, has glorified MS Golwalkar, second supremo of the RSS and the most prominent ideologue of the RSS till date, on his birth anniversary, February 19. In a tweet he wrote : “Remembering a great thinker, scholar, and remarkable leader #MSGolwalkar on his birth anniversary. His thoughts will remain a source of inspiration & continue to guide generations.”

'Bird, take me flying with you too!' Being Devangana Kalita

By Ashley Tellis*  I first met Devangana Kalita in a first year English Honours classroom in which I entered to teach Charles Dickens’ Hard Times in Miranda House, Delhi University, in 2008. She was one of the smartest students in the class – Devangana smiled the most and had the brightest twinkle in her eyes of the girls in the class. A middle class girl – Kalita comes from a family in upper Assam, the Kalitas along with the Brahmins dominate Assam (the Bamon-Kolita nexus as it is called) – in an elite all women’s institution known for a feminist, rebellious history. Like all institutions, it was repressive; like all all-women institutions, particularly so. But Miranda House had met its match in Devangana. She organised, protested, all within the democratic tradition resisted. The seeds of Pinjra Tod, the group Devangana was to eventually co-found, and which now finds her jailed for as absurd a reason as inciting a ‘riot’ were already sown in that first year. By the third year, they

20% of FIRs against journalists in 2020 alone, targeted attacks in 2021 'too many to count'

Counterview Desk  Condemning what it calls “alarming rise in state repression and clampdown on news outlets and journalists” that “expose” the anti-people nature of the establishment, India's top civil society network, National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) has demanded “immediate release of arrested journalists, withdrawal of arbitrary charges and protection of media persons facing threats.”

Whither right to food? Social security scheme allocation for woman, child 'reduced'

Counterview Desk Pointing out that women and children have been ignored in the Union Budget 2021-22, the advocacy group Right to Food Campaign (RtFC) has said that the Government of India should have taken into account the fact that even after the lockdown was lifted, distress among marginalized communities continues, with people having lower incomes and reduced food consumption.

NAPM extends support to Indian, Aussie citizen groups 'opposing' Adani ventures

#StopAdani action in Australia  Counterview Desk  The civil rights network, National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), extending solidarity to the global campaign by the Youth Action to Stop Adani (YAStA), held in recently in Australia and India, has said that the effort was to bring more attention to the struggle aboriginal, indigenous peoples, farmers, working class and other oppressed communities against allegedly anti-people multinational corporate conglomerates.