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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
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.”
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Pix by Ashok Shrimali

Comments

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