South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Tribute to Girish Patel, a Lawyer-Activist Who Helped Keep Society Humane
Girish Patel addressing a convention.

Girish Patel, or Girishbhai Patel, a well-known human rights activist and a lawyer, breathed his last on October 6, 2018, after a short illness. In this time of ‘survival of the fittest’ or winning by hook or by crook, he, through his life practice, illustrated just the opposite. He encouraged the human values of cooperation, giving and sacrifice and embodied the values that have kept society humane – quite contrary to the current values. 

A son of a sanitary inspector in Ahmedabad municipality, Girishbhai studied in a municipal school. He completed his LLB in 1958 and joined as a professor in a law college in Ahmedabad. Later, he went on to study at Harvard Law School for his LLM where he learnt the vast philosophical aspect of the law. He then studied at Hague Academy of International Law. In 1964, Girishbhai returned to Ahmedabad and joined the teaching profession. He became principal of a Law College and became a member of University Senate. In 1972, he became a member of the Gujarat Law Commission where he served for three years before starting his law practice at the Gujarat high court. 

As a teacher, he actively supported a radical university teachers union against established vested interests and corrupt practices in education. He also supported a radical stream of the 1974 students (Navnirman) movement by foregrounding radical agenda on price rise and starvation.

He also opposed the Emergency and during this period, like many left-oriented activists, he rejected the dichotomy between the civil and political rights of the deprived. As the president of the Maha Gujarat Labour Union, started by K.V. Kumar, who came from communist movement, he believed that “civil, political and democratic rights are not simply bourgeois illusions; the poor and the weak need them more than the rich and the powerful, that the struggle for civil, political and democratic rights and the struggle for social, economic and cultural rights are one, integral, invisible and interdependent.”  

He believed that human rights of all can become real, effective and meaningful only in a democratic state, economy and society. With this perspective, he along with a few others, formed Lok Adhikar Sangh (LAS) in 1977 to fight for basic human rights of the poor and the deprived in Gujarat.

Girishbhai combined social activism by participating in social movements for rights and the legal fight in the courts. For him, the ethics of a lawyer and social activist was not different. As a lawyer, he never took any case against Dalit, tribals, women and workers and his home was always open, not only to social activists, but also the poor who would come to him for advice on their rights.

Girishbhai imaginatively used the legal system and political action for justice. With the innovation of Public Interest Litigation in 1980, he was the first to file a PIL in the Gujarat high court. Over his career, he filed more than 200 PILs on issues such as shelter, rehabilitation, minimum wages, livelihood, atrocities on Dalits, Adivasis and women.

He succeeded in releasing around 300 bonded labourers and also provided relief to several workers for getting their dues in wages and other rights. Having read the subhuman condition of sugar cane workers, written by social anthropologist Jan Breman, LAS filed PIL for their minimum wages and won the case. He then mobilised local activists to supervise the implementation of court order. He won a few cases and lost several, and a few went nowhere. Fully aware of the limitation of a PIL, once a judge asked him why he filed such petitions when they may not succeed. He humorously replied, “Sir, to disturb your sleep so that your Lordships may not go to bed with a feeling that everything in this country is fine.”

With the same purpose to sensitise public and lawmakers, he frequently used to write letters to the editors on different subjects. He has written more than 400 ‘letters to the editor’ in the print version, which have been compiled.

However, by the early 1990s, he began to see the limitations of PIL and judiciary’s pro-poor stance, as under neo-liberal policy dominance of propertied classes increased on the state as well as on the judiciary. Ironically, the powerful had overtaken PIL to protect their vested interests. A space for the have-nots increasing sunk to get justice. He observed, “Social oppression, communal violence and caste conflicts have undermined democratisation of civil society and people’s movements. In a strange paradox, increasing discontent and dissent has intensified state terrorism, to the benefit of private corporate power.”  

While actively involved in the issues related to livelihood, dignity, secularism, he was a common friend to various radical groups for guidance and moral support. While engaged in struggles, Girishbhai frequently felt a need to evolve ‘a common and comprehensive ideologicalFramework’  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. Gujarat’s civil society felicitated him in May 2009.


Updated On: 10.10.2018