A personal tribute to Girish Patel, doyen of the human rights movement in Gujarat, who died in Ahmedabad on October 6, 2018
By Fr Cedric Prakash sj*
It is hard to say goodbye to someone who has been so very special; someone who has meant so much to me and many others too.
I can hardly believe that you are no more, Girishbhai; I find it difficult to come to grips with this painful reality. Since I awoke this morning and learnt from several of my friends and contacts in Ahmedabad that you had said “goodbye”, I have been overwhelmed with emotion! There are innumerable memories of you that have been racing through; warm memories of you: as a person and a professional, which I will always cherish.
You epitomized human rights and you championed the rights of the poor, the marginalised, the downtrodden, and the excluded. Your tremendous concern for them has had a profound impact on my life. You ALWAYS took sides Girishbhai and you never had a modicum of regret for it. All who knew you were very clear of where you stood on every issue. You were transparent, you were unequivocal, and you were strong. You took sides with those who had nowhere to go, with those who were being denied their legitimate rights.
Your forthright stand on key issues was a beacon of hope and inspiration to many: you fought for the oustees of the Narmada Dam; for the other Adivasis whose rights were being trampled upon; for the Dalits; the manual scavengers; the slum dwellers who were displaced overnight by bulldozers and for many other vulnerable people who live on the peripheries of our society. Then there was the ‘Freedom of Religion’ issue: how doggedly you defended the right of every citizen to fearlessly preach, practice and propagate ones religion. The arguments you gave in court challenging the Government on the obnoxious content in the school textbooks, will forever reverberate among those who care about what is happening to the education in this country.
Your doors were always open till rather late at night. I was always welcomed; you seemed to be ever available though I knew how busy you were to prepare yourself intensively for a case the next day. The wonderful part of your availability was that your ‘home-office’ was open to everybody: there were slum dwellers and folk from the rural areas too! Everybody found in you a home: a source of comfort, hope and strength. I hardly ever received a no from you whether it is to meet you at a short notice or to ask you to come for a meeting or a programme. Inspite of your many commitments you always had the graciousness to oblige, to find the time.
Your life was amazingly frugal and simple! You could have had the world at your feet. One needs only to look around to see how several from the legal fraternity literally milk their clients and make plenty of money. Many from among the criminals and corrupt would have loved to have you as their Counsel; but you were committed to justice, truth, fair play and the rights of the poor. When you took a stand on critical issues the other side booed you, threw stones at your house, sent you hate mails, threatened you and much more; however, you were always unrelenting in the pursuit of the justice you believed in and you did it pro bono.
Above all, I was deeply touched and edified by your warm, endearing and unassuming demeanor. You had that special smile even in the heat of an argument. You never seemed to lose your cool even when the going was rough. You minced no words when attacking the system: the biases, the prejudices, the injustices that exist; but you did so in your typical style — softly, incisively, and sagaciously. I doubt if anybody can do it your way!
Then there was your trademark humour — when one least expected it; you would make a witty comment, crack a joke, which would help ease the tension. Even when you delivered a very serious speech, you said things, which made the listeners, smile; but then you were not exactly joking just sharing the plain truth in a rather acceptable way.
My last meeting with you was in mid-April during my visit to Ahmedabad; you did not seem too well that day and you were upset about some things. At first you thought that I returned for good; when I mentioned that I still have some months left in my assignment in the Middle East, you just asked. why? The last words you said me were, come back soon! Those words have constantly kept ringing in ears. Today I must have heard you say those words to me a thousand times over and tears well up as I do so!
Since October 6 morning, I was planning to write something about you. I must have begun about a dozen times; after a couple of sentences, I aborted each attempt. Then suddenly late tonight I realized that the only way to pay my tribute to you is to be as personal as possible — that is what I have tried to do! I am aware though there is much more which I would like to say!
It is not easy to say “goodbye” to you dear Girishbhai, to me you were a friend, a mentor, a guide, an elder brother! There is so much that I have learnt from you over the years.
Finally, the best tribute I think I can pay you is to internalize and practice, in some ways the values and the lofty ideals you believed in and fought for all your life! These are also enshrined in the Constitution of India, which you always treasured! Therefore, whilst I am saying “goodbye” to you, I do believe that great human beings like you never die; you will live forever in my heart and in my life and in the hearts and lives of many others.
Continue troubling us from wherever you are — until that day when the ‘rights of all’ are respected on this earth!
Aavjo Girishbhai until we meet again!
*Indian human rights activist. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org