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Girishbhai Patel: A better visionary or a better Activist?

Girishbhai had the master strategy. His hard work and more important than all, sensitivity, respect and love for grassroots activists like me. Whenever I reached his office, I was never made to wait. He would immediately attend me and chat for long time even on other social and political issues.

Tuesday October 9, 2018 11:55 AM, Irfan Engineer

Girishbhai Patel

I came to know Girishbhai when I started working in Dangs from 1989-1993. In the year 1989, I decided to leave Mumbai and work among the adivasis in South Gujarat on invitation from Veersingbhai Vishrambhai Patel. Initially I started helping Veersingbhai in his work among the adivasis of Uchhal and Songadh Taluka who were displaced by the Ukai dam. However, soon on the insistence of Veersingbhai, we both visited Dangs District and started mobilising the adivasis for their rights over the land that was earmarked by the state as Reserved Forest area where cultivation is prohibited. Needless to say that adivasis were cultivating the land for generations though the records maintained by the state showed the land cultivated by the adivases as reserved forest area. As we mobilised the adivasis to assert their right to cultivation, we naturally violated the law in the eyes of the state. The response of the state was massive violation of human rights of the adivasis and the activists associated with our movement and organisation, viz. Adivasi Bhoomiheen Kisan Hak Samrakshan Samiti. Precise dates associated with the movement of the adivasis to assert their rights on the forest and forest produce on the one hand and resisting repression unleashed by the state during the period 1989-1993 are now becoming hazy though I distinctly recall the important role played by Girishbhai without whose help the movement would have been nipped in the bud and the adivasis would have been deprived of their democratic rights. I wish to recall in the following paragraphs the important role played by Girishbhai.

ABKHSS had been recently set up by Veersingbhai and I was assisting him. Veersingbhai was a militant and organic leader of the adivasis. He did his schooling upto 7th or 8th grade, residing in Uchchal Taluka (Surat Dist.) and owned about 3-4 acres of land. During his childhood, one British Forest official had abused an adivasi woman and the self-respect of the adivasi community was aroused within him. He protested and for that he was beaten as a child with a hunter. He never forgot that brutality and remained a rebel. Later he was able to get some small contracts for stone quarrying. However, being an adivasi he faced discrimination from the bureaucrats here too. They demanded heavy cuts to issue permits for quarrying. He decided to fight back and got some fellows trapped by the Anti-Corruption Bureau. This gave him some confidence and brought out his leadership qualities. Initially he started associating himself with the Congress Party but soon realized that the Party does not serve the interests of the adivasis and uses them merely as vote banks. Having stuck his neck out, he could survive only with political support and so he joined CPI but soon was disillusioned with CPI as well. He identified with the Project Affected Persons of Ukai Dam and extended all the solidarity with their struggle and resistance against their displacement successfully. A few villages resisted displacement under his leadership and continued to cultivate land under their occupation. He was generally polite to everyone, including officials of the state. However, when challenged, he would become militant resistor. I came to associate myself with Veersingbhai when he had just left CPI.

I and Veersingbhai held several meetings in the Dangs district and urged the adivasis to resist the oppression of Forest Officials who demanded heavy bribes in the form of food grains, liquor and their fowls for looking the other way while they cultivated the land which was being cultivated by them for generations but on the records of the state the land was shown as reserved forest. Dang is one of the districts in India which has about 98% adivasis population and about 97% of the land being classified as forest – protected forest where adivasis were allowed to cultivate their land and reserved forest where adivasis were not allowed to cultivate. About 55% of the forest land in Dangs is classified as Reserved Forest and about 45% of the land is classified as protect forest. The rest of the 3% land is revenue land where the Govt. offices, Housing colonies for Govt. employees, markets and some basic infrastructures are housed.

As the resistance to the atrocities and corruption by the Forest Officials and police personnel began, the state officials retaliated with greater use of force, more brutal atrocities which included demolition of houses of the adivasis (claiming that it was constructed with timber from the forest), publicly beating individuals with canes and gun butts, arbitrary arrests and torture in custody, slapping false cases on activists in particular and all members of the village in general, mobilising animal stock to graze the crops of the adivasis, using poisonous weeds to destroy their crops, firing from close range to kill adivasis in their village even when they were engaged in their daily chore (and therefore not assembled as such). As the will of the adivasis to resist all the violations and atrocities increased, so did the force and brutality of forest officials with the objective of breaking their will and making them as submissive as they were before they were organised. Some activists, including me and Veerisingbhai had more than 30 criminal cases pending on us and the charges included illegal forest felling (I had never held an axe), attempt to murder (fortunately no one was murdered anywhere in Dangs district during that period otherwise we would have been charged with that too!), dacoity, obstructing public servant in discharge of their duties, rioting, illegal assemblies etc. Me and Veersingbhai were also detained under the National Security Act as threat to National Security! We were picked up from hunger strike pandal where we were demanding that the Forest officials who shot dead Tarabai on 20th November 1991 while firing indiscriminately in Kosimda village should be arrested and tried.

While the atrocities and human rights violations of the adivasis organising themselves was on going on, we were taken aback and did not know how to respond. The atrocities were accompanied by malicious campaign in the media calling the organisation as a violent naxalite outfit, creating an environment to justify all the brutalities and human rights violations by the state. We managed to get bail for the arrested activists at a great cost though we were lacking resources. Bail did not help much as the activists could always be rearrested under fresh charges and keep them in custody for long if not perpetually. We approached many human rights activists in Gujarat to support us. Some merely expressed verbal sympathies but no public solidarity or support while others gave tons of advice to eschew violence (rather, we were victims of state violence). The advice to eschew violence was as a result of the malicious media campaign. The campaign that we were naxalites was so vicious that some human rights activists would not touch our issue with a barged pole. It was really frustrating and disheartening. Then somebody adviced us to approach Girishbhai and Lok Adhikar Sangh. That is when I met Girishbhai for the first time in his house-cum-office. The first encounter with him itself was so encouraging and reassuring. For the first time I felt that I was not mad, not even wrong in resisting illegalities of the state officials.

Girishbhai patiently heard everything about our struggle and decided to focus on the issue that was central to our movement – forest rights. If the land over which the adivasis were asserting their right to cultivate was secured, the forest official would gain nothing by resorting to atrocities. He asked me to collect as much relevant data as was possible for me and get back to his office. There was very little that I could gather having to look after the day to day struggle and my limited capacities. It was always possible to keep in touch with him on phone and avoid costly travel to Ahmedabad. He worked hard himself on the brief and rewarded our movement with an interim order restraining the state and its agents and servants from any eviction proceedings against the adivasis cultivating the land in forest and / or from interfering in any manner with their possession. Girishbhai had the master strategy. His hard work and more important than all, sensitivity, respect and love for grassroots activists like me. Whenever I reached his office, I was never made to wait. He would immediately attend me and chat for long time even on other social and political issues. Even though I went to meet him only as a concerned lawyer and expecting nothing more than a lawyer-client relationship that too for a pro-bono service – where he was meeting all the out of pocket expenses for typing, court fees, filing, clerical and other expenses – he made me feel far more comfortable with him. Girishbhai gave a feeling that it was me who was obliging him with my cases rather than the other way round. That gave me courage to go on even when all odds were against me and even when all one got from some of the other ‘established’ organisations working for democratic rights was advices galore. Girishbhai did not look at the issue before him as just another brief at all. Rather he took is as his personal contribution to a common cause where we both were contributing – me as a grass root activist by mobilising the adivasis and he was contributing by formulating appropriate legal strategy. In his reckoning, both the contributions were equally important where as I know that his contribution was far more than mine. Whenever I met him in court, he would be surrounded by clients – many or most of them like me representing issues worrying the oppressed sections – adivasis, workers, dalits etc. He would make us all feel very comfortable with him. I could rest assured with the brief in the hands of Girishbhai and forget about the case and still have appropriate orders in our favour as Girishbhai worked hard and was self motivated

After the restraining interim order in the favour of the adivasis, for sometime the atrocities on the adivasis were reduced. However, the Forest bureaucracy could not give up their power and privileges and opportunities for corruption so easily. As time went by, they egged their lawyer to get the stay order vacated on the one hand, and on the other hand continue with the atrocities on the adivasis to re-instil the terror and awe for officials. The Forest officials mobilised their personnel and attacked Gira Dabdar, Talao Falia and finally in Kosimda on 20th November 1991 they killed Taraben. I, Veersingbhai and about 35-40 other adivasis were on hunger strike – Me and Veersing on indefinite hunger strike and others on relay hunger strike from 1st January 1992. Our demand was that the murderers of Taraben be arrested and the family members be given adequate compensation. 27 hunger strikers were arrested on 8th January 1992 and sent to Navsari Jail on charges of illegal assembly. All of us were bailed out but I and Veersing were detained under NSA on 9th January. The plan of the state was that during our period of detention, they would through the services of SRP attack every village in which ABKHSS had members. Accordingly the SRP entered about 30 villages surrounded entire villages and beat up every child, women and men in the village forcing them to flee to the forests. While in forests, they destroyed every house and their properties, including their food grains. This was done to terrorise them. The adivasi leaders were arrested and tortured in jail – all the while asking them to resign from the organisation. They succeeded only with the secretary of our organisation – 82 years old Seoor Kaka by torturing him. The administration was quick to issue press note that Seoor Kaka had resigned and the “naxalite” organisation was crumbling. Helpless, we could have done nothing under detention to protect our people and comfort them. Girishbhai on his own initiative filed a PIL in Gujarat High Court praying that human rights violations of the adivasis in the Dangs district should halt immediately. As an interim relief he sought relief of appointment of a Committee by order of the High Court. After hearing Girishbhai and the advocate of the state, the High Court appointed a Committee to visit Dangs and report to the High Court about the human rights situation. Girishbhai in spite of his age and health problems personally visited Dangs as a part of the Committee. The visit of the Committee put the police on notice that they are being watched and they are being made answerable to law. This did have a salutary effect on the human rights situation in Dangs.

I was detained in Baroda Jail under NSA and Veerising was detained in Viramgam Jail. All the detenues of NSA, PASA and other such draconian Acts were kept in one barrack in the Jail as detenues enjoyed sightly better facalities than other under trials as well as convicts. Everyone in the detenue barrack was asking me if I had challenged my detention in the High Court. Himanshu Upadhyay who was then in Narmada Bachao Andolan would visit me in jail regularly and he told me that Girishbhai had already filed a PIL challenging my detention on behalf of Lok Adhikar Sangh. As my signature on the Vakalatnama was not taken, no one in the barrack believed me that my advocate filed my case. However, due to efforts of Girishbhai, he successfully challenged our detention under NSA and we were out of the jail out of turn on 23rd March 1992. Girishbhai had to go to US to participate in an important seminar and speak on the issues pertaining to construction of Narmada Dam. Our case challenging our detention could come up while he was in US. He did not want any other advocate in his chamber to argue our case. He therefore approached the Chief Justice to post our case before a bench. When one bench recused itself, he approached the Chief Justice once again and persisted till a bench was ready to hear our case. It is nearly impossible to challenge detentions, particularly when the state is determined to make out a water tight case. The 30 odd false cases filed against us and media stories declaring us to be naxalites could form a strong water tight case to justify our detention. However, Girishbhai brilliantly noted a technical infirmity. Among the grounds of our arrest, there was a letter dated 12-1-92, i.e. one of the grounds of our detention was after our detention on 9-1-92! Girishbhai argued that our detention could not be held to be legal even if one of the ground of detention arose after our detention. May be while forming the opinion to detain us under NSA, in absence of the ground that arose after our detention, the detaining authority might have decided otherwise. The argument worked and the High Court ordered our release. Girishbhai sent his personal emissary with the warrant of our release but before his emissary could reach, he had doubly ensured that the Court registrar had wired to the authorities warrant to release me. The first thing I could think of doing after coming out of jail is to telephone Girishbhai to express my gratitude for his efforts – however, he had already left for US soon after he could obtain order quashing our detention. I could not even thank him as those were not the days of cell phones. I of course thanked him later when he informed me that if the matter had not been posted before a bench for out of turn hearing, he would have cancelled his US visit and sent someone else instead but argued the case himself.

Girishbhai’s contribution to our movement and his rock solid support in cases of human rights violations were the ground on which we could continue our movement. The adivasis are still in possession of the land from which they were sought to be either evicted or hold it at sufferance and on sweet will and on terms and conditions unilaterally fixed by the forest officials. The adivasis are cultivating their land peacefully and have filed their claims under the newly enacted Tribal Act. Without the contribution and rock solid support of Girishbhai, our movement would have been nipped in the bud or not is difficult to guess at this stage.

During our participation in the Narmada movement, and in conventions organised by Movement for Secular Democracy there were many occasions to hear Girishbhai speak eruditely in poetic language and analyze the political scenario and state of affairs in our country, analyze the pitfalls of capitalism and feudalism with such wisdom and vision. It was difficult for me to understand whether he is a better visionary or a better human rights activist. His experience from the Navnirman agitation and his sharp analytical skills helps the democratic movement as much as his activism in the field of human rights does. Girishbhai is an institution in himself. Many salutes sir!!

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