Settled across the oceans, the Patels in the United States are watching the quota agitation in Gujarat with interest but many are unhappy at being thrust into the limelight for largely the wrong reasons.
While they agree that the issue of reservations affects education opportunities for the young and must be addressed but not in the manner of the current protests.
They don’t believe in the public relations maxim – all attention is marketable in the end. Most are not keen to jump into the fray and take sides for or against Hardik Patel, the 22-year-old who currently may have the maximum name recognition after Sardar Patel. But most Patels of America don’t want negative association with their formidable last name.
The violence around the Aug. 25 rally by Hardik Patel has resonated in the community here. The wanton destruction of property in Gujarat by protestors has especially alarmed the Patels here whose chosen field of investment is hotels.
The Patels have become synonymous with the motel and hotel industry over the years, carving a niche for themselves through hard work and support networks of family and community. They now own between 40 and 50 percent of the mid- to low- end hotel properties in the United States.
They have climbed up the economic ladder steadily but not without facing open discrimination from the insurance industry which at one time used to refuse to insure their properties. They simply created their own.
There are hundreds of stories of how a Patel buys a cheap motel in some depressed little town, finds enough money through the Patel network to put a down payment, moves in and employs family members for all the chores, stripping costs down to minimum.
Staying under the radar is a skill that came in handy, especially in the 60s and 70s when they began arriving on these shores from India and East Africa with low fluency in English and low funds. Although they are living their American dream, the ties to Gujarat and the larger family back home are still strong.
They say the name and the credibility of Patels are being tarnished because of the protests. Danny Patel, a widely respected Georgia-based community leader, says that Hardik Patel should have found a way to “communicate with the government about whatever concerns he had” instead of allowing the protests to turn violent. “This is not the way to go.”
Danny Patel also dismissed reports that some Patels in New Jersey had held a meeting and advised the community in India to stop paying taxes. He said a particular group was playing politics and there was no move to embarrass Prime Minister Narendra Modi by boycotting his visit to later this month.
Modi was chief minister of Gujarat for four terms but now he has different responsibilities. The responsibility to address the problem of the reservations lies with the current chief minister, Anandiben Patel, says Danny Patel.
Whether some Patels in the US support the agitation in India is difficult to determine. There are no media reports, including in the Gujarati language outlets, of a meeting being held in Edison, New Jersey, where the boycott pledge was reportedly taken.
But in Gujarat, Lalji Patel, the leader of the Sardar Patel Group, which is now leading a separate agitation for quotas having split from Hardik Patel’s group, claimed the Patel community in the US was behind him. He mentioned a meeting in Edison attended by a thousand Patels where it was decided the community should send a “strong message” to Modi by boycotting his visit.
Different shades of opinion are to be expected in a group as large as the Patels in America – it the most common last name in the Indian American community. A study of the 2000 census revealed that there were 145,000 Patels in the United States.
The younger generation looks at the Gujarat agitation differently. Pratik Patel, head of a property management company called REM Hospitality with a specialty in hotels, says reservations should be based on need and merit and not on caste because there are rich and poor members in each community. The issue should not be seen as a “Patel issue” or any other caste-based quotas.
“India is a little too modern for caste now. The limitations of caste must go. If India wants to go to the next phase, it shouldn’t hold back talent.”
Pratik Patel, who grew up in San Antonio, Texas, talked about how Asian Americans face discrimination in admissions to US universities because they are presumed to be wealthier than other ethnic groups even though it may not be the case. “You need to have fair access for all.”
Seema Sirohi is a Washington-based analyst and a frequent contributor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. Seema is also on Twitter, and her handle is @seemasirohi
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