Why aren’t more British Indians critical of Priti Patel?

The Home Secretary’s divisive and xenophobic politics would suggest her as a likely nemesis of most minorities. Yet many British Indians don’t seem to have a problem with her

Like my wife, Priti Patel was born in the UK to Gujarati parents emigrating from East Africa. Both my wife’s and Patel’s paternal grandparents were also born in Gujarat, India. It’s a history that many British Indians, particularly those whose families emigrated from East Africa, will share; the immigrant narrative in search of opportunities and social mobility for your family.

As a minority, there is often a sense of pride in seeing someone of your background represented in public life. In that regard, and for many British Indians, Patel represents a visibility that many minorities yearn for in securing positions that haven’t been afforded to those before them.

Although unlike many sons and daughters of immigrants, Priti Patel does not appear to embrace this aspect of her heritage, or her identity as a woman of colour. She is a member of arguably the most racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic British government in over 30 years. Her party wears its prejudice as a badge of honour in courting the support of those on the far right. As Home Secretary, Patel is content to see herself weaponised against her fellow minorities.

Her own rhetoric, and statements from her department, relentlessly demonises migrants. She is dismissive of systemic racism towards black people and, like her party and the government, appear lukewarm in contrast when condemning white supremacists. When minorities talk of allyship, she really isn’t the one.

With her policies and xenophobic remarks, Priti Patel is not a representation many minority communities would warmly welcome. So why aren’t more British Indians critical of Priti Patel?

When recently discussing this with my mother-in-law, she opined that the lack of opposition towards xenophobic and racist government policy, particularly in her generation, was largely down to ignorance. She conceded, much to my wife’s chagrin, that she and her peers were more attuned to Indian current affairs and, broadly speaking, apathetic when it came to other politics. That includes UK politics where they have resided for over 40 years.

A disconnect with UK politics has meant a lack of scrutiny for Priti Patel from some within her own community. Many will see a British Indian in government and celebrate her visibility. They see no reason to be critical of a fellow Indian and will give her the nod of approval on that basis alone. Beyond that, there is little inclination to probe her policies or those of the government.

It’s fair to say that ignorance and disinterest has likely contributed to a lack of vitriol for Priti Patel from some within the community.

This allows Priti Patel to be framed as a first class model minority, and little else more, for many in the community. She projects a commonly observed middle class, British Indian ideal of assimilation and alignment with western notions, as a measure of success (the division the model minority stereotype can create with other minorities isn’t a consideration here). Essentially, Priti Patel isn’t considered to be on the dark side because she isn’t seen as taking a side, period. She’s just “one of us” that made it.

Of those that are less politically apathetic, especially in younger generations, there is nevertheless a divide when it comes to the Home Secretary.

There are those who despise her politics and the politics of the Tories. They recognise its divisive nature and how it amplifies Tory demonisation of minorities. They also recognise her woeful track record of incompetence, shockingly poor leadership and being brutally unempathetic to those most vulnerable in society.

Conversely, there are many British Indians that do support the Tories and support Priti Patel. But is their support for her by default of being a Tory or are they actively aligned with what she stands for?

The Indian diaspora has always had a curious relationship with the Conservative party. Indeed, I’ve found ethnic minority Tories somewhat paradoxical given the Party’s dire record on race relations. Many British Indians arriving in the UK in the early wave of postwar immigration would have voted for the Labour party on that basis alone.

Yet many within subsequent generations have felt their socioeconomic success stories are aligned with the Tories. Buoyed by social mobility, many feel the Conservative party provides an ideological and aspirational home for their politics and principles. As social mobility has increased within the community, that’s seen an increase in support for the Conservative party.

Fuelling and exploiting historic cultural tensions, the Conservatives have also stoked the flames of Islamophobia in courting the British Indian vote away from Labour. In the 2019 general election, many British Indians even refused to vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.

As far as criticising Priti Patel, many British Indians who support the Tories may not agree with her xenophobia on every count but it sadly isn’t as abrasive on their ears as it should be. Firstly, assuming their political allegiance has created somewhat of an echo chamber, such utterances become normalised even if not wedded to. Therefore for some within the community, her brand of politics doesn’t provide the shock value or outrage that it might be assumed to.

And then there is the anti-blackness that continues to exist within less progressive sections of the diaspora. That approach presents less issue with Tory prejudice given its own gauge of acceptance based on the hue of one’s complexion or race. Moreover, it’s fair to say that some ethnic minority Tories have gone as far as adopting the racism of their party.

At this point in UK politics, the government is so divisive that it’s difficult to separate the attitudes of Priti Patel, or any member of the government, from the government itself. And it explains why so many British Indian Tories are able to stomach her — some simply aren’t in disagreement. To them, she represents everything they voted for with the added bonus of her visibility as a fellow model minority in government.

As the model minority role is sought, it comes with a willingness to abandon allyship with your own and other minorities and rejecting that camaraderie. Just as a house slave would demonstrate their loyalty to the master by compromising their peers in the field, showing abject insensitivity and disdain towards immigrants and refugees is almost a litmus test of how much you’re willing to assimilate. That’s despite being the sons and daughters of immigrants yourself.

This is the mindset adopted by Priti Patel and many Tories within the community have done exactly the same. Consequently, they can’t be critical of her. She represents exactly who they are.

On paper, the xenophobia, contempt and disregard for the most vulnerable in society, and a faux commitment to social mobility, should make this Conservative government an unlikely political home for most minorities.

Priti Patel certainly has her supporters from the community. However, she has largely managed to circumvent censure from British Indians. Her visibility as a British Indian in government is celebrated without question and relative political apathy amongst some sections of the community has meant ignorance of her divisive brand of politics. Worryingly, that in turn seems to have made her palatable for many British Indians; they fail to realise that her policies and sentiments are exactly what presented their parents and grandparents with such a hostile reception when they first emigrated to this country.

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