May 28, 2001
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New Jersey is dyed deeper in Indian colours

Aseem Chhabra

Parag Patel  
Twenty-five years ago, when Parag Patel's parents had to buy Indian groceries, they would make a two-hour trip from their home in Essex County, New Jersey, to Queens in New York City.

"Now they can go to any corner shop in Edison," says Patel, a 31-year-old tax attorney who has been handpicked by the Democratic mayor of Edison, NJ, to run for the township's city council. "The Asian Indian population has grown and so have the services catering to the population."

Patel is not the first Asian Indian to run for the Edison City Council. That honour goes to a Republican -- Baljit 'Bill' Singh, who contested unsuccessfully in the overwhelmingly Democratic township in 1999.

[The first Asian Indian to contest for a state office in New Jersey was retired school teacher Kanak Dutta, who ran as a Democratic candidate in 1980 for the state assembly, but was defeated in a nationwide Republican landslide during Ronald Reagan's first bid for the White House.]

But Patel's nomination is recognition of the fact that the Asian Indian population in New Jersey has soared in the past 10 years by 113 per cent -- from 79,440 in 1990 to 169,180 in 2000. According to the recently released 2000 census figures, Asian Indians are the largest and fastest-growing group among the various Asian communities in New Jersey.

Nationwide too, the Asian Indian growth rate of 106 per cent is the highest among the various Asian-American communities.

Patel lives in Edison, which lies in the heart of New Jersey's Middlesex County -- home to the largest Asian Indian concentration in the state. Some 55,000 Asian Indians now live in the county which houses the famous Little India shopping centre on Oak Tree Road and includes the towns of New Brunswick, Iselin, Woodbridge, Metuchen and Old Bridge.

According to the 2000 census, other New Jersey counties with large Asian Indian populations are Hudson (Jersey City, Hoboken and Secaucus), 22,120; Bergen (Fort Lee, Hackensack and Englewood), 18,765; Morris (Parsippany, Morristown), 11,874; and Passaic (Clifton, Passaic and Paterson), 9,659.

In Iselin, next door to Edison (the Little India shopping area runs through the two cities), lies the office of Quick Travel -- owned and operated by Pradip 'Peter' Kothari. The 54-year-old native of Woodbridge, NJ, is perhaps the most widely recognized Asian Indian in New Jersey. A community leader, Kothari has been referred to as the Al Sharpton of the Asian Indians in New Jersey.

A student leader from Baroda, Kothari arrived in the United States in 1972, when he promised his mother that he would not get involved in politics in the US. He stuck to his word for more than a decade.

Then, in September 1987, a group calling itself the 'dotbusters' wrote a letter to a Jersey City newspaper. The letter read: "We will go to any extreme to get Indians to move out of Jersey City. If I'm walking down the street and I see a Hindu and the setting is right, I will hit him or her."

A couple of weeks after that, an Indian doctor, Kaushal Sharan, was beaten up by three white men. And three days later, in the neighbouring town of Hoboken, an Asian Indian, Navroze Mody, was beaten to death by a gang of 11 men.

These incidents terrorized the Asian Indian community. Parents, reportedly, would not send their children to school and women stopped putting on a bindi [the little dot on the forehead] and wearing saris. Later, several youths were convicted for the beatings and three men were indicted in Mody's murder. By the early 1990s, fear of the 'dotbusters' had subsided.

Then in May 1990, Kothari's travel office windows were broken. When he reported the matter to the local police, they did not take the issue seriously. "They wanted me to talk to my insurance company rather than lodge a complaint," he says. "I told them that it's not that all the windows in the neighbourhood are broken. Only our business is affected and it is operated by an Asian Indian. That became the focal point for me to fight for the rights of our people."

In the early 1990s the Oak Tree Road shopping area had about 10 to 15 businesses run by the South Asian community, Kothari. Today the number is around 300, he adds. After the incident Kothari organized the Indian Business Association. For several years the group fought with elected officials for the rights of the growing South Asian businesses along the Oak Tree Road.

Their strongest opponent was the Democratic mayor of Woodbridge, Jim McGreevy, who at one point imposed a 1.5 mile no-parking zone around the shopping area. "Where in America do you see police officers go around with six-inch rulers to measure the distance between parked cars and the kerb?" Kothari asks. "They would give tickets to our people if the car was six and a half inches away from the kerb. I had no problem with the rule, but why would they not impose it in the other business districts [which had few or no South Asian businesses] in the area?"

Kothari's brush with the law and the local political establishment also occurred when the Edison City Council tried for years to impose curfews or to close down the biggest Navratri celebration in North America.

Kothari and his Indo-American Cultural Society started the event in 1990. The festival attracts approximately 100,000 people over its five-weekend run and each night the ras-garba dance goes on until 4 am. The council said the neighbours would complain about the noise level of the festivities.

Over the years Kothari went to court several times. Each time the court ruled in favour of Kothari and the society, saying the Navratri tent was pitched on non-residential land, which lay between the Raritan river and an expressway. Finally, the Edison City Council gave up its opposition to the event.

Earlier this year, Kothari surprised the New Jersey political establishment by announcing that he would run from Middlesex County's freeholder position, the county's top elected office, but as a Republican. The Democrats, he says, pay lip service to the Asian Indian community.

The census numbers have given Kothari the belief that the election is winnable. "Our people will give me support whether I am a Democrat or Republican," he says. "People believe me. I am a household name. They will support me for my activities."

Kothari is concerned about the low level of voter registration among Asian Indians, an issue that is also on Parag Patel's mind. Patel's estimate is that only 3,000 Asian Americans are registered to vote in Edison.

"Voter registration is a key issue," Patel says. "That is an obstacle. It is the practical reality of my campaign. But I want to engage the Asian Indian community."

One of Patel's concerns is that very few Asian Indians join government service in New Jersey. In fact, he is concerned that no Asian Indians have ever joined the police force or the fire department in Edison.

"I think members of the Asian Indian community do not pursue this line of career," says Lieutenant Matt Freeman, a spokesman for the Edison police department. "They haven't much interest in these jobs."

Patel disagrees with Freeman. He says that in his travels through the town, he has met a few Asian Indians who applied for the police force, but were passed over or turned down.

The truth may lie somewhere in between, but it is a fact that the state of New Jersey has no Asian Indian policeman. William Nathan, the only Asian Indian policeman in the history of New Jersey [he served the Princeton police force for 23 years], retired from his job in 1999. Earlier this year a jury in Mercer County, NJ, awarded him $270,000 for the harassment and emotional distress he allegedly suffered during his tenure as a police officer.

Another sign of the shift in and growth of the Asian Indian population -- Manavi, an organization that focuses on assisting battered women, recently moved its office from Union City in Union County to New Brunswick in Middlesex County.

"A lot of it was in response to us reviewing where we were doing most of our work and where we were receiving most of the phone calls from," says Soniya Munshi, a volunteer with Manavi. "We are a little bit more central in the state, but it is also reflective of Middlesex County being the most populated by South Asians."

The Edison Navratri festival, the biggest in North America  
Manavi is the only South Asian organization committed to ending violence against women. Since its establishment in 1985, Manavi's caseload has increased, a reflection of the growth of the South Asian population as well as the group's outreach efforts in the community.

According to figures released by the group, between 1996 and 2000 the number of individual women served by it increased by 93 per cent from 160 to 309. Manavi also runs a shelter for battered women. Started in the fall of 1997, the shelter housed 17 women in 2000, a growth from four in the first year.

North of Middlesex County, just west of the Hudson river, lies the state's second largest Little India town in Jersey City.

Raju Patel, an insurance agent who runs a Met Life outfit on Oak Tree Road and a travel agency on Newark Avenue in Jersey City, was the first charter president of the Jersey City Asian Merchants' Association.

"The problem with our community is that we are very passive," says Raju Patel. "As long as their problems are taken care off, they don't care about larger community issues. The only time we get active is when we have cultural programmes."

Raju Patel brought his business to Newark Avenue over 10 years ago, when there were only a couple of South Asian businesses on the block -- all-purpose convenience stores that sold groceries as well as saris. He describes the area in those days as "scary".

One of the first "brave" Asian Indian businessmen to arrive on Newark Avenue was another Patel, Ashwin, who opened Patel Brothers grocery store followed by Patel Video. Now all the 100-odd businesses on Newark Avenue, between Kennedy Boulevard and Tonnelle Avenue, are run by South Asians.

In the past few years Raju Patel has seen new Asian Indian faces appear on Newark Avenue, including the young hi-tech H1-B visa workers. "You walk into any restaurant in the evening, you see them," he says. "All the restaurants are full in the evening because of the hi-tech people, although now it has slowed down a little because of their job situation. Jersey City is the springboard for everyone. They start off here and then move on."

Raju Patel's comment about the Asian Indian community getting together for cultural events may be true. A few miles north on Tonnelle Avenue, in the town of North Bergen, is located Cine Plaza, the East Coast's first Asian Indian-owned multiplex. Two years ago Gautam Shah, owner of Cine Plaza, made Bollywood history in North America by screening director Subhash Ghai's Taal simultaneously on all the 13 screens of his theatre. In its opening weekend, over 6,000 people saw Aishwarya Rai dance to A R Rahman's music in Taal, one more sign of the strength of the Asian Indian community in New Jersey.

Desi policeman gets his due
Census spurs Indians to join NY poll fray
Asian Indian population doubles in a decade
Saris and spices: New York's changing face

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