Story: Indians

Page 3. 1920s–1930s

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The numbers of Indian immigrants fell during the First World War because of travel restrictions, but climbed afterwards. The news that New Zealand was going to further limit Asian immigration, along with tough immigration laws in other destinations such as South Africa, contributed to the rise. In India, famines were another reason to emigrate. By 1921 the Indian population of New Zealand had reached 671.

Further restrictions

The increase in the Indian population led to more anti-Asian agitation among European New Zealanders. After the war a ‘reciprocity principle’ was established between India and self-governing dominions of the British Empire such as New Zealand. This stated that Indians, who were British subjects, could enter any other British country as visitors or temporary residents. It also allowed Indians living permanently in other British countries to bring in spouses and children. But New Zealand’s Immigration Restriction Amendment Act 1920 made it possible to block Indian immigration while maintaining the reciprocity principle. The act required anyone not of British birth and parentage to apply for a permit before entering New Zealand. The definition of British birth excluded Indians and other ‘aboriginal natives’ of British colonies or dominions.

Continuing immigration

As a result of the 1920 act Indians were usually denied entry permits, but they continued to come by other means. As families of existing Indian residents were allowed entry under the reciprocity principle, many men chose to send for their sons. These boys could gain a New Zealand education and help their fathers earn money. It was also simple for a resident Indian to bring in male friends or other relatives as his ‘sons’. Another way to get around immigration barriers was to arrive as a student under a temporary permit and, once educated and employed in a profession, apply for permanent residence.

The gender balance and population growth

Few women arrived before the Second World War. The Indian community remained predominantly male, as it was cheaper for men to leave their families behind and send money home. Many intended to return to India eventually anyway.

During this period, the official numbers of Indians of ‘mixed blood’ increased significantly: there were liaisons and intermarriage with both Māori and European women. The Indian population grew steadily into the 1940s and numbered 1,554 in 1945.

The White New Zealand League

Between 1925 and 1927, Indian market gardeners at Pukekohe were the target of a racist campaign started by other growers, which turned into a national movement.

The White New Zealand League, established in 1926, was opposed to both Chinese and Indian immigration because it was seen as a threat to the racial integrity and economic prosperity of European New Zealanders. The league found support among a range of groups including grower associations, labour organisations, local bodies and the Returned Soldiers’ Association, but flourished for only a few years.

However, racial tensions persisted at Pukekohe. Until the late 1950s, Indians there were excluded from barbers, private bars, and balcony seats in cinemas, and could not join the local growers’ association.

Taking part in politics

Before 1947, Indian associations took a keen interest in India’s struggle for independence, and hosted visiting Indian politicians. For many years their participation in New Zealand politics was limited to making submissions to Parliament on issues affecting the Indian population. Now, Indians are centrally involved in national and local politics. Sukhi Turner, who was a long-serving mayor of Dunedin, and Ashraf Choudhary, Labour member of Parliament, are two examples of high-profile politicians with constituencies beyond the Indian community.

Where they lived and worked

Most Indians lived in the North Island, especially Auckland, although there were communities in Wellington, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Taranaki, Manawatū, and Wairarapa.

After 1936, as agricultural occupations such as scrub and flax cutting declined, more Indians moved into market gardening. Punjabi Sikhs, who often had farming experience, settled mainly in the Waikato district and took up dairy farming.

The late 1930s also saw a shift to the towns, where Indians worked in hotels and in manufacturing and processing industries. Many laboured hard to acquire capital so they could open fruit and vegetable stores.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Indians - 1920s–1930s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 May 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Mar 2015