Story: Indians

In 2002 around 30,000 Wellington people attended the colourful Diwali Festival of Lights. Today there is appreciation of the diverse and complex cultures of New Zealand Indians. But these groups have not always been able to express their identity so freely. For years, hostility and prejudice made life difficult for Indian people in New Zealand.

Story by Nancy Swarbrick
Main image: Children dressed in traditional Indian dance costume

Story summary

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Indian communities

New Zealand Indians form one of the country’s largest ethnic groups. In 2013 almost 160,000 people claimed one or more of the following ethnicities:

  • Indian (143,520)
  • Fijian Indian (10,929)
  • Pakistani (3,261)
  • Bangladeshi (1,623)

Before the 1980s, most came from India’s Gujarat and Punjab regions. Since 1987 many have also come from Fiji. The Indian communities have many different religions and languages. Hinduism is the most common religion, then Sikhism and Islam.

Early immigration

In the early 19th century, some Indian sailors and soldiers deserted from British ships that were visiting New Zealand, and stayed in the country. From the 1890s more men arrived. Drain digging, bottle collecting and fruit selling were common occupations. New Zealand and India were once both British colonies, and Indians came freely to New Zealand as British subjects until 1899. Then it became more difficult, as a new law required them to fill in an application form in a European language. Many Indians memorised enough English to qualify.

The 20th century

In India, famines, overcrowding and the expense of family weddings forced men to move to other countries, including New Zealand. They hoped to find work and send money home. But life in New Zealand was not easy. In 1920 immigration laws became tougher on Indians. Soon after, Indian market gardeners were the target of a racial hate campaign by the racist White New Zealand League. Indians grouped together to combat this.

After the Second World War more women arrived, often helping to run small family businesses. From 1981 (when New Zealand Indians numbered 11,244) immigration laws relaxed and many more Indians came. Among them were Fijian Indians seeking economic and personal security after two military coups in Fiji.

Moving away from their traditional occupations such as retailing and market gardening, Indian men and women are now also working in skilled and professional jobs.

Unity and diversity

Language classes, hockey and cricket clubs, community centres and religious festivals have helped maintain Indian identity and involvement. Nowadays numerous organisations foster the many religions and cultures of Indian people.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Indians', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 June 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 8 February 2005, updated 1 March 2015