Indian migrants in Australia: Census 2021

India is third largest source of migrants, and there are significant shifts in the growth of Hinduism as a religion and in Punjabi as spoken language. RHEA L NATH and RAJNI ANAND LUTHRA report

Reading Time: 8 minutes


The data’s officially in: India is now the third largest country of birth among Australians, behind Australia and England.

Results of the Census released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in late June show that India has surpassed New Zealand and China to reach the third spot.

In 2021, 29.1 per cent of Australia’s resident population were born overseas (7.5 million migrants). England (967,000) continued to be the birthplace of the largest group of overseas-born living in Australia. Those born in India (710,000) were the next largest group

Two million more people were added to Australia since the last census in 2016, taking our population up to 25.5 million. More than one million of these arrived as new migrants. The largest group of migrants came from India, numbering 217, 963. The second-largest group with 67,752 people, arrived from Nepal.

Australia’s overseas-born population by country of birth (Source: ABS)

Other interesting data on Indian migrants in Australia reveals that Punjabi has seen the largest increase in terms of number of people who speak a language other than English at home. Over 230,000 people now speak the language at home in Australia, an increase of over 80 per cent in the last five years.

Hinduism has also grown significantly, with 684,002 Hindus in the country, or 2.7 per cent of the population.

However, ‘No Religion’ continues to top the list of religious affiliations, with more than 9,800,000 people ticking the box in the census form.

It’s clear that the cultural landscape of Australia is evolving. Today, almost half of all Australians have a parent born overseas and nearly 28 per cent report being born overseas themselves.

With this, it’s worth considering: what role do Indian migrants in Australia play in this multicultural landscape? How do we continue to enrich Australia’s culture? Most recently, we saw these questions raised in the federal elections with political parties’ strong desire to woo the Indian migrant voting bloc for its cultural capital and significance, promising temple funding, ethno-specific aged care, and more.

The Indian migrant in Australia

As a migration destination, Australia holds much attraction for Indians. It is a welcoming country, with a higher level of acceptance towards newcomers now than ten to fifteen years ago.

Australian soft power is marketed well in India and received favourably, whether for its natural heritage or cultural contributions in the arts and sport.

The ‘racist’ label from the late 2000s is well and truly a thing of the past. Instead, we are now seeing a great rap for Australia’s increasing multiculturalism, quality education, and health care.

All three are attractive for the typical Indian migrant.

Aged in their mid-30s (Census revealed 62 per cent of India-born residents were aged between 25 and 44 in 2021), the educational opportunities bode well for the young families they bring with them, and health care prospects are great for the aging parents who might join later.

Equally, there’s dignity of labour, with minimum wage laws unlike in other countries like the US; employees are well taken care of with attractive annual leave, sick leave and carers’ leave options, and work-life balance is possible.

Additionally, Australia is seen as a safe country (again unlike the US with its gun laws), and with plenty of avenues to practice own culture, often widely shared back home in India.

Regular travel back home to visit family, or have family visit here, is very high on the agenda for the typical Indian migrant, and direct air connectivity is seen as an added advantage.

Our similarity as parliamentary democracies also plays a role in easy assimilation, and bilaterally, the strategic and economic ties developing in high-impact ways in recent months are viewed with great pride.

Hinduism grows

Census data indicates that Hinduism in Australia has grown by 55.3 per cent to over 680,000 people.

Prakash Mehta, President of the Hindu Council of Australia is not surprised at all.

“It is very much in line with the trends over the last ten years,” he told Indian Link. “In fact, the numbers could have been larger if it hadn’t been for the pandemic and international travel ban.”

Dr Shanti Raman, Co-Founder of Hindus For Human Rights – Australia and New Zealand Chapter, observed, “South Asians are a strongly visible minority in all our major cities and regional centres. There is also likely to be a small group of mainstream Anglo-Australians who identify as Hindu, due to their spiritual or philosophical connections.”

Prakash Mehta added, “This is also triggered by a few other factors. Firstly there’s a rise in international students from South Asia who fall in love with country and end up staying.  Secondly, the Big 4 consultancies and top four offshoring companies are providing services to government and private sector and are opening opportunities to work visa holders to call Australia their home. A third factor is immigration policy based on Skilled Migration – many Hindus fall in this category and are exploring opportunities to improve their career prospects. High-demand skills like Nursing, Aged care, and Disabilities services are also attracting Hindus from Nepal, Sri Lanka, and India.”

The number of Hindu temples is growing in Australia, with more than 25 temples each in Sydney and Melbourne. Government grants have steadily flowed towards infrastructure developments, with ministers (and prime ministers) regularly visiting. Hindu festivals and their large-scale celebrations are gaining more media attention each year.

READ ALSO: Census 2021: India third largest source of migrants in Australia

Victorian MP Sonya Kilkenny at Melbourne’s Shiva Vishnu Temple

Importantly, these increased numbers and activities also come at a time when Hinduism has been largely misrepresented, mangled with the rise of right-wing Hindutva beliefs. Underlying tensions reached a flashpoint in both Sydney and Melbourne last year, with police making arrests. These incidents were seen as spill-overs from communal frictions back home in India, and left many Hindus disappointed, given that they have been peaceful and law-abiding citizens for long.

“As diasporic Hindus, we need to be proud of our ethos of diversity and inclusiveness,” Dr Shanti Raman said. “We need to also be committed to promoting inter-faith camaraderie and dialogue within our communities and foster social resilience.”

Prakash Mehta disagreed. “We don’t see anything changed in recent years,” he observed. “Hindu philosophy is more than 5000 years old, and it is on a continuous journey. Hindu Dharma propagates spiritual democracy – one can follow the path that one wishes to follow. The basic principles and ethos of Hindu philosophy have never changed.”

He referred to the term right-wing Hindutva as “absurd.” “Right-wing and left-wing are political science/economic concepts. The Collins Dictionary says, a right-wing person or group has conservative or capitalist views. Left-wing people have political ideas that are based on socialism.  Perhaps some media groups or people are creating false narratives and propaganda to defame successful Hindu migrants by using this term. Hindus are peace-loving, assimilating, and hardworking and they contribute to all aspects of their adopted country like culture, education, economy, and spirituality.”

And while Hindus may be subject to racial vilification and profiling in the country like other groups, there have been growing allegations of ‘Hinduphobia’ that continues to draw a wedge within the diaspora.

According to Dr Raman, there’s no evidence of this as an emerging issue.

She explained, “The term ‘Hinduphobia’ is based on a Nazi ‘accusation in the mirror’ dehumanisation construct and has consistently been used to intimidate and promote violence against academics, activists and oppressed sections of Indian society who raise concerns about Hindutva extremism and bigotry. This is not dissimilar to Nazi dehumanisation techniques that were used to promote hatred and violence against Jews.”

Yet Prakash Mehta lamented the “definite increase” in Hinduphobic incidents. “Although Australia is a very healthy multicultural society where every religion and ethnicity is respected, there have been incidents where Hindu icons and traditions have been targeted due to either ignorance (eg Hindu Swastika confused with a Nazi symbol) or by groups who have an antipathy to the basic Hindu concepts of non-violence, freedom, liberty, and spiritual democracy.”

Plainly, there are clear divides that need to be resolved before they deepen in what has long been a peaceful and law-abiding section of Australian society.

Punjabi speakers increase

In terms of the number of people who speak a language other than English at home, Punjabi has seen the largest increase, coming in third behind Mandarin and Arabic.

The Victorian School of Languages lists nine schools where Punjabi is taught as a community language, and the NSW Government’s Department of Education website lists six.

Punjabi language art by Sydney artist Neena Mand

Punjabi educator Mona Sidhu is thrilled with the numbers at her own Khalsa Punjabi School Glendenning in NSW. “We have 135 students this year,” she told Indian Link. “They range from Kinder to Year 12. We’ve grown considerably in the last two years alone.”

Sidhu was responsible for designing the HSC curriculum for the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) a few years ago, and saw her own daughter through it recently.

Literary activities in the Punjabi language have seen a rise in recent years. Radio has burgeoned, with Punjabi TV making an appearance as well.

Select local libraries such as Blacktown have increased their book collections too.

“We need more resources for children, though,” Sidhu revealed. “In this regard our own website has been trying to fill the gap, with stories and videos specially created for young Punjabi speakers.”

Although cultural activities in Punjabi are wildly popular, such as festival celebrations and folk music events, Sidhu reported a gradual increase also in literary events such as poetry gatherings and community theatre.

Ahead of the election, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese had promised $30,000 each to community language schools, observing that it is an “asset” for Australia to have individuals with language skills that can be used to help deepen bilateral ties.

Punjabi speaking indian migrants in australia
Kids at Khalsa Punjabi School Glendenning NSW

Choosing No Religion as one’s religion

The 2021 Census data revealed that while Christianity continues to be the main religion in Australia, with 43.9 per cent identifying as Christian, its numbers have dropped from over 52.1 per cent in 2016 and 61.1 per cent in 2011.

Interestingly, more people chose ‘no religion’ while reporting their religious affiliation than previous years. Almost 40 per cent (38.9 per cent) of Australia’s population reported having no religion in the 2021 Census, an increase from 30 per cent (30.1 per cent) in 2016 and 22 per cent (22.3 per cent) in 2011.

These numbers reveal increasing diversity in the religions Australians identify with, reflecting continuing changes in our social attitudes and belief systems.

Amongst Indian-origin respondents who reported having ‘no religion’ are Melbourne’s Salma Shah and Sydney’s Aneeta Menon.

While Salma Shah is of Muslim background through her family, she does not identify with any faith, hence ‘no religion’.

“[However] I am guided daily by a moral imperative to always do right by others, and to ensure that every single word and action, including my thoughts, are aligned to a positive interaction for others,” she told Indian Link. “I aim to always be of service to others, and so you could say that while I am not religious, I have a strong spiritual core.”

She added, “A more nuanced view has taught me that we are all connected in every sense of the word. This connection means that religions, with their cosmetic rules, rites, and rituals, give us an easy way out from truly understanding our place in the universe. In many ways, religions diminish us. And so I chose No Religion in the Census but I support everyone else making their choice to have one.”

Aneeta Menon chose the No Religion category in the last Census in 2016 as well.

“This time round I ticked No Religion on the Census box with a little more certainty,” she revealed. “Being raised in a very religious Hindu household, and even now serving on the board of a Hindu faith-based cultural organisation aimed at increasing social cohesion, I’ve never felt my values more at odds with modern Hinduism.”

“By refusing to give validation to this broader cultural movement, I am able to preserve the values with which I was raised and continue to critically assess the ethics and values of the community to which I remain in service through a secular and objective lens, ensuring to minimise the harm done to the vulnerable by opportunistic, divisive ideology. After all, the census may record our religion, but it cannot measure what we believe in.”


More insights will be gained on Australia’s Indian community as further Census results are announced in coming months on education, employment, and location-specific socio-economic information. We can be certain of one thing though: the number of Indian migrants in Australia is likely to continue to grow, at least in the near future. As their numbers increase, Indian migrants will continue to make significant contributions to Australian society.

READ ALSO: Census data shows we’re more culturally diverse than ever

What's On