Making sense of the census

From religion to language to multiculturalism, RAJNI ANAND LUTHRA AND HARSHAD PANDHARIPANDE look at what the Indian community can take away from Census 2016

Reading Time: 10 minutes

By now, you probably know the Census 2016 finding that Indians were the second biggest group of migrants, after the Chinese, to have arrived in Australia since 2011.
Some 163,000 people arrived here from India in the last five years in search of greener pastures.

In fact, the Indians and the Chinese have been at the forefront of an Asian influx into Australia that overtook migration from Europe for the first time in the last five years. According to data released on 5 July, among the recent arrivals (2007-2016) in Australia, Indians were at the top at 13.7%, ahead of the Chinese who came in second at 13.3%.
The census revealed quite a few other equally interesting India-related facts. For instance, even as ‘No Religion’ became the second biggest faith group in Australia, Sikhism and Hinduism were some of the fastest growing religions in the country since the last census in 2011.

All these make for compelling statistics and point towards a spike in the aspirational barometer of Indians. They show what Australia means to Indians.
But what if we turned that around and asked ‘What do Indian migrants mean to Australia?’

How will we enrich Australia’s culture? Why did many of us, religiously inclined that we care, go for the ‘No Religion’ option? How can Hinduism and Sikhism contribute to multiculturalism in Australia?

It is with these questions that we dissect the census findings. With a mix of statistics and opinions of community members – fresh off the boat or second- or third-generation Indian Australians – we bring you a comprehensive, three-part reading of everything to do with our community in Census 2016.


The fastest-growing religious group since 2011 in Australia was Sikhism, that grew by 74.1%. The proportion of Sikhs in the overall Australian population was 0.1% in 2006, but it rose to 0.5% in 2016.

With 126,000 followers – up from about 72,000 five years ago and 26,000 in 2006 – Sikhism is now the fifth largest religion of the country, after Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.

It also means that Sikhism has grown over 500 per cent in Australia in the last ten years.

In the 2006 census, Sikhism was not even among 20 religions recorded in Australia.
Victoria is home to 52,762 Sikhs, followed by New South Wales (31,737), Queensland (17,433), Western Australia (11,897), South Australia (8,808) and Canberra (2,142). Northern Territory and Tasmania have a smaller population of under 700 Sikhs each.

The Sikhs pride themselves on their industriousness, a community characteristic that is becoming well-known here in Australia. Tejinder Singh, the Sikh taxi driver in Darwin who spends his Sundays cooking and feeding the hungry on the streets, and Harman Singh, the Sikh youth in New Zealand who removed his turban to save a bleeding child, are but two examples that have sent the message out Sikhism’s inherent concept of seva, or service.

Ajmer Singh Gill, President of the National Sikh Council and Director of the Multicultural Communities Council of NSW, says, “Sikhs get out there and do what they can. They are not dole bludgers.” He adds, “Sikhs are very supportive of other communities, and friendly, sociable people, who accept others as they are.”

Speaking about Sikhs being seen as ‘the others’ in Western countries, Gill says it has been a definite problem with Sikhs because of their high visibility. “We’ve been seen as ‘Muslim’ or as ‘terrorists’ simply because of our beards and turbans, and as a result of some acts that some Muslims have performed. But we are addressing it by taking pains to be involved with the community. I urge migrant Sikhs to know more people and take the first step in making friends, so that the locals understand us and see that we are really not that different.”

In Victoria, the ‘typical’ migrant is India-born.

Brisbane social worker Jatinder Kaur, a board advisor of the Sikh Helpline, is excited to see the numbers relating to her community. The Sikh migrants in these countries have played a positive, proactive role, she told Indian Link.

“In the UK – where I come from and where the community is now half a million strong – and in Canada, research shows that Sikh migrants have very strong values, a very strong sense of work ethic in particular. They are hard-working, law-abiding citizens, charitable, and active in the community.”

As a turban-wearing Sikh herself, and the only one at university when she arrived here 22 years ago, she is very pleased to see the community grow in profile.

“I anticipate that there will be more positive contribution and many more positive role models here as well, playing an active role in civic society such as putting their hand up for elections to local councils and other community initiatives and work alongside other faith communities and Australia’s indigenous community.”

Most of the Sikhs that have arrived in Australia in recent years have been students. Navpreet Singh is one of them.

The 26-year-old arrived here in 2013 as an international student. He is now nearing the completion of his Bachelors of Business degree, and has supported himself with jobs in customer service. His family in Haryana’s Karnal city have helped out occasionally.

“I’ve really enjoyed my studies here,” Navpreet tells Indian Link. “Yes there were problems initially with my preferred course in IT so I had to change, but there’s been no looking back since. I’ve loved the different ways of learning to what I was used to in India, and the practical aspects such as going down to a real business and analysing their processes,” he adds.

As a turban-wearing Sikh, did he encounter any problems outside of college?
“Not once,” he says. “It’s been easy to get work, and I’ve been able to manage it well alongside study. I’ve made some decent friends, and have been living in a peaceful suburb.”

“As a turban-wearing Sikh, I can say with confidence that I have had no problems whatsoever in this country.”

Having just moved to Melbourne with his bride, Navpreet is now planning to do a Masters degree.

As an upwardly mobile young Sikh, Navpreet is representative of the aspirational levels in his community.


Although one of the smaller belief systems in Australia, Hinduism has seen a rapid rise here in the last decade. From 0.7% of the population in 2006, and 1.3% in 2011, it rose to 1.9%, or 440,300 individuals out of 24.4 million, in 2016. This translates to a rise of 300 per cent.

Sri Venkateshwara Hindu Temple
Hindu temple at Helensburgh NSW

Talking about how Hinduism can contribute to Australia, Nihal Agar AM, a Sydney-based Hindu community icon, says, “For centuries, Hinduism has been one of the most tolerant religions. It has nurtured all religions. It has actually spawned at least three other world religions, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.”
Agar adds that Hinduism has historically welcomed other religions such as Zoroastrianism and Judaism to flourish alongside it and giving safe haven to those fleeing persecution in other lands.

“Hindus will follow the same tradition here in their adopted country – the tradition of acceptance of, and tolerance towards, all other religions and ways of thinking. Australia is a great multicultural country. It is fertile soil already for diversity: Hinduism will simply act as fertiliser to enhance this diversity,” Agar says.

Hindus are a peaceful, accommodating people and don’t hold extreme views of any kind, points out Hindu priest and retired academic Jayant Bapat OAM from Melbourne. He adds, “We are willing to mix with others easily and love to share our culture. There are more than 20 temples in Melbourne alone, and when they each celebrate their festivals, they attract non-Hindus who become aware that we are a tolerant religion.”
What about the fact that the world at large is not dealing well with “otherness” at this point in time? Would Hindus in Australia ever face such a backlash?
“The more we mingle with mainstream people, the more they will realise that we come from a huge multicultural society ourselves with many different religions and languages, and are, therefore, used to accepting ‘otherness’. In fact, I am confident that if there were ever to be such a problem in Australia, we would be able to contribute in solving it,” Bapat says.
In another interesting fact that mirrors the increase in migration from India, Hindi and Punjabi figure in the top 10 languages spoken across Australia.


Nearly 30 per cent of Australians claimed in Census 2016 that they identified with no religion.

The number of Christians in total still makes up 51 per cent of the population, but this is much less than the 88 per cent in 1966 and 74 per cent in 1991.

Many people saw the rise of ‘No Religion’ coming, including well-known Australian social psychologist and social researcher Hugh Mackay.

In his book Beyond Belief (2016), he observes that Australians are steering away from institutionalised religion. He lists various factors for this, including the corporatised nature of contemporary religion, and the growth of science.

But the need for spiritualism persists, he notes, as he observed trends in the rise of a different kind of spirituality – one not restricted by institutions or guidelines. These include yoga, secular meditation, pilgrim walks, music and the like.

Mackay predicts that most people are Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) and that there will be ‘SBNR’ boxes on the census in the future.

Among the Indian community in Australia, too, spiritualism is on the rise. Sunny Singhal from Rhodes NSW says his father claims to be Hindu and my stepmother Muslim. He has an uncle who is a Christian minister and others in his extended family are Jewish and Buddhist.

“Amongst all of that, and my observation of the world, I have come to see that people are people regardless of religion – afflicted by greed, selfishness, anger, jealousy and the like,” he says. “Religion by itself does nothing to ameliorate these tendencies. It may provide some people a pathway, making them a better person, but that can be gained from a simple observation of humanity and the self,” he adds.
Religion can often appear to serve as an additional layer of self-righteousness. “I do not believe the path to God lies in an organisational structure, for there is no distance between me and my maker except what I put there through my fallibility, forgetfulness and loss of focus,” Singhal adds.

Those from within the community who ticked on No Religion had various reasons to do so. Aneeta Menon of Toongabbie NSW says, “First, there were concerns about the demographic data being stored from the census. Given the mildly-Dystopian times we live in, I didn’t feel any reason to be recorded as an “Other” somewhere.”

Menon says that she doesn’t feel part of any organised religious movement. “Any representations of organised Hinduism I have seen in recent times have been completely at odds with both my personal beliefs as well as what my understanding of Hinduism is,” she adds.

Overseas born australians (2016 census)
Top countries by birth (Source: ABS)

There were also people like Malika Gulati of Waitara NSW who did opt for No Religion, yet are not irreligious. Rather, they have a respect and appreciation for all faiths.

“I’m not a religious person. But I am spiritual,” says Gulati. “I have been brought up in the Hindu tradition, but I don’t know if I really identify myself as Hindu. At school, especially in the later years, I did quite like the atmosphere at chapel – I loved its peaceful and calming vibes. Recently, upon hearing the news of a loved one’s passing in India, I walked into the gurdwara close to my home and found that very comforting.”

Dipanjali Rao of Brunswick West in Victoria says she was brought up in a very secular family, where god or religion played no part. “God was invented as a way of explaining natural phenomena, and science has explained a lot on that front,” she says. However, she adds that people should be free to believe in whatever force they choose to, ‘as long as it doesn’t impinge on other’s choices, like marriage equality or abortion.’


For the first time, more migrants are arriving in Australia from Asia – mostly India and China – rather than from Europe. The 2016 census has revealed that 40 per cent of the overseas-born population were born in Asia, compared to about a quarter in 2001.

“The census shows Australia is more culturally diverse than ever before with almost half of Australians either born overseas, or with at least one parent born overseas,” said David Kalisch of the Australian Bureau of Statistics in a media release.

Also, given the relatively recent increase in Asian migration, those born in Asia had a younger age profile with a median age of 35 years. By contrast, people born in Europe had a median age of 59 years.

Unfortunately, some headlines in the recent days have suggested that Australia is becoming more and more Asian or Islamic and that the social change brought by migration is threatening an Australian identity or way of life.

“The reality,” says Tim Soutphommassane, Race Discrimination Commissioner, “is more sober. While it is true that the majority of migrants who now settle in Australia are from countries in Asia, it is untrue to suggest that the population in general has become more Asian than European in background. The UK, in fact, remains the largest single source of residents born overseas.”

Soutphommassane was speaking at a Diversity Arts Australia conference in Sydney.
Four of the five most common ancestries reported in Sydney are Australian, Irish, Scottish and English.

“And while Muslims living in Australia may have grown in number, they represent 2.6 per cent of the population. This is up from 2.2 per cent in 2011. It is a stretch to suggest their numbers have soared,” Soutphommassane adds.

In a nutshell, what these results mean is that Indian-origin Australians are increasing in number and the trend of migration to Australia is likely to continue, at least in the near future.

As their numbers increase, Indians migrants will look to make a significant contribution to Australian society, and have a greater participation in the mainstream.

Coming from a diverse and multicultural culture, showing adaptability and resilience and not tied down by cultural and religious norms, we could be the template for the perfect migrant in this country of migrants.


The 2016 Census was conducted with a new ‘digital first’ approach, that centred on the use of a recently established Address Register.

However, on census night, there was a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack from another country, shutting down the online forms for more than a day.

Then, an independent panel of eminent Australian and international statisticians, academics, and state government representatives was established to independently review and assure the quality of statistical outputs from the 2016 Census.

Overall, the panel found 2016 census data to be fit and having comparable quality to previous Australian Censuses and International Censuses. The panel concluded that 2016 census data can be used with confidence.

Australian Statistician David W Kalisch said, “The 2016 Census had a response rate of 95.1 per cent and a net undercount of 1.0 per cent, meaning the quality is comparable to both previous Australian Censuses and Censuses in other countries, such as New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom.”

“Sixty-three per cent of people completed the Census online, embracing the digital-first approach and contributing to faster data processing and data quality improvements.

Kalisch said the ABS undertook a range of quality checks, including a thorough Post Enumeration Survey, to ensure the data can be trusted. “These quality assurance measures, and a range of other factors, were considered and verified by the Panel,” he said.

Speaking to members of multicultural media on 5 July, Census General Manager Duncan Young and Census Director of Data Sue Taylor said that the ABS had compiled a huge amount of data over the course of the census. “Only a census can provide the information for the entire country, including small geographic areas and small population groups,” they said, and urged members of the public to find out interesting and easy-to-understand details about their suburb, city community on the website www.abs.com.au.

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