The Indian Community in Northern Ireland

Fionola Meredith discovers there are over 1000 members of the Indian community in Northern

According to the most recent statistics, there are over 1000 members of the Indian community in Northern Ireland, making it the third largest minority ethnic group in Northern Ireland.

Members of the Indian community are concentrated in the Belfast area and the northwest. Indeed, more than seven in ten members of the Indian community live in these areas, compared to just over half of the Chinese community and less than half of the Pakistani community.

The first members of the close-knit Indian community arrived in Northern Ireland during the 1920s and 30s. Although a minority of immigrants came from southern India and urban areas in other parts of the subcontinent, most of the original settlers came from northern India, particularly the states of Punjab and Gujarat. In fact, many originated from the same village. They migrated primarily to escape communal conflict in India.

Many of the earlier Indian settlers in Northern Ireland were involved in the door-to-door sale of goods, especially clothing. As with the Chinese community, the tendency to become quickly embedded in a particular occupation was reinforced by the chain migration process, whereby family and friends of already established immigrants would follow them to a new location and occupation.

The first Indian high street retailer opened in Derry in 1943. Many similar shops followed, leading to the high concentration of settlement which continues today. The Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 had a noticeable effect on the Indian community. Stricter controls operated through the employment voucher system led to the increasing ‘professionalisation’ of Indian immigrants during the 1960s and 70s.

The employment characteristics of the current Indian community are more diversified than the Chinese community, but with a higher concentration in particular professional occupations. In particular, initial Indian involvement in the clothing industry has continued apace, with many members of the community operating family run small businesses, retail outlets and manufacturing factories.

In recent years, Indian involvement in the catering industry has substantially increased. Indians are also prominent in medicine, with many working as GPs, house doctors and consultants.

Most Indians have prospered in Northern Ireland and are materially wealthy. Within the community, there are high levels of home ownership, high rates of employment and measurable educational achievement. Demonstrated entrepreneurial and professional abilities underpin this success. While in Britain, two thirds of the white population own their own homes, over 82% of Indians are homeowners.

Here in Northern Ireland, the figure is even higher: in common with the Chinese and Pakistani communities in Northern Ireland, the Indian population is more likely than the general population to be self-employed, and less likely to be in part-time employment.

According to surveys carried out in the late 1990s, 37% of Indians questioned have a university degree qualification compared to 17% of Pakistani people, 11% of Chinese people and 6% of the general population. A quarter of locally born Indians interviewed achieved a degree.

During the political violence of the 1970s, the death of an Indian man, Asha Chopra, killed in the crossfire between security forces and the IRA in Derry, caused some families to leave Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, the Indian community has continued to flourish.

The opening of the Indian Community Centre in Belfast in 1982 cemented the cultural establishment of Indians in Northern Ireland. The ICC is a religious centre for Hindu Indians, who constitute the majority population in terms of religious affiliation. Muslim Indians, representing 5% of the community, opened their own centre in 1986, while in the 1990s, Sikh Indians, representing 7%, converted a former primary school in Derry to a gurdwara or temple.

Research carried out by sociologists in the mid 1990s revealed that Indians have a larger average household size than the general population, due primarily to the common practice of housing extended families under the same roof. Other minority ethnic groups in Northern Ireland have larger households still. Compared to other ethnic minorities, Indian households are more likely to contain two people, and less likely to contain more than six people.

As distinct from the general population, but in common with other minority ethnic groups, Indians tend to have a larger proportion (49%) of the community in the 16-44 age group. Yet the overall age breakdown of the Indian community resembles the general population more closely than other minority ethnic groups. Significantly, Indians have a far higher proportion of members in the oldest age categories than other ethnic groups. Some commentators have regarded these figures as an indication of the narrowing of differences between the Indian community and the white population.

In the 1950s and early 60s, the Indian community was the largest ethnic minority in Northern Ireland, but by the mid 60s, the Chinese community had overtaken. Nevertheless, the 1990s showed a halt to the decline in Indian immigration to Northern Ireland, a decline which was particularly marked in the politically violent mid 80s.

Factors such as the recession in late 80s Britain, the shortage of skilled professionals, relatively low house prices and rising investment in business, have been proposed as possible explanations for the halt in the decline of Indian immigration to Northern Ireland.

In general, professional and managerial roles characterise the Indian community in Northern Ireland. Although Indians in Northern Ireland share some demographic and employment characteristics with other minority ethnic groups, continuing economic advancement and decreasing family size make their collective profile increasingly similar to that of the white population.