The history of Pukekohe and that of the Indian community in New Zealand is somewhat interminably linked, for it is often believed that the early settlers from India and thereafter from Fiji chose the Bombay Hills and the Franklin District Council region in general to be their new home.
Reports about the first Indian family or individual to settle in Pukekohe are sketchy but it is generally believed that the honour belonged to Mitha Unka, who is said to have arrived in 1918.
His activities have not been properly documented and hence remain unknown but records show the presence of 12 Indians in the region by 1922.
The predominant occupation of the Indian community was market gardening, seriously challenged by their European counterparts.
A new Organisation
In order to address problems and challenges, Indians in the region launched the ‘Pukekohe Indian Growers’ Association.’
Some seniors say it was not until the 1930s that the Indian settlers took up to market gardening but it is safe to assume, from the style of life and other records that they had launched themselves into the profession almost immediately after their arrival.
Prior to 1930, many Indians evinced interest in purchasing and leasing land but with negligible income, the challenges were strong.
But with their presence in this highly fertile area and their intention to settle down they created tremendous sensation during their early years of settlement.
Pukekohe seemed to be incensed at the growing population of Indian subjects who either had bought or were negotiating to buy land.
In protest, some members of the White New Zealand League made submissions to the then Internal Affairs Minister R F Bollard urging legislative action to lessen what was described as an evil. Indians then believed the League was over reacting.
The land in Pukekohe was rented to Indians on short-term leases, although they were prepared to offer a better deal than Maoris and Europeans.
Landowners were not suffering economically as, with a high rental, they were probably getting a better return from the land than they did through their own toil.
But this situation created some elements of jealousy among the members of the White League. It also testified that early settlers were hard working people as their main purpose was to accumulate wealth and return to Gujarat where they could buy more land and finally are settled.
Some senior members of the Pukekohe Indian community confirmed that they had to face severe competition and discrimination during their settlement. The white community did not readily accept them.
Unpleasant & degrading
But some of the conscientious New Zealanders did not approve of what was happening in this respect. W Mason expressed his sentiments in the Editorial Letter of the South Auckland in the following words: “The Asiatic, the Maori, The European and the British immigrants are with us and it is only lines of fair play and goodwill that we solve the problem of living together and building up a worthy community.
However, Indians had to undergo an unpleasant and degrading predicament but they showed determination to settle in that area and those who settled down had a prosperous future as growers and farmers.
Tribhovan Girdhar acquired ten acres at the corners of Queen, Ward and Wellington streets by conveyance on February 17, 1932 and paid the highest price for the land.
From that period onwards, other Indian settlers began purchasing small blocks of their own land and today Indians own over 3000 acres and a large amount of leasehold.
It is difficult to ascertain the exact number of people who settled in this area before 1936 when the Pukekohe Indian Association (PIA) was formed. It is possible, however to name some of the pioneer members who had made considerable impact on the various activities of the Indian population in this region.
Ravji Hari who is held in high esteem by the community was one of the main instigators for building the first Indian Community hall in New Zealand, known as the Nehru Hall. The Nehru Hall was officially opened on 15 August 1953 by Indian High Commission First Secretary B K Sanyal.
The New Zealand Herald published the following report on the occasion:
“The Indian community of Pukekohe met for the official opening of Nehru Hall on Saturday. It was an occasion of tremendous pride for the Indian settlers. For the Pukekohe Indian Association was setting a precedent among such groups in the country, it was opening the first community building ever built and owned by Indo-New Zealanders. A neat brick building a mile or two from the outskirts of the township, the hall has been opened free of debt. Designed on orthodox small hall lines, the building’s interior reflects the Indian’s pride in their former homeland.”
Ravji Hari, affectionately called Ravji Kaka feels great pride in the Community Hall as do other member of Pukekohe. He has served as a president of the Association for over eight terms. According to him, the purpose of the Association is two-fold: ‘Community organisation and welfare of the Association.’
Motiram Wallabh is well known for his cooperative spirit, straightforwardness and honesty. He is remembered for his fundraising for the Nehru Hall, as a staunch association supporter for the welfare of the community and most importantly for his courageous struggle to win the right for the Pukekohe Indians to be allowed to the balcony seats in the local picture theaters.
Parag Kanji has been actively involved with the Association in various capacities for over thirty years. He is known for his enthusiastic participation in the social and cultural functions of the Indian Community. When he visited India in 1960, he brought back with him large cooking utensils for use of the Association and the surrounding districts at Indian weddings and festivals.
The late Juwalla Singh was another life member who settled in the district. He is known for being the first Indian to construct a commercial building in Pukekohe. He is affectionately remembered for his interest in the Association since its inception. Parbhu Bhika is one of the well-known community supporters of the Association. He is the only member of the community who has the rare honour of holding the dual life memberships, namely that of the Pukekohe Indian Association and the Pukekohe Indian Sports Club.
He made his house available for community meetings before the hall was constructed. Keshav Parsot has rendered services to the community in various capacities that of a public liaison officer. He is fluent in English and his services were found irreplaceable where communication in English was required. He has also served as the president of the Association on several occasions.
In sports, Pukekohe has played some important roles. The Pukekohe Indian Hockey Club was formed in 1945 but it was not until 1960 that the club started functioning on a regular basis. Since 1960, the Club has recorded successes in local competitions and the New Zealand Indian Sports Association Hockey tournaments. In 1969, the Pukekohe Sports Club staged a successful hockey tournament and won the BOAC cup under the captainship of Magan Ranchhod who was also the president of the Franklin Hockey Association.
Since then the club has won the BOAC cup for four years running and the Dhyanchand Trophy at the Christchurch tournament in 1973. Many players from Pukekohe have represented New Zealand Indians at several hockey competitions with great success. Since 1975, women have joined the sports. At one stage, there were five women teams in the hockey competition. The club feels grateful to the principals of the Pukekohe High School and the Pukekohe Intermediate School Neate and Moir, for their permission to use their grounds and facilities for the tournament. The Club has had the services of several dedicated sportsmen and executives.
The Association has generously contributed to various welfare funds since its inception, such as War Defense Fund, Hunger Relief Fund, Local Swimming Pool Fund, Maori Hall, St John’s Ambulance, Massey Memorial Fund and the Hospital Fund to mention a few. The achievements of Indians from the early days to the present in the fields of education, professional skill and other spheres of life have been satisfactory.
Within their community, they boast of qualified engineers, doctors, nurses, computer analysts, chemists, mechanics, secretaries, lawyers, draughtsman and several successful fruit growers and farmers. The younger members of the community are actively engaged in service clubs, schools committees and other local community services. Over the last ten years, the Association has organised several cultural programmes.
In 1976, the Mahila Samaj (Women’s Association) was formed. Induben Panchia was the first President. This organisation has brought many activities of interest to womenfolk.
In 1977, members of the Pukekohe and surrounding districts felt the need to strengthen religious activities on a regular basis. The Gita class came into existence and currently Sanmukha Bhakta conducts them. Under president Bhula Das, this Group has played a vital part in promoting Indian religion in the region. Many religious festivals are celebrated with great enthusiasm
The Pukekohe Indian Association is assisted by a strong Executive Committee, which has consisted of several dedicated members of the community.
The above article appeared (titled, Indians strike gold in Pukekohe) in our Special Report on the Golden Jubilee of Nehru Hall (Indian Newslink, September 1, 2003).