With a population of 17.5 million, the Netherlands is home to about a quarter-million people of Indian origin, the largest Indian diaspora community in Europe after the United Kingdom. This includes approximately 200,000 Indo-Surinamese.
The Indian community, the fastest-growing group of expatriates, is strong in the business world, is culturally and religiously active, and has even made their presence felt in politics.
Though the Indo-Dutch contact went back more than 400 years ago, Indians first started settling in the Netherlands only in the 1940s and 50s. The initial settlers were from Punjab, who were traders, small businessmen, and people involved in the textile trade.
The majority of the people of Indian descent in the Netherlands are of Indo-Surinamese origin. After abolishing slavery in the Dutch colony of Suriname, the Dutch government signed a treaty with the UK regarding the recruitment of contract workers. It was then that Indians began migrating to Suriname as indentured laborers in 1873, from what was then British India. The migrants were mainly from the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, as well as the surrounding regions.
After the independence of Suriname in 1975, all of the Indo-Surinamese – who are referred to as Hindustanis – formally became residents of the Netherlands and thus owned a Dutch passport. A significant number of them then migrated to the Netherlands and settled down in The Hague – the administrative and royal capital of the Netherlands and its seat of government – and surrounding areas.
In 1980, there was a military coup in Suriname, which resulted in another wave of Indo-Surinamese people settling in the Netherlands, a country known for a flat landscape of canals, tulip fields, and windmills.
Recently, India’s pool of knowledge workers, primarily from IT and fintech, have settled down in the Netherlands, which has emerged as a hub for Indian firms in Europe. Also, a large number of students have moved for their education, and stay back after finding jobs.
Today the Netherlands is home to over 200 Indian companies, half of which are based in the business capital Amsterdam, which is known for its artistic heritage, elaborate canal system, numerous cycling paths, and narrow houses with gabled facades. There have been many employment opportunities for skilled Indian migrants, three-quarters of whom work in IT, pharma companies and information services.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his visit to the Netherlands in 2017, remarked in his address to the Indian Diaspora in The Hague that he was unaware that the Netherlands housed the second largest number of Indians in Europe.
Last year, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte also praised the thriving and ever-expanding Indian community and said he was proud of their achievements and contributions to society.
The Netherlands holds Mahatma Gandhi in high esteem. It is the only country other than India to have over 30 streets named after Mahatma Gandhi, India’s father of the nation and apostle of peace. The Netherlands has statues of Gandhi in Amsterdam, The Hague, Utrecht, and Zoetermeer.
The legacy of Gandhi is still alive here as every year on his birthday on October 2 – which is also observed as the International Day of Non-Violence as mandated by the UN. In 2020, a series of programs were planned for the grand finale of the two-year celebrations of Gandhi’s 150th birthday anniversary. Peace marches involving school children, cycle rallies to spread the message of Gandhi’s philosophy of simplicity and sustainability, tree plantings, and singing of favorite songs and bhajans of Gandhi were organized in many parts of the Netherlands. Apart from this, a ‘Follow the Mahatma’ campaign to disseminate Gandhi’s message of non-violence to school children was also organized.
The Indian Culture Centre named ‘The Gandhi Centre’ was inaugurated on October 2, 2011, and actively promotes Indian culture through various programs, including yoga and other cultural activities. The Centre also partners with other local Dutch organizations to promote Indian culture. There is a famous restaurant in Amsterdam called ‘Gandhi’ that serves Indian cuisine.
Interestingly, the Indian community is very active in organizing various events – such as film festivals, cricket matches, dance shows, and religious programs – that connect the community and help them cherish their cultural roots.
The Indian community mostly lives in larger cities like Rotterdam, The Hague, and Utrecht, and they are the fastest-growing group of expatriates in Amsterdam, where an estimated 10,000 live. They have contributed to the enrichment of cultural ethos as well as the commercial success of the city, which is the country’s most populous city and nominal capital.
Amsterdam, which is also one of the top financial centers in Europe, attracts the Indian community as it offers many advantages to them, such as favorable tax agreements, relatively inexpensive housing, and easy access to Amsterdam’s important Zuidas business district, a high-end international knowledge and business center that is also one of the most critical office locations in the Netherlands.
The highly-skilled Indians living in Amsterdam mostly work for Indian companies like Tata Consultancy Services, which is a global leader in IT services; Tata Steel, one of the leading steel manufacturing companies of India; Infosys, a global leader in next-generation digital services; Sun Pharma, an Indian multinational pharmaceutical company; or one of the many other prominent Indian companies that have offices in the region. As many as 100 Indian companies are in Amsterdam, among over 200 in the Netherlands, employing around 20,000 people.
According to 2019 statistics, Hindus represented about 1.0 percent of the Dutch population, thus making it a place where the third-largest Hindu community in Europe after the UK and Italy. There are as many as 20 temples in the Netherlands. The largest one is in The Hague, constructed with funding from the Hindu community. There are seven gurdwaras in the Netherlands for over 12,000 Sikh community members, with Amsterdam itself having four.
One religious festival celebrated with great fanfare is the festival of light, Diwali. Day-long cultural programs are organized on a large scale, which see a significant turnout. Holi, the festival of color, Ramlila, the dramatic folk re-enactment of the life of Hindu God Rama on stage, and Durga Puja, the annual celebration of Hindu goddess Durga by the Bengali community, are the other festivals that are celebrated with gusto. Even on occasions, a sizable rath yatra (chariot march) is taken out by the Odiya Indian community.
There are also five Hindu schools funded by the Hindu community, deemed as national schools. These schools follow the same curriculum as other schools, but its curriculum includes Hindi. As the community is very active and robust, they have established their own human rights group called Agni. The idea behind this is to address the grievances of the Hindu community. The community had their radio program on the national broadcasting system. There are also some independent radio shows that address the needs of the community. They also have their charity called Seva Network. There are many yoga schools and Ayurveda, an alternative medicine system, is also practiced.
Indians love their food. So it is no wonder that the Netherlands offers a wide range of Indian restaurants, which serve traditional Indian non-vegetarian and vegetarian food. Dozens of restaurants offer South Indian and North Indian cuisine, with over 40 in Amsterdam alone. There are also outlets where one can learn how to cook Indian food.
The Indian community, especially the Indo-Surinamese, has played a significant role in politics. One prominent name is that of former Deputy Mayor of The Hague Municipality, Rabin Baldewsingh. He is known for his contribution to politics and promoting Indian culture through his literary and linguistic work. He was conferred with the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award in 2014, making him the first member of the community in the Netherlands to be awarded the prestigious award given by the Indian government, to honor the exceptional meritorious contribution of overseas Indians. The Indian government has also conferred the same honor on two other Indian-origin Indians, Ram Lakhina, an Indian entrepreneur and community leader, and Wahid Saleh, a social entrepreneur and a community leader, in 2009 and 2011 respectively for their contribution to diaspora- related work.
There have been two Members of Parliament from the Indian community, Daulatram Ramlal, and Tanja Jadnansing. Prominent members of municipal councils include Deputy Mayor of The Hague Municipality, Kavita Prabhudayal.
Indians have also made a name for themselves in various spheres, including business. One prominent name is that of Rattan Chadha. The Queen of the Netherlands has knighted him for his entrepreneurial success and various philanthropic activities in 2000. In 2004, the Grand Seigneur award of the Netherlands, the highest award in the country for excellence in branding and lifestyle marketing, was also awarded to him.
There are an estimated 3,000 Indian students, with the number going up every year, pursuing various paths and research courses in multiple universities.
There are fourteen international schools and various secondary schools that offer bilingual education. Also, the Amstelland Hospital in Amstelveen, in suburban Amsterdam, provides a dedicated India Desk for health advice.
Due to their contribution to the economy, political and cultural life of the Netherlands, the Indian community has earned lots of praise. Last year at an event, Dutch Minister of Justice and Security Ferdinand Grapperhaus said that Indians living in the Netherlands are among the “best-integrated communities.”
The Indian community has played a significant role in contributing to the cultural ethos of both countries, while also helping in further expanding and creating a favorable climate for bilateral business relations.
This article is part of a new series, Indiaspora Features, which commissions journalists to write about topics of interest for the global Indian diaspora.
Kavita Bajeli-Datt is an independent journalist associated with South Asia Monitor. She has worked in prominent Indian news organizations like IANS, PTI, and The Week where she wrote extensively on health, crime, politics, and art and culture.