United States law enforcement agencies inspected a large Hindu temple in New Jersey on Tuesday, 11 May, after a new lawsuit brought to attention that the temple was being built by Dalit labourers from India who were lured to the US and forced to work long hours for a meagre wage of 1$ an hour.
The lawsuit accuses the leaders of a Hindu outfit known as Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) of human trafficking and wage law violations, reports The Associated Press (AP).
Federal agents from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Labor were at the site early Tuesday, according to three people familiar with the matter, reports The New York Times. An FBI spokesperson confirmed the present of agents on the ground but refused to divulge any details. Spokespersons for the other two departments declined to comment, the report added.
One of the lawyers who filed the suit said over 90 workers were removed from the site on Tuesday.
WHAT DOES THE LAWSUIT CLAIM?
The lawsuit filed in the US District Court of New Jersey says over 200 workers – majority of them Dalits – were forced to sign employment agreements to build the temple in rural Robbinsville, under the pretext of living in America and clocking standard work hours.
The labourers were brought to the US on religious visas, or R-1 visas, which are meant for “those who minister, or work in religious vocations or occupations,” as per the lawsuit. They were also asked to sign several documents – many in English which the labourers are not well acquainted with – and were instructed to tell US embassy staffers that they were skilled carvers or decorative painters, reported The New York Times.
The lawsuit further claims that on arrival in New Jersey their passports were taken away and they were denied permission to speak to visitors and religious volunteers at the site. The workers were given a diet of lentils and potatoes, with their pay being docked for minor violations.
The lawyers advocating for the workers said they were forced to work at the site from 6:30 am to 7:30 pm every day, lifting large stones, operating heavy machinery, building roads, digging ditches and shovelling snow, for $450 per month. They were paid $50 in cash, with the rest deposited in their accounts in India, the lawsuit specified.
WHAT ARE THE LAWYERS SAYING?
Daniel Werner, a lawyer in the wage claim suit, said to The New York Times that "he believed this could be the first forced-labour case of its scale in the United States since dozens of Thai garment workers were discovered labouring in horrible conditions in El Monte, California in 1995".
The case was brought to the attention of lawyers after a labourer's death from illness in late 2020 had prompted a backlash among the workers. Mukesh Kumar, a 37-year-old worker, who is named in the lawsuit had returned to India and contacted Swati Sawant, an immigration lawyer and Program Director at the Washington-based International Commission for Dalit Rights (ICDR) for its Global Initiatives and Social Justice Program.
Sawant at the time was already investigating the working conditions of the labourers at the New Jersey temple. “They thought they would have a good job and see America. They didn’t think they would be treated like animals, or like machines that aren’t going to get sick,” Sawant said to The New York Times, adding that she "secretly organised the temple workers and arranged legal teams to pursue both wage and immigration claims".
Another lawyer, DB Sagar, president of ICDR, told AP that “Dalits are an easy target for exploitation because they’re the poorest people in India.”
“They need something to survive, to protect their family,” he told AP, adding that the allegations in the lawsuit amount to “modern-day slavery.”
HOW HAVE THE DEFENDANTS RESPONDED?
The New York Times spoke to Kanu Patel, CEO of BAPS, who said "I disrespectfully disagree with the wage claim".
The lawsuit names Patel and several individuals described as having supervised the workers, seeking unpaid wages and unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
Matthew Frankel, a spokesperson for BAPS told AP that the outfit was first made aware of the accusations early on Tuesday morning. “We are taking them very seriously and thoroughly reviewing the issues raised,” he was quoted as saying.
WHAT IS BAPS AND HOW IS IT CONNECTED TO MODI?
The Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha is a socio-spiritual Hindu organisation with its roots in the Vedas, according to its website. It was established in 1907 by Shastriji Maharaj.
The outfit calls itself "a spiritual, volunteer-driven organisation dedicated to improving society through individual growth by fostering the Hindu ideals of faith, unity, and selfless service," and has built more than 1,100 temples, some of which function as community centres.
The organisation has strong ties with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Pramukh Swami Maharaj, one of the transformative spiritual leaders of BAPS who died in 2016, is said to have mentored Modi, with the latter giving a eulogy at his funeral.
According to The New York Times, the organisation donated an equivalent of $290,000 towards the construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya – a pet project of the BJP government.
Modi had also laid the foundation stone for a temple that BAPS is building in Abu Dhabi.
The New Jersey temple is a multimillion-dollar operation, as per public records and its construction started in 2010. The temple opened to visitors in 2014 but continues to be under construction as BAPS claims it is set to be the largest Hindu temple in the country.
According to AP, the temple which has been under the radar of state and federal authorities in recent years, draws many followers as New Jersey has nearly 4,00,000 Indian-born residents – one of the largest Indian immigrant populations in the country.