ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD
Members Only
lock close icon

Inauguration of World’s Largest Temple in US: It Faces Claims of Casteism, Abuse

Dalit construction workers at the New Jersey temple claim that BAPS violated immigration and labour laws in the US.

Published
South Asians
7 min read
story-hero-img
i
Aa
Aa
Small
Aa
Medium
Aa
Large
Hindi Female

Do your bit to support our journalism. Become a member – and help us stay on top of the most important stories.


On Sunday, 8 October, just a 100 km south of New York, the fairly small Robinson Township of New Jersey is set to inaugurate the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) Akshardham temple, the largest Hindu temple ever constructed abroad during the modern era.

However, the grand temple, constructed by over 12,500 'volunteers' over 12 years, also sparked controversy after a class-action lawsuit filed by six Dalit construction “volunteers” which launched multiple claims against BAPS –from trafficking of Dalit workers from India, caste discrimination and exploitation, and numerous alleged violations of US labour and immigration laws.

"Defendants (BAPS) knew these workers suffered from rampant discrimination and had limited economic opportunities, access to services, and government protection in India. Defendants essentially weaponised India’s caste system, using it to coerce the Plaintiffs and other R-1 workers to work for substandard pay under abysmal conditions in New Jersey."
Class action lawsuit filed against BAPS accessed by The Quint

Leaders of BAPS have denied any allegations of misconduct. BAPS' legal representative, former US attorney for New Jersey Paul J Fishman, asserted that the federal government has consistently granted R-1 visas to stone artisans and that relevant agencies have routinely conducted inspections on "all of the construction projects on which those artisans volunteered."

Inauguration of World’s Largest Temple in US: It Faces Claims of Casteism, Abuse

  1. 1. 183 Acres, 4.7 Million Work Hours: Building the Temple

    The New Jersey branch of Akshardham sprawls over 183 acres and is meticulously designed in accordance with ancient scriptures, incorporating elements from ancient Indian culture. This distinctive Hindu temple comprises one main shrine, 12 sub-shrines, nine shikhars (towering structures resembling spires), and nine pyramidal shikhars.

    The construction employed nearly two million cubic feet of stone, sourced from various locations worldwide, including Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, Italy, India, China, and other regions. These stones were intricately assembled like a colossal jigsaw puzzle, resulting in what is now acclaimed as the largest Hindu temple constructed outside India in the modern era, situated on a 126-acre plot.

    The construction demanded a collective effort of approximately 4.7 million work hours by "volunteers."

    The Brahma Kund, a traditional Indian stepwell, reportedly holds water from over 300 bodies of water worldwide, encompassing the rivers of India and all 50 US states.

    This temple marks the third Akshardham or "abode of the divine" established by BAPS, following the ones in Delhi and Gujarat, the latter serving as BAPS' headquarters and ranking as the largest Hindu temple complex globally.

    Approaching its 50th anniversary in North America next year, the sect oversees a network of more than 1,200 temples and 3,850 centers worldwide.

    Expand
  2. 2. Dalit Workers File Class Action Lawsuit Against BAPS

    On 11 May 2021, a New Jersey district court saw a significant class-action lawsuit filed against the BAPS temple by six Dalit workers – Mukesh Kumar, Keshav Kumar, Devi Laal, Niranjan, Pappu, and Brajendra – supported by close to 200 more, alleging violations of federal and state labour laws as well as anti-human trafficking laws.

    At the time, the lawsuit focused only on the temple in New Jersey, claiming men were brought into the country under false pretenses and then worked seven days a week to build and maintain the sumptuous structures and grounds for as little as $1.20 an hour. The organisation, however, has disagreed with the claims since the lawsuit was first filed.

    The amended lawsuit expanded those claims to include temples around the country where some men said they were sent to work. Hundreds of workers were potentially exploited, the lawsuit claimed.

    The lawsuit, accessed by The Quint, claimed that BAPS held the onus of recruiting workers from India, interested in stonework and construction jobs, to build the temple and often recruited workers through agents connected to them.

    According to its official website, BAPS characterises itself as a socio-spiritual institution dedicated to "enhancing society through personal development by promoting the Hindu principles of faith, unity, and selfless service."

    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.

    Expand
  3. 3. 'Violations of Immigration, Labour Law': The Allegations

    The lawsuit claimed that although they were being recruited for manual labour, they were brought to the US on R-1 religious visas, which are meant to be issued as a non-immigrant, temporary work visas designed for foreign nationals who wish to work in the United States in religious occupations.

    It added that not only did the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha seek approval for the workers to come to the United States to work at the temple, but the organisation’s name is on visas obtained by the workers.

    Moreover, BAPS personnel allegedly told US authorities that the workers were “volunteers” and coached them before visa interviews to claim they were travelling to perform unpaid “volunteer work...as a service to the deities.”

    But that is not all.

    Not only this, it alleges that BAPS “concealed, confiscated, and possessed…workers’ passports and visas the entire time they worked at the temple” to restrict their movements, even when they were allowed to return to India, “required some workers to make financial guarantees that other workers would return from India to New Jersey to work.”

    In one such scenario, the worker was allegedly fined 35,000 rupees (presently $420) when a worker he had guaranteed did not return to New Jersey.

    The allegations were denied by BAPS personnel, including their CEO Kanu Patel, a defendant in the case.

    Over a period of years, the workers were allegedly forced to “perform demanding work at the temple” for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, where their work was restricted to cutting stones, laying stones, removing garbage, road work, dipping stones in chemicals, and other tasks - none of which included the work for which they came to the US i.e. to decorative stone painting and carving.

    Moreover, while they were not told specifically what their pay rate for the New Jersey work would be, they were promised to be paid what the other R-1 workers already working at the temple in New Jersey were being paid, which the agents portrayed as large sums of money, the lawsuit said.

    Contrary to what they were promised, for these 87 hours of work every week, apart from overtime, which they were not paid, the workers were compensated with an astonishing $450 per month, even less when BAPS allegedly took illegal deductions.

    According to the lawsuit, the workers’ hourly pay rate amounted to $1.20 per hour – about 1,200 percent lower than state and federal minimum wage limits and even lesser than the federal wage limit in 1963.

    Of this total pay, approximately $50 USD would be paid to the workers in cash in New Jersey.

    The rest was paid to their bank accounts in India once a month. The lawsuit claimed that such a move was undertaken to make sure that workers “don’t have the financial means to escape from the forced labour,” “would suffer stigma and other reputational harm in India if they tried to escape,” and that their “families would suffer financial harm if the Plaintiffs and other R-1 workers tried to escape…”

    Not only were they promised to work much shorter workdays, from four to seven hours per day, but the workers were also told that they would work 20-25 days per month with multiple allocated holidays, according to the lawsuit.

    Expand
  4. 4. ‘Forced To Work in Rain & Snow, Called Worms’: List of Allegations Continues

    Being forced to work in rain and snow with a single, unguaranteed day off every month, the construction workers also claimed to be subjected to deductions for “briefly idling or smoking. They were allegedly told that if they spoke to outside people or left the temple premises, they would face deductions.

    The lawsuit said that after being subjected to “forced labour at the temple,” one worker, Moham Lal, lost his life. The lawsuit further claimed that at least three other workers who worked on BAPS temples died in India shortly after they left the US.

    The workers also alleged that they were forced to live in crowded trailers in a fenced compound, under constant surveillance by BAPS agents and claimed that they were subject to caste-based verbal abuse, citing an incident where supervisor Swami Prasanand called the workers “worms”.

    The same day the lawsuit was filed, FBI agents visited the site for “court-authorised law enforcement activity.” The India Civil Watch International (ICWI), in a May 2023 statement, said that an FBI-led raid rescued around 200 workers, most of them Dalits, Bahujans, and Adivasis, from the premises of the Swaminarayan Temple in Robbinsville.

    The lawsuit claimed that BAPS’ actions constitute “forced labour, trafficking with respect to forced labour, document servitude, conspiracy, and confiscation of immigration documents in the course of and with the intent to engage in fraud in foreign labour contracting” and brought claims under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and (TVPA) and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

    Claims were also brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), New Jersey wage and hour laws, and New Jersey common law “for the massive underpayment of wages on behalf of themselves and other similarly-situated workers.” But that is not all. Claims were also brought for “race discrimination based on ancestry and ethnic characteristics.”

    However, BAPS has continued to deny any wrongdoing regarding all the claims, be it wage issues or violating immigration law.

    Expand
  5. 5. 'Thoroughly Reviewing the Issues Raised': BAPS Strongly Denies All Claims As Some Drop Suit

    BAPS CEO Kanu Patel, a defendant in the lawsuit, told The New York Times:

    “I respectfully disagree with the wage claim.”

    Matthew Frankel, the organisation's spokesperson, told AP that BAPS was only first made aware of the claims early Tuesday morning, when the lawsuit was filed.

    “We are taking them very seriously and thoroughly reviewing the issues raised,” he added.

    Lenin Joshi, a spokesperson for BAPS, further contested the charges, emphasising that the men were engaged in intricate tasks involving the assembly of hand-carved stones from India. "They have to be fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. In that process, we need specialised artisans," Joshi explained, according to the New York Times.

    "We are naturally shaken by this turn of events and are confident that once the complete facts emerge, we will be able to furnish explanations and demonstrate that these accusations and allegations lack substance," he added.

    In a press release on 11 July 2023, purportedly on behalf of 12 workers under the banner of Bharatiya Majdoor Sangh and Patthar Gadhai Sangh, stated that they “have decided against pursuing any claims” and requested that “their involvement in the lawsuit” be terminated.

    The workers, reportedly represented by Advocate Aaditya SB Soni, claimed they were “threatened to be part of a deep-rooted conspiracy to stall the construction of the grand Hindu Temple.”

    However, a few days later, in a filing in the New Jersey District Court, counsel for the nine remaining plaintiffs said that this “development would not impact our ability to continue representing the nine other Plaintiffs whom Mr Soni does not claim to represent, as those workers continue to be class representatives remain ready to prosecute this case.”

    Moreover, they expressed “serious concerns about what Mr Soni’s letter means and whether Defendants or their agents may have engaged in unlawful retaliation under the TVPA and the Fair Labor Standards Act.”

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

183 Acres, 4.7 Million Work Hours: Building the Temple

The New Jersey branch of Akshardham sprawls over 183 acres and is meticulously designed in accordance with ancient scriptures, incorporating elements from ancient Indian culture. This distinctive Hindu temple comprises one main shrine, 12 sub-shrines, nine shikhars (towering structures resembling spires), and nine pyramidal shikhars.

The construction employed nearly two million cubic feet of stone, sourced from various locations worldwide, including Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, Italy, India, China, and other regions. These stones were intricately assembled like a colossal jigsaw puzzle, resulting in what is now acclaimed as the largest Hindu temple constructed outside India in the modern era, situated on a 126-acre plot.

The construction demanded a collective effort of approximately 4.7 million work hours by "volunteers."

The Brahma Kund, a traditional Indian stepwell, reportedly holds water from over 300 bodies of water worldwide, encompassing the rivers of India and all 50 US states.

This temple marks the third Akshardham or "abode of the divine" established by BAPS, following the ones in Delhi and Gujarat, the latter serving as BAPS' headquarters and ranking as the largest Hindu temple complex globally.

Approaching its 50th anniversary in North America next year, the sect oversees a network of more than 1,200 temples and 3,850 centers worldwide.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Dalit Workers File Class Action Lawsuit Against BAPS

On 11 May 2021, a New Jersey district court saw a significant class-action lawsuit filed against the BAPS temple by six Dalit workers – Mukesh Kumar, Keshav Kumar, Devi Laal, Niranjan, Pappu, and Brajendra – supported by close to 200 more, alleging violations of federal and state labour laws as well as anti-human trafficking laws.

At the time, the lawsuit focused only on the temple in New Jersey, claiming men were brought into the country under false pretenses and then worked seven days a week to build and maintain the sumptuous structures and grounds for as little as $1.20 an hour. The organisation, however, has disagreed with the claims since the lawsuit was first filed.

The amended lawsuit expanded those claims to include temples around the country where some men said they were sent to work. Hundreds of workers were potentially exploited, the lawsuit claimed.

The lawsuit, accessed by The Quint, claimed that BAPS held the onus of recruiting workers from India, interested in stonework and construction jobs, to build the temple and often recruited workers through agents connected to them.

According to its official website, BAPS characterises itself as a socio-spiritual institution dedicated to "enhancing society through personal development by promoting the Hindu principles of faith, unity, and selfless service."

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.

0

'Violations of Immigration, Labour Law': The Allegations

The lawsuit claimed that although they were being recruited for manual labour, they were brought to the US on R-1 religious visas, which are meant to be issued as a non-immigrant, temporary work visas designed for foreign nationals who wish to work in the United States in religious occupations.

It added that not only did the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha seek approval for the workers to come to the United States to work at the temple, but the organisation’s name is on visas obtained by the workers.

Moreover, BAPS personnel allegedly told US authorities that the workers were “volunteers” and coached them before visa interviews to claim they were travelling to perform unpaid “volunteer work...as a service to the deities.”

But that is not all.

Not only this, it alleges that BAPS “concealed, confiscated, and possessed…workers’ passports and visas the entire time they worked at the temple” to restrict their movements, even when they were allowed to return to India, “required some workers to make financial guarantees that other workers would return from India to New Jersey to work.”

In one such scenario, the worker was allegedly fined 35,000 rupees (presently $420) when a worker he had guaranteed did not return to New Jersey.

The allegations were denied by BAPS personnel, including their CEO Kanu Patel, a defendant in the case.

Over a period of years, the workers were allegedly forced to “perform demanding work at the temple” for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, where their work was restricted to cutting stones, laying stones, removing garbage, road work, dipping stones in chemicals, and other tasks - none of which included the work for which they came to the US i.e. to decorative stone painting and carving.

Moreover, while they were not told specifically what their pay rate for the New Jersey work would be, they were promised to be paid what the other R-1 workers already working at the temple in New Jersey were being paid, which the agents portrayed as large sums of money, the lawsuit said.

Contrary to what they were promised, for these 87 hours of work every week, apart from overtime, which they were not paid, the workers were compensated with an astonishing $450 per month, even less when BAPS allegedly took illegal deductions.

According to the lawsuit, the workers’ hourly pay rate amounted to $1.20 per hour – about 1,200 percent lower than state and federal minimum wage limits and even lesser than the federal wage limit in 1963.

Of this total pay, approximately $50 USD would be paid to the workers in cash in New Jersey.

The rest was paid to their bank accounts in India once a month. The lawsuit claimed that such a move was undertaken to make sure that workers “don’t have the financial means to escape from the forced labour,” “would suffer stigma and other reputational harm in India if they tried to escape,” and that their “families would suffer financial harm if the Plaintiffs and other R-1 workers tried to escape…”

Not only were they promised to work much shorter workdays, from four to seven hours per day, but the workers were also told that they would work 20-25 days per month with multiple allocated holidays, according to the lawsuit.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

‘Forced To Work in Rain & Snow, Called Worms’: List of Allegations Continues

Being forced to work in rain and snow with a single, unguaranteed day off every month, the construction workers also claimed to be subjected to deductions for “briefly idling or smoking. They were allegedly told that if they spoke to outside people or left the temple premises, they would face deductions.

The lawsuit said that after being subjected to “forced labour at the temple,” one worker, Moham Lal, lost his life. The lawsuit further claimed that at least three other workers who worked on BAPS temples died in India shortly after they left the US.

The workers also alleged that they were forced to live in crowded trailers in a fenced compound, under constant surveillance by BAPS agents and claimed that they were subject to caste-based verbal abuse, citing an incident where supervisor Swami Prasanand called the workers “worms”.

The same day the lawsuit was filed, FBI agents visited the site for “court-authorised law enforcement activity.” The India Civil Watch International (ICWI), in a May 2023 statement, said that an FBI-led raid rescued around 200 workers, most of them Dalits, Bahujans, and Adivasis, from the premises of the Swaminarayan Temple in Robbinsville.

The lawsuit claimed that BAPS’ actions constitute “forced labour, trafficking with respect to forced labour, document servitude, conspiracy, and confiscation of immigration documents in the course of and with the intent to engage in fraud in foreign labour contracting” and brought claims under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and (TVPA) and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

Claims were also brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), New Jersey wage and hour laws, and New Jersey common law “for the massive underpayment of wages on behalf of themselves and other similarly-situated workers.” But that is not all. Claims were also brought for “race discrimination based on ancestry and ethnic characteristics.”

However, BAPS has continued to deny any wrongdoing regarding all the claims, be it wage issues or violating immigration law.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

'Thoroughly Reviewing the Issues Raised': BAPS Strongly Denies All Claims As Some Drop Suit

BAPS CEO Kanu Patel, a defendant in the lawsuit, told The New York Times:

“I respectfully disagree with the wage claim.”

Matthew Frankel, the organisation's spokesperson, told AP that BAPS was only first made aware of the claims early Tuesday morning, when the lawsuit was filed.

“We are taking them very seriously and thoroughly reviewing the issues raised,” he added.

Lenin Joshi, a spokesperson for BAPS, further contested the charges, emphasising that the men were engaged in intricate tasks involving the assembly of hand-carved stones from India. "They have to be fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. In that process, we need specialised artisans," Joshi explained, according to the New York Times.

"We are naturally shaken by this turn of events and are confident that once the complete facts emerge, we will be able to furnish explanations and demonstrate that these accusations and allegations lack substance," he added.

In a press release on 11 July 2023, purportedly on behalf of 12 workers under the banner of Bharatiya Majdoor Sangh and Patthar Gadhai Sangh, stated that they “have decided against pursuing any claims” and requested that “their involvement in the lawsuit” be terminated.

The workers, reportedly represented by Advocate Aaditya SB Soni, claimed they were “threatened to be part of a deep-rooted conspiracy to stall the construction of the grand Hindu Temple.”

However, a few days later, in a filing in the New Jersey District Court, counsel for the nine remaining plaintiffs said that this “development would not impact our ability to continue representing the nine other Plaintiffs whom Mr Soni does not claim to represent, as those workers continue to be class representatives remain ready to prosecute this case.”

Moreover, they expressed “serious concerns about what Mr Soni’s letter means and whether Defendants or their agents may have engaged in unlawful retaliation under the TVPA and the Fair Labor Standards Act.”

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read Latest News and Breaking News at The Quint, browse for more from south-asians

Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Member
3 months
12 months
12 months
Check Member Benefits
Read More
×
×