Starting in the early hours on 11 May 2021, an FBI-led raid rescued around 200 workers, most of them Dalits, Bahujans, and Adivasis, from the premises of the Swaminarayan Temple in Robbinsville, New Jersey, which is reportedly the largest Hindu temple in the US. The FBI said
that the workers have been placed in protective custody.
The same morning, a civil complaint was filed at the US District Court of New Jersey. The complaint alleged that the workers were threatened, confined, and forced to work on constructing the temple by the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha
(BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha), BAPS Robbinsville LLC, and BAPS Fellowship Services.
The complaint states that crimes ran the gamut from “forced labor, trafficking with respect to forced labor, document servitude, conspiracy, and confiscation of immigration documents with the intent to engage in fraud in foreign labor contracting” as well as failure to pay minimum
The workers were being paid a shocking $1.2 per hour, well below current US federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, and below even the minimum wage going as far back as 1963. Further, the workers’ already meager wages were illegally docked for taking brief breaks or smoking, and workers were told additional sums would be deducted if the workers spoke to outside people or left the temple’s premises.
Several of the complainants in the civil case worked on the temple project between 2018 and 2020, with at least one complainant’s period of work going back to 2012–2014. the workers were forced to perform demanding work for more than 87 hours per week: 12 and a ½ hours per day, 7 days a week, with very few days off. For this, they received an astonishingly meager sum of $450 per month, subject to further illegal deductions. These horrible conditions were made possible by the defendants’ recruiting workers from the most vulnerable Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi communities, primarily from the states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Gujarat in India.“Bonded labor has been the defining feature of the caste system in India. This case shows that these practices of forced labor, to which Dalits, Bahujans, and Adivasis have been made structurally vulnerable, have also traveled to US shores. Ironically, a key aspect of the caste system has been the denial of entry into temples for those from underprivileged castes,” said Dr.
Roja Suganthy-Singh, president of Dalit Solidarity Forum and executive committee member of India Civil Watch International (ICWI).
“The actions of BAPS and its representatives and employees not only constitute crimes against humanity, but also add to generations of oppression and persecution of formerly untouchable castes. Caste-based atrocities occur daily in India. We are pained to see yet another example of how rampant it is in the Indian community in the US. Moreover, the sheer scale of this is shocking” said Anil Wagde of the Ambedkar International Center, USA.
The complaint also claims that additional caste atrocities were visited upon workers. When one of the workers, Mohan Lal, died while being subjected to forced labor last year, the workers went on protest to demand the temple carry out his funerary rites as per his beliefs. The temple authorities intended to carry out the rites as per their own beliefs. In retaliation, some of the workers who participated in the action were sent back to India.
In addition, extending the dehumanizing nature of the caste system, the employer and supervisor of the workers, Swami Prasanand, also referred to the workers as “worms.”
“Authorities in India must track down all those responsible for luring Dalit workers into this forced labor scheme,” said Milind A. of Ambedkar International Mission. “As recent developments like the CISCO caste discrimination case have demonstrated, caste discrimination is being practiced in the US. AIM appreciates the seriousness with which US authorities are taking such cases head on. This incident clearly makes a case for caste to be added as a protective category.”
“It shows that the economic vulnerability of the underprivileged is further exploited by the powerful. It is a attempt to reintroduce slavery in the USA. Already caste based networking, social media groups encourage casteism covertly and subtly in the USA,” said S Karthikeyan, Ambedkar King Study Circle, USA. “This incident is a manifestation of the practice of caste in the US in its extreme form. These exploitations should be dealt with by law. Otherwise, in a
couple of generations, caste exploitation will develop fulfledgely.”
Over twenty FBI vehicles participated in the raid, and four passenger vans were sighted entering the compound to transport the trapped workers. Several members of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)’s Bricklayers’ Union
were present at the site to provide solidarity and support during the raid.
The International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers and its Administrative District Council of New Jersey (BAC) along with the Pathar Gadhai Mazdoor Suraksha Sangh (PGMSS), a labor union representing more than 3,000 stone carvers in the state of Rajasthan,
India, released a statement saying “We stand in solidarity with the 200+ brave stonemasons from India who are taking action to address egregious abuses they have faced whileconstructing the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, a large temple complex in Robbinsville, New
Jersey. Their fight is our fight, and together we will confront the powerful forces that seek to keep these workers divided, afraid, unsafe, and virtually unpaid.”
The workers were brought into the US under “R-1” visas as religious workers, even though the actual nature of their work was that of manual work as masons and construction workers, with no religious content whatsoever. The defendants took away the workers’ passports on their
arrival at the John F. Kennedy airport, and forcibly kept the passports through the entirety of the workers’ time in New Jersey to prevent them from leaving. Additionally, they also threatened the workers with legal action if they exited the premises, stating that they would be arrested if they left.
Claims have been brought against the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha and its partner organizations under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), as well as New Jersey wage and hour laws, and New Jersey common law for massive underpayment of wages to these workers.
BAPS is closely associated with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, and has pledged US$290,000 toward the temple in Ayodhya built on the land where the Babri Masjid stood. “They can send $290,000 for the Ram temple, but they cannot pay their own Dalit and Adivasi workers,” a spokesperson from ICWI, which has been tracking the case, said.