A federal lawsuit accusing a prominent Hindu organisation in the United States of trafficking workers from India and forcing them into labour at Hindu temples has widened to five states.
BAPS, a prominent sect, faces accusations of exploiting low-caste labourers from India to run huge temples around the country.
The initial lawsuit, filed in May on behalf of 200 Indian workers, accused the religious group, known as the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS), of luring their targets from India, coercing them to sign employment agreements, and forcing them to work more than 12 hours a day with only five days off in a year, doing construction and maintaining the sprawling grounds of a Hindu temple in Robbinsville Township, New Jersey.
The suit charges the workers were paid as little as $1.20 an hour, staggeringly below the US federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and New Jersey’s statewide minimum wage of $12 per hour.
Last month, in an amended complaint, the lawsuit was expanded to include accusations of labour exploitation at Hindu temples in four more states across the US – in Chino Hills, California, outside Los Angeles; Bartlett, Illinois, outside Chicago; Stafford, Texas, outside Houston; and Lilburn, Georgia, outside Atlanta.
All the temples named in the lawsuit are affiliated with BAPS, which is locally registered in Delaware with offices in New Jersey. The international organisation is closely associated with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and pursues ambitious Hindu temple construction projects around the world.
The lawsuit says the workers “were forced to live and work in a fenced, guarded compound on the Robbinsville temple grounds, which they were not allowed to leave” unless accompanied by an overseer and were led to believe they would suffer “physical restraint and serious harm” if they tried to exit the compound on their own.
It adds the defendants “confiscated the workers’ passports as soon as the workers left the airport at JFK [John F Kennedy International Airport in New York] upon their arrival in the United States, and kept those passports during the entirety of the workers’ time in New Jersey to prevent the workers from leaving”.
Similar abuses – including vast underpayment, passport confiscation, and close monitoring – were reported at the sites in California, Illinois, Texas, and Georgia, although the suit notes that workers were not subject to as long work hours in those states.
The lawsuit further accuses BAPS of intentionally targeting marginalised communities in India, particularly Dalits – who lie at the bottom of the complex Hindu caste hierarchy once referred to as “untouchables” – and Adivasis – a collective term for tribes considered Indigenous to certain regions of the subcontinent.
Both groups remain at the lowest rungs of Indian society.
“At the Robbinsville temple and elsewhere, temple leadership did what they could to remind these marginalised workers of their place in the social hierarchy,” the lawsuit said.
It further charged that Swami Prasanand, identified as a supervisor at the Robbinsville Township temple, regularly “called the workers ‘worms’, thus exacerbating the psychological coercion the workers experienced”.
The lawsuit also accuses BAPS of misrepresenting the workers to US authorities, saying they were brought to the US under R-1 visas, which are meant for “those who minister, or work in religious vocations or occupations”, according to the lawsuit.
However, it said the workers performed “solely manual”, not religious, work, noting that “nearly all” of the workers were, in fact, not Hindus.
Officials from BAPS have repeatedly denied the allegations, while a lawyer representing the group told The Associated Press news agency in an email on Wednesday that “US Government officials have authorised the use of R-1 visas for stone artisans for 20 years, and federal, state, and local government agencies have regularly visited and inspected all of the construction projects on which those artisans volunteered”.
The initial workers’ lawsuit was filed the same day federal agents descended on the Robbinsville Township temple, detaining about 100 people in an operation reportedly connected to claims of immigration and labour violations.
The raid followed the death of Mohan Lal, a worker at the temple, which sparked a call from colleagues for greater labour rights and that Lal’s remains be treated according to his religion, the lawsuit said.