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As Hindu group built world-class temple in N.J., a group of Indian workers alleges they were exploited

NJ.com logo NJ.com 5/17/2021 Joe Atmonavage, nj.com
a man and a woman standing in front of a building: Friday, April 30, 2021- BAPS Charities holds a COVID-19 Vaccination Drive inside BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville, NJ, in collaboration with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Hamilton. © Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Med/Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Med Friday, April 30, 2021- BAPS Charities holds a COVID-19 Vaccination Drive inside BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville, NJ, in collaboration with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Hamilton.

They were allegedly recruited as cheap labor to help build a temple.

Members of the lowest-rung of India’s caste system, known as Dalits, were brought to New Jersey to help build a magnificent Hindu temple in Robbinsville, working behind the scenes to perform what they allege to be grueling and often dangerous work.

a bunch of food sitting on a table: Thursday, November 7, 2019- Annakut set up in NJ State House for Diwali. The annakut, one of the significant aspects of Diwali, is an annual offering to God to ask for a propserous and positive new year. The annakut was put up in the State House to honor the Diwali festival and celebrate diversity in NJ, according to Darshan Patel, representative of BAPS Shri... © Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Med/Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Med Thursday, November 7, 2019- Annakut set up in NJ State House for Diwali. The annakut, one of the significant aspects of Diwali, is an annual offering to God to ask for a propserous and positive new year. The annakut was put up in the State House to honor the Diwali festival and celebrate diversity in NJ, according to Darshan Patel, representative of BAPS Shri...

“What is ironic here is that those who are forbidden to enter into the Hindu Temples in India for the reason of impurity and pollution are brought into the U.S. with religious visa to build a temple,” said Ben Chinnappan, president and executive director of Dalit Solidarity, a U.S.-based organization advocating for Dalit rights.

a tall glass building: A look at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville, NJ. A look at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville, NJ. Visitors walk around the outside of the Mandir Manday toward the entrance. © Michael Mancuso/Michael Mancuso A look at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville, NJ. A look at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville, NJ. Visitors walk around the outside of the Mandir Manday toward the entrance.

Last week, their plight came to light with the filing of a chilling lawsuit in federal court charging the builders of the temple, the Hindu sect, Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, often referred to as BAPS, with luring workers from marginalized communities in India to New Jersey on religious visas to “volunteer” at the temple.

BAPS has a large cultural footprint in the U.S. and their temples draw hundreds of people daily.

The allegations brought the FBI to the site, looking into claims of labor and immigration law violations, according to The New York Times.

Matthew Frankel, a spokesman for BAPS, said the organization was made aware of the allegations Tuesday when the FBI raided the property and the lawsuit was filed.

a store inside of a building: A look at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville, NJ. There are 98 intricately carved pillars. It takes 4 artisans 2 months to carve one pillar. © Michael Mancuso/Michael Mancuso A look at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville, NJ. There are 98 intricately carved pillars. It takes 4 artisans 2 months to carve one pillar.

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

But public records and interviews with labor leaders in India allege widespread abuse of workers not only in New Jersey, but elsewhere. In fact, the labor practices at the temple have been called into question before.

In 2017, a Pennsylvania teen died from a fall while volunteering at the sprawling temple complex, prompting his family to file a lawsuit against BAPS. The lawsuit was settled for an undetermined amount, according to court documents.

a group of people standing in front of a building: A look at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville, NJ. © Michael Mancuso/Michael Mancuso A look at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville, NJ.

In April, the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development issued a company-wide stop-work order to Cunha’s Construction Inc., which has work-sites at the Robbinsville temple and BAPS Temple in Edison, for failing to pay workers properly. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

It is unclear if those violations are related to the workers who filed the federal lawsuit last week.

Union leaders in India, who have been working with those in New Jersey to organize and bring the allegations to light, dispute that BAPS was unaware of the working environment.

a bridge over a body of water: A look at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville, NJ. © Michael Mancuso/Michael Mancuso A look at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville, NJ.

“If they did not know what is happening inside the biggest projects of theirs, then who does?” asked Priyanka Jain, a spokeswoman for Pathar Gadhai Mazdoor Suraksha Sangh, or PGMSS, a labor union representing more than 3,000 stone carvers in the state of Rajasthan.

a tray of food on a table: Thursday, November 7, 2019- Annakut set up in NJ State House for Diwali. The annakut, one of the significant aspects of Diwali, is an annual offering to God to ask for a propserous and positive new year. The annakut was put up in the State House to honor the Diwali festival and celebrate diversity in NJ, according to Darshan Patel, representative of BAPS Shri... © Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Med/Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Med Thursday, November 7, 2019- Annakut set up in NJ State House for Diwali. The annakut, one of the significant aspects of Diwali, is an annual offering to God to ask for a propserous and positive new year. The annakut was put up in the State House to honor the Diwali festival and celebrate diversity in NJ, according to Darshan Patel, representative of BAPS Shri...

Jain said workers started pushing back on the conditions when one man became sick and eventually died in New Jersey about six months ago. His cause of death remains unknown.

After a number of the men demanded BAPS provide adequate medical care to the man and to improve the working conditions, Jain said some were sent back to India in retaliation.

a person standing in front of a building: A look at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville, NJ. © Michael Mancuso/Michael Mancuso A look at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville, NJ.

Still, word soon got out about the alleged conditions at the job site in New Jersey, with some workers saying they believed the man who died succumbed because BAPS refused to provide him proper medical care, Jain added.

“This was obviously a scary experience. And they are trapped inside that site. Not allowed to go out or talk to anyone. So they started fearing for their own safety too, naturally,” she said.

a group of people sitting at a table with a cake: Thursday, November 7, 2019- Annakut set up in NJ State House for Diwali. The annakut, one of the significant aspects of Diwali, is an annual offering to God to ask for a propserous and positive new year. The annakut was put up in the State House to honor the Diwali festival and celebrate diversity in NJ, according to Darshan Patel, representative of BAPS Shri... © Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Med/Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Med Thursday, November 7, 2019- Annakut set up in NJ State House for Diwali. The annakut, one of the significant aspects of Diwali, is an annual offering to God to ask for a propserous and positive new year. The annakut was put up in the State House to honor the Diwali festival and celebrate diversity in NJ, according to Darshan Patel, representative of BAPS Shri...

Frankel, the BAPS spokesman declined to answer specific questions, saying the organization “will address them in a court of law.”

Workers who were at the temple Tuesday when federal authorities arrived around 5:30 a.m. said they were “shaken” by the FBI being on site and were praying, according to a source who visited the site this week after the allegations were made.

a bunch of food on a table: Thursday, November 7, 2019- Annakut set up in NJ State House for Diwali. The annakut, one of the significant aspects of Diwali, is an annual offering to God to ask for a propserous and positive new year. The annakut was put up in the State House to honor the Diwali festival and celebrate diversity in NJ, according to Darshan Patel, representative of BAPS Shri... © Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Med/Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Med Thursday, November 7, 2019- Annakut set up in NJ State House for Diwali. The annakut, one of the significant aspects of Diwali, is an annual offering to God to ask for a propserous and positive new year. The annakut was put up in the State House to honor the Diwali festival and celebrate diversity in NJ, according to Darshan Patel, representative of BAPS Shri...

None of those who worked at the construction site could be interviewed and their current whereabouts were unknown. A number of them were removed from the site by the FBI, according to the source who was at the temple in recent days.

According to the lawsuit, workers were told to tell the U.S. Embassy in Delhi during visa interviews that they were volunteers and would be “doing decorative painting or carving work (nikashi) on stones to be used in the New Jersey temple.”

a woman smiling for the camera: Thursday, November 7, 2019- Annakut set up in NJ State House for Diwali. The annakut, one of the significant aspects of Diwali, is an annual offering to God to ask for a propserous and positive new year. Pooja Raval representative of BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Robbinsville, which hosted the event, says, "Diwali is the festival of lights and it signifies the triumph... © Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Med/Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Med Thursday, November 7, 2019- Annakut set up in NJ State House for Diwali. The annakut, one of the significant aspects of Diwali, is an annual offering to God to ask for a propserous and positive new year. Pooja Raval representative of BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Robbinsville, which hosted the event, says, "Diwali is the festival of lights and it signifies the triumph...

The workers eventually received religious visas, according to the lawsuit, and had to pay their way from India to New York City. Upon arrival to the U.S., BAPS representatives allegedly confiscated their passports and visas — even before they had left the airport, according to the lawsuit.

The workers were told they would be working four to seven hours per day and work 20 to 25 days per month, but it was nothing like that, according to the lawsuit.

Instead, according to the lawsuit, they cut and laid stones, removed garbage, did road work and dipped stones in chemicals from 6:30 a.m. — when a siren would awaken them from the trailers they slept in — until 7:30 p.m. The workers could go up to 40 days straight without a day off, according to the lawsuit.

a person standing in front of Marylouise Burke, Pramukh Swami Maharaj posing for the camera: The annakut was put up in the State House to honor the Diwali festival and celebrate diversity in NJ, according to Darshan Patel, representative of BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Robbinsville, which hosted the event. Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez right, speaks at a brief ceremony. Standing in back from left are Assemblman Robert Karabinchak and Assemblywoman... © Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Med/Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Med The annakut was put up in the State House to honor the Diwali festival and celebrate diversity in NJ, according to Darshan Patel, representative of BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Robbinsville, which hosted the event. Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez right, speaks at a brief ceremony. Standing in back from left are Assemblman Robert Karabinchak and Assemblywoman...

They were rewarded with $50 cash at the end of the month, while the rest was put into their bank accounts in India, the lawsuit says. Their monthly salary, according to the lawsuit, totaled around $450, amounting to $1.20 an hour.

Though supervisors consistently docked their pay, the lawsuit alleges. The money could vanish quickly for the simplest of infractions, like not wearing a helmet, idling, smoking or “otherwise not acting in accordance with temple rules,” the lawsuit say.

a group of people preparing food in a store: Thursday, November 7, 2019- Annakut set up in NJ State House for Diwali. The annakut, one of the significant aspects of Diwali, is an annual offering to God to ask for a propserous and positive new year. The annakut was put up in the State House to honor the Diwali festival and celebrate diversity in NJ, according to Darshan Patel, representative of BAPS Shri... © Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Med/Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Med Thursday, November 7, 2019- Annakut set up in NJ State House for Diwali. The annakut, one of the significant aspects of Diwali, is an annual offering to God to ask for a propserous and positive new year. The annakut was put up in the State House to honor the Diwali festival and celebrate diversity in NJ, according to Darshan Patel, representative of BAPS Shri...

Mukesh Kumar, one of the plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit, was fined 26% of his monthly salary when he was observed without a helmet on, according to the lawsuit.

But the workers had no options. Their passports were not in their possession, they had little money and they were forbidden to speak with anyone outside the temple, according to the lawsuit.

The workers were under the understanding that if “they tried to leave their work and the temple compound, they would suffer physical restraint and serious harm,” the lawsuit said.

a statue in front of a building: A look at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville, NJ. © Michael Mancuso/Michael Mancuso A look at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville, NJ.

“The scale and duration and just the pure horrible facts of it really do stand out,” said Patricia Kakalec, one of the attorneys representing the workers in the lawsuit. “This is by far the most shocking case I have had in my career.”

Dalits, part of a caste known as “untouchables,” have battled discrimination both in India and abroad for decades.

Jain, the union spokeswoman, accused BAPS of approaching poor workers to do work on the temple in Robbinsville who can’t read English and who the organization believed “won’t give them trouble and do the work they ask without putting up any fight.”

Dalits make up around 25% of India’s population. They are segregated from other groups and are often forced to perform harsh and dangerous jobs.

“What happened here is the mindset of the Indian caste system where they oppress the Dalits and use them as cheap laborers,” said Chinnappan, the president and executive director of Dalit Solidarity.

According to Chinnappan, discrimination follows the caste group wherever they go.

The lawsuit alleged that a supervisor referred to the workers in Robbinsville as “worms” to remind them “of their place in the social hierarchy.”

Johan Mathew, the director of the South Asian Studies Program at Rutgers, said caste operates differently in different regions of India, though Dalits are the group who often experience the brunt of it.

“If these allegations are true, it is shocking, but unfortunately not surprising to hear about Dalits being exploited in this way,” Mathew said. “Because so many Dalits are socially, politically and economically disenfranchised, they are more easily exploited by duplicitous individuals and powerful groups.”

Dr. Suraj Yengde, a Dalit and senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, described the allegations as “stolen labor.”

“An analogy for America is like white people now getting Black slaves to come and work,” he said.

The temple complex sits off Route 130 in Robbinsville, intended as a pillar of the large Hindu population in New Jersey.

Originally, BAPS bought property right off exit 8 of the New Jersey Turnpike in East Windsor for the temple. But the project faced strong opposition from locals and the mayor didn’t endorse it.

BAPS moved on.

Soon after, it acquired 162 acres of vacant farmland off Route 130 in Robbinsville. By 2008, BAPS began getting approval from local zoning and planning boards to begin building the house of worship and other buildings on the property.

Today, the centerpiece of the religious center, the mandir, is a dazzling piece of architecture built with Italian marble that was hand-carved in India then hand-delivered to the Garden State. A team configured the mandir — made up of 13,000 stones — like a jigsaw puzzle. It reportedly took three years, countless volunteer hours and $18 million to complete.

When it opened to the public in 2014, it stunned those who saw it.

“I give reverence to an extraordinary structure which will stand in all of North America as one of the greatest places of faith we have,” said U.S. Sen. Cory Booker when it opened. “But I am more impressed with the people of this community.”

By then, according to the lawsuit, workers were already allegedly being lured from India and exploited. They were living in trailers tucked away on the property.

Meanwhile, since its inception, construction has continued on the sprawling property over the years, with no hint of the allegations of exploitation that workers claim was rampant behind the scenes.

The turning point was when a worker who organizers identified as Mohan Lal died. That led to demands that his remains be treated according to his religious rituals, and that BAPS improve working conditions, according to the lawsuit.

In response, temple leadership sent some of the men back to India, Jain said, where they could be prone to more retaliation.

“Dalits have always been taken for granted,” Chinnappan said. “They are insignificant for the caste people. Dalit lives do not matter to them.”

PGMSS, the Indian labor group, said it has been working since 2016 to bring to the light the conditions of which their workers are subject to under BAPS, which uses stone factories in Rajasthan, a large state in northern India where many of the New Jersey workers are from, to build their temples.

But the allegations of brutal conditions aren’t limited to work in India.

Ashim Roy, a senior trade union member and advisor, said some of the workers who worked in New Jersey allege they have experienced similar conditions at temples they have been sent to work at elsewhere in the United States, as well as other countries.

These are the first allegations against BAPS in the United States.

“It’s not surprising to us at all,” Jain, the union spokeswoman, said of the allegations.

NJ Advance Media staff writer Ted Sherman contributed to this report.

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Joe Atmonavage may be reached at jatmonavage@njadvancemedia.com .

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