Federal legislation enforcement brokers descended on a large temple in New Jersey on Tuesday after staff accused a distinguished Hindu sect of luring them from India, confining them to the temple grounds and paying them the equal of about $1 an hour to carry out grueling labor in close to servitude.
In a lawsuit filed on Tuesday, attorneys for the laborers mentioned Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, a Hindu sect often called BAPS that has shut ties to India’s ruling occasion and has constructed temples around the globe, had exploited presumably tons of of low-caste males within the yearslong development mission.
A spokeswoman for the F.B.I. confirmed brokers had been on the grounds of the temple in rural Robbinsville, N.J., however wouldn’t remark additional. The motion is believed to be linked to the claims of labor and immigration legislation violations, in accordance with a number of folks acquainted with the matter. A spokesman for the Division of Homeland Safety declined to remark.
The employees, who lived in trailers hidden from view, had been promised jobs serving to to construct the temple with normal work hours and ample break day, in accordance with the lawsuit, a wage declare filed in U.S. District Court docket in New Jersey. The bulk are Dalit, the bottom rung in India’s caste system.
They had been dropped at the US on spiritual visas, or R-1 visas — non permanent visas used for clergy and lay spiritual staff akin to missionaries — and offered to the U.S. authorities as volunteers, in accordance with the declare. They had been requested to signal a number of paperwork, typically in English, and instructed to inform U.S. embassy staffers that they had been expert carvers or ornamental painters, the grievance mentioned.
Legal professionals for the boys, nonetheless, mentioned they did guide labor on the location, working almost 13 hours a day lifting massive stones, working cranes and different heavy equipment, constructing roads and storm sewers, digging ditches and shoveling snow, all for the equal of about $450 monthly.
“I respectfully disagree with the wage declare,” Kanu Patel, the chief government of BAPS, instructed The New York Instances, whereas noting he was not in command of day-to-day operations on the web site.
Lenin Joshi, a spokesman for BAPS, additionally disputed the accusations, saying the boys did sophisticated work connecting stones that had been hand-carved in India. “They need to be match collectively like a jigsaw puzzle. In that course of, we’d like specialised artisans,” Mr. Joshi mentioned, saying this work certified the boys for the visas.
“We’re naturally shaken by this flip of occasions and are positive that when the total details come out, we will present solutions and present that these accusations and allegations are with out benefit,” Mr. Joshi mentioned.
The lawsuit mentioned the boys’s passports had been confiscated, they usually had been confined to the fenced-in and guarded web site, the place they had been forbidden from speaking to guests. They subsisted on a bland weight loss program of lentils and potatoes, and their pay was docked for minor violations, akin to being seen with no helmet, in accordance with the declare.
“They thought they’d have job and see America. They didn’t suppose they’d be handled like animals, or like machines that aren’t going to get sick,” mentioned Swati Sawant, an immigration lawyer in New Jersey who can also be Dalit and mentioned she first discovered of the boys’s plight final yr.
She mentioned she secretly organized the temple staff and organized authorized groups to pursue each wage and immigration claims.
BAPS describes itself as “a religious, volunteer-driven group devoted to bettering society via particular person progress by fostering the Hindu beliefs of religion, unity and selfless service.”
Through the years, the group has grown into a world enterprise made up of each for-profit and nonprofit entities. It builds temples around the globe that draw guests with awe-inspiring white stone spires, intricate carvings, gurgling fountains and wandering peacocks.
The New Jersey temple, or mandir, is itself a multimillion-dollar operation, public information present. It opened in 2014 however remains to be below development as BAPS has tried to meet its purpose of constructing the most important Hindu temple within the nation. Positioned close to Princeton, the temple attracts followers from throughout the area. With almost 400,000 Indian-born residents, New Jersey has one of many largest Indian immigrant populations within the nation.
The group has robust ties with Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Get together. Mr. Modi has mentioned that Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the religious head who constructed BAPS into the most important Hindu sect in the US earlier than dying in 2016, was his mentor. Mr. Modi gave a eulogy at his funeral and laid the inspiration stone for a temple that BAPS is constructing in Abu Dhabi.
The group additionally pledged the equal of about $290,000 to Mr. Modi’s most essential election promise: constructing a temple within the metropolis of Ayodhya, the place a mosque had stood earlier than Hindu devotees destroyed it in 1992. The destruction of the Babri Mosque set off waves of sectarian violence, and the development of the temple in Ayodhya is a major step within the quest by Mr. Modi and his occasion to shift India from its secular foundations towards a Hindu identification.
Together with its temples, BAPS publicizes its good works. Within the pandemic, the group has donated masks to hospitals in Los Angeles and has flown oxygen to India, which has been not too long ago engulfed in a devastating Covid-19 outbreak.
The New Jersey temple is supposed to be the crown jewel in BAPS’s rising variety of American locations of worship.
The grievance named six males who mentioned they had been amongst greater than 200 Indian nationals who had been recruited to return to the US beginning about 2018 and had been made to work grueling hours below typically harmful circumstances on the New Jersey web site.
One laborer died final autumn, prompting a backlash among the many staff, in accordance with the grievance.
Mukesh Kumar, a 37-year-old employee who has since returned to India, contacted Ms. Sawant, the immigration lawyer, who started investigating. Mr. Kumar, who is called within the federal lawsuit, mentioned in an interview with The New York Instances that BAPS’s response to the loss of life of his co-worker prompted him and others to return ahead.
“We mentioned, ‘We don’t need to die like that,’” he mentioned.
Daniel Werner, a lawyer within the wage declare go well with, mentioned he believed this might be the primary forced-labor case of its scale in the US since dozens of Thai garment staff had been found laboring in horrible circumstances in El Monte, Calif. in 1995 — a landmark case that helped result in the creation of the federal Trafficking Victims Safety Act.
The New Jersey case, Mr. Werner mentioned, might be in comparison with situations of extreme employee exploitation seen abroad. “There are parallels somewhere else. However what’s hanging is that that is in the US,” he mentioned.
Karan Deep Singh contributed reporting from New Delhi. Sheelagh McNeill contributed analysis.