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The India Observer, TIO, May 10, 2021, New Jersey, USA: In a shocking revelation by the New York Times, federal law enforcement agents, including the F.B.I, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Labor, rescued 90 impoverished and overworked Dalit laborers from India. They were toiling away to construct a massive temple in Robbinsville, New Jersey, for a pittance.
These workers from the Dalit community were lured to work on the temple complex in 2018, by the prominent Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS). The workers accused BAPS of confining them to the temple grounds, out of sight, and paying them a mere $1 an hour, for long hours of intensive labor.
The Alliance to Save and Protect America from Infiltration by Religious Extremists (ASPAIRE), has demanded that the enforcement agencies should investigate not only the present instance, but they should also dig into past violations.
More shocking facts have been revealed in a lawsuit filed on behalf of the laborers, including the fact that their passports were confiscated and they were confined in a fenced-in and guarded site, like caged animals.
They were forbidden from talking to visitors and religious volunteers and fed a meager diet of lentils and potatoes. According to claims made in the lawsuit, they often lost pay for minor violations, such as being seen without a helmet.
The matter was brought to light by Swati Sawant, an immigration lawyer in New Jersey, who had been tracking it for about a year, secretly organizing the temple workers. She arranged for the legal teams to pursue both wage and immigration claims by these workers.
In the wage claim suit, one of the lawyers Daniel Werner expressed shock that this is happening in the US. He believes that this to be the first forced-labor case of its scale in the US since dozens of Thai garment workers were discovered laboring in horrible conditions in El Monte, California in 1995 — this landmark case helped create the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
These laborers were brought on promises of standard wages and plenty of free time on religious visas (R-1 visas), reserved for the clergy, missionaries, and other religious workers. They were all engaged in 13 hours a day of intense labor, lifting large stones, operating cranes and other heavy machinery, digging ditches, and shoveling snow, for which they were paid a mere $ 450 in a month.
The New Jersey temple, or mandir, located near Princeton University is a multimillion-dollar project which opened in 2014 for the public. It caters to the needs of the nearly 400,000 Indian-born residents in New Jersey, one of the largest Indian immigrant populations in the country. and other nearby areas. There are almost 100 BAPS temples in the US alone.
“It is not a matter of coincidence that BAPS has strong ties with Narendra Modi, Indian prime minister, and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Mr. Modi had said that Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the spiritual head who built BAPS into the largest Hindu sect in the United States. was his mentor, before his death in 2016.
“There have been so many violations, in this case, beginning with the R-1 visas, all under the garb of religion, most going unchecked because of the ‘religion factor, that they need to be investigated thoroughly”, said the co-chair of ASPAIRE, Dr. Shaik Ubaid.