A Hindu sect called the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS), said to be close to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in India, has come under the scanner in the US for allegedly 'luring' primarily Dalit workers from India and subjecting them to inhumane working conditions.
According to a report in The New York Times, the workers were paid about $1 an hour and confined to the grounds where they were building a temple. They were apparently brought in on religious, temporary visas as artisans and volunteers and BAPS now finds itself in the midst of a lawsuit in the US which was filed on Tuesday.
The report mentioned at least three federal agencies in the US – F.B.I., Department of Homeland Security and Department of Labour – were involved in a raid on the premises on Tuesday.
The workers reportedly lived in trailers on site and had been given the promise of jobs to build the temple in Robbinsville, New Jersey. The wage claim complaint said that the majority of the workers were Dalits who were brought in on R-1 visas and asked to tell authorities that they were skilled craftsment.
The men's lawyers told the US daily that they worked for about 13 hours a day on the site, picked up stones, manoeuvred cranes and other hevy machines while building roads, sewers and doing digging work. They were reportedly paid about $450 a month with $50 as cash in hand and the rest transferred to India.
The men apparently survived only on lentils and potatoes, their wages apparently cut for innocuous things like not having a helmet on.
"They thought they would have a good job and see America. They didn’t think they would be treated like animals, or like machines that aren’t going to get sick," said Swati Sawant, the lawyer behind the litigation.
Lenin Joshi, a BAPS spokesperson, told the NYT that the men were engaged in complex work that required a skill set and that they had the required visas. "They have to be fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. In that process, we need specialized artisans," he was quoted saying.
According to the report around ninty men were removed from the site following action by the three federal agencies, two of which declined comment to the NYT.
BAPS is known for building temples around the world, describing itself as an organisation " dedicated to improving society through individual growth by fostering the Hindu ideals of faith, unity and selfless service."
The organisation is said to have ties to the BJP. A picture from 2019 by its youth wing has BJP President J.P. Nadda at a ceremony.
National Working President Of BJP JP Nadda Received Blessing at BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir,Mumbai.. #BAPSSwaminarayan #BAPSYouth #PramukhSwami #MahantSwami
Posted by BAPS Youth on Saturday, 14 September 2019
Work on this particular temple, which is said to have opened in 2014, still goes on, as the organisation plans on building the largest Hindu temple in the US.