Unity, Peace, and Exploitation
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Moham Lal died building a temple in New Jersey. Mukesh Kumar lost 26 percent of his monthly salary because he was not wearing a helmet while working. Another worker lost more than a month’s wage because his co-worker went back to India. Workers have started speaking out against the forced labor they have endured under the religious organization Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS).
BAPS follows a sect of Hinduism and mixes spirituality with social service. The organization builds temples, hospitals, and schools around the world. It has thousands of volunteers globally who contribute 15 million volunteer hours every year. The Dalai Lama commented on the message BAPS spreads—unity, peace, and harmony—while Prince Charles commented on the dedication of the volunteers. However, this seemingly perfect organization has been exposed for taking advantage of its workers.
In New Jersey, BAPS built one of the largest and most ornate Hindu temples in the United States. However, a lawsuit came out last month with workers claiming that they have been abused for years. In the complaint filed in the federal district court, the workers allege that they signed papers in a language they did not understand, worked 13 hours a day, seven days a week, and were paid the equivalent of $1 an hour. As they were brought from India on religious visas, the workers’ lawyers claim their immigration forms were illegally filled out by the organization. The organization took the workers’ passports so they could not return to India and used the passports to control the workers, as the workers were told that they would be arrested if they stepped foot off temple properties due to their illegal status. This particular temple may have intentionally hired Dalits, the lowest caste in India, as they knew they’d be easiest to abuse. BAPS was engaged in human trafficking.
Rumors about the treatment of the workers and their pay had spread throughout the tri-state Indian population before the lawsuit came out. However, many did not believe them until the lawsuit. I talked to some members of this population, and when asked about the implications of the lawsuit, many thought it was not an issue for the organization. Some suggested that the workers would be paid off or their families in India would be threatened or outcasted if the lawsuit continued to trial. One even suggested that the organization’s close ties with the Indian government would cover up the issue. Others justified the actions of the organization, claiming that the workers were paid more than they ever would be in India. Of the Indians I talked to, many believed that sweeping the lawsuit under the rug and paying off the workers would be sufficient for the organization.
This issue does not reflect a larger issue among the BAPS organization, as specific defendants have been stated in the complaint. The Indian-American community’s reaction to the issue reflects a larger problem of the caste system. Indians who migrated to the United States brought their caste system ideologies to the country, demonstrated by how two-thirds of Dalits have faced workplace discrimination and one-fourth have endured physical assault in the United States due to their caste. However, with newer generations, these ideologies will hopefully be abandoned soon.
The organization must confront the issue. Lasting progress can only be made by learning from the hurtful aspects of history. BAPS needs to implement policies that will protect future workers, recognize the means by which the temple was built, and honor the workers. They can construct a wall inside the temple that explains this tragic past and honors these workers or educates temple visitors on its construction. The organization should also direct a portion of its social service toward advocating for the lower castes by building schools and hospitals. The temple needs to expunge itself, learn from its mistakes, honor those that it exploited, and grow stronger for its next generation of followers.