Laborers From India Are Suing New Jersey Hindu Temple For Worker Abuse
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Laborers from India have filed a lawsuit against one of the largest Hindu temples in the United States. They allege the temple held them against their will and paid illegally low wages for construction work. The men say they were exploited because they're at the bottom of India's caste system, something temple officials deny. Reporter Fred Mogul has the story.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAWN MOWERS RUNNING)
FRED MOGUL, BYLINE: The intricate marble temple in the central New Jersey town of Robbinsville is closed to outside visitors. While a maintenance crew mows the 160-acre compound's vast lawn, Manu Bordoloi picks up a friend on the adjacent property. His response to the legal charges of human trafficking are pretty typical of what many immigrants from India here are saying.
MANU BORDOLOI: I'm not involved with them and - you know, but I heard the news, and it's not good if they did something wrong.
MOGUL: Bordoloi moved to New Jersey from northern India a dozen years ago. He was surprised that the alleged worker abuse is connected to caste because he thinks the caste system doesn't exist here.
BORDOLOI: It's not part of U.S. Dalit thing is not relevant to U.S.
MOGUL: Dalit refers to those on the bottom rungs of Indian society. Dalits are sometimes referred to as untouchables or worse, according to the civil complaint.
PATRICIA KAKALEC: They were called worms.
MOGUL: That's Patricia Kakalec, a lawyer in the workers' class-action lawsuit. She alleges the temple and the international organization behind it, which goes by the acronym BAPS, duped around 200 men into coming to build the complex. In the court filing, she said the temple took away the laborers' passports, forced them to live in trailers and made them work 13-hour shifts with almost no days off for little more than a dollar an hour.
KAKALEC: Their caste position was used by the employer and the entities affiliated with the employer as a way to sort of keep them subjugated or keep them constrained and feeling like they didn't have any options.
MOGUL: After the civil lawsuit was filed, the FBI raided the walled compound. Temple officials declined to be interviewed, but in a statement, they said they disagree with the allegations and are conducting a full investigation. Rohul Dingra occasionally worships at the temple. Standing in the local supermarket, he says he doesn't have any direct knowledge about the workers' situation. But he says for Hindus, building temples is a holy obligation.
ROHUL DINGRA: I would take it in a positive note that people have the opportunity to come all the way from India into a foreign land to spread the words about God, about religion, about all the positive things that could happen in a temple.
MOGUL: It'll be up to the courts to decide whether the workers are victims of human trafficking or religious volunteers. Dalits are a relatively small subset of Indian immigrants to the U.S., but they're increasingly vocal.
ROJA SUGANTHY-SINGH: People have carried, unfortunately, into the United States caste-based behavior.
MOGUL: Roja Suganthy-Singh is a co-founder of the Dalit Solidarity Forum and an academic. She says upper-caste Hindus in the U.S. regularly discriminate against people like her.
SUGANTHY-SINGH: In terms of how people would address me, how I would be humiliated with certain, you know, questioning as to how come you are here, right? How come you are a professor?
MOGUL: Suganthy-Singh's group is working to make caste a legally protected category in the U.S. alongside sex, race and sexual orientation. And in the meantime, while the civil case against the New Jersey temple is slowly working through the court system, Dalit advocates are also waiting to see whether federal investigators bring criminal charges against the temple.
For NPR News, I'm Fred Mogul in Robbinsville, N.J.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUT OUT LOUDS' "GO SADNESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.