Skip to main content

Italian links of under-construction 'world's largest' Swamanarayan temple in New Jersey

By Rajiv Shah 
Continuing to “holiday” in US, a few weeks back, I went to live with a very fine family friend in New Jersey (NJ). My fourth visit US, for the first time, we went by a local train to NJ, a comfortable four-and-half hour journey amidst sub-zero temperature. During our lovely stay, which lasted for about a week, we were taken, among other places, to a spot about which I was told something bizarre by a trade union leader based in Ahmedabad, Ashim Roy. As a journalist I was interested.
The spot was the still-under-construction Swaminarayan temple, about an hour-long drive from the spot where we lived in NJ, a US state just next to New York. After parking the car, we went by foot a little round-about way to avoid the construction area to reach of one of the two temples which had been completed. A couple of workers – we were told they were Mexican – were on the job, fixing some electricity issues. They waved at we walked in, smiling, first while we were moving in, and then again when they, apparently, had finished their work and were going away in car.
The controversy about which Roy had told me back home was reported in a New York Times (NYT) article, published in May last year. Titled “Hindu Sect Is Accused of Using Forced Labor to Build NJ Temple”. Roy claimed, he was behind the support to the workers (about which the report gives graphic details), mostly belonging to “lower castes”, who had filed a complaint of exploitation against the temple authorities.
The workers, the report said, had filed a lawsuit on the ground that they were being forcibly confined in the temple grounds as if they were bonded labourers, and were being paid just about $1 an hour as against the US federal law, which permits a minimum of $7.25 per hour. Roy also forwarded a few photographs showing stone carved from Pindwara in Rajasthan, stacked for the temple building.
The NYT report, widely quoted in sections of Indian media, pointed towards how US federal law enforcement agents “descended” on the massive temple, quoting the workers’ lawyers as saying that the authorities of the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS), the “Hindu sect” were exploiting “possibly hundreds of low-caste men in the years-long construction project.”
Living in rural Robbinsville, NJ, where the temple is coming up, the report said, majority the workers were Dalit, “the lowest rung in India’s caste system”, and were “brought to the US on religious R-1 visas (issued for clergy and lay religious workers such as missionaries).” They were “presented to the US government as volunteers”, and “were asked to sign several documents, often in English, and instructed to tell US embassy staffers that they were skilled carvers or decorative painters.”
They were being forced to do manual labour on the site, “working nearly 13 hours a day lifting large stones, operating cranes and other heavy machinery, building roads and storm sewers, digging ditches and shoveling snow, all for the equivalent of about $450 per month”, though they were paid $50 in cash, with rest of the amount being “deposited” in their Indian account.
Not just this. The report, quoting someone “familiar with the development”, further said, the workers’ passports were “confiscated, and they were confined to the fenced-in and guarded site, where they were forbidden from talking to visitors and religious volunteers. They subsisted on a bland diet of lentils and potatoes, and their pay was docked for minor violations, such as being seen without a helmet.”
Noting BAPS’ links with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling BJP, the report said, Modi called Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the spiritual head of BAPS, on the latter’s death as “his mentor”. On the other hand, BAPS “pledged the equivalent of about $290,000 to Modi’s most important election promise: building a temple in the city of Ayodhya, where a mosque had stood before Hindu devotees destroyed it in 1992”, underlining, “The destruction of the Babri Mosque set off waves of sectarian violence, and the construction of the temple in Ayodhya is a significant step in the quest by Modi and his party to shift India from its secular foundations toward a Hindu identity.”
There is yet another side of the story, about which NYT does not talk about. The NJ temple is not just a multimillion-dollar operation, which I was told by temple officials will be spread over 220 acres of land on completion, having a recreation area and a canteen. Highlighted in a statement we carried in full Counterview by the Occupational and Environmental Health Network India (OEHNI), it said, not only were the Swaminarayan temple owners responsible for “violating” the labour law of the US by paying a meagre $1 per hour to the workers, it is should also take the responsibility for high level of silicosis, a fatal respiratorial occupational disease, among the workers involved in stone cutting in India.
Signed by Vadodara-based health rights leader Jagdish Patel, national coordinator, OEHNI, the statement, also released in May last year, said, BAPS’ workshops operated in Sirohi district in Rajasthan, where sand stone is worked upon by the local craftsmen to carve arches, designs and statues as per the drawings provided to them. It alleged, “They are exposed to dangerous levels of silica dust which is not monitored. Hundreds of stone workers have been victims of silicosis and have died prematurely.”
“Stones so carved in Rajasthan are exported to the sites where this temple is being built. It is shocking to know that more than 200 workers taken to the NJ site were made to work for long hours, were not paid minimum wages in US, and were working in hazardous conditions. From what we understand, the silica dust levels at work were neither monitored nor maintained as per US standards”, the statement said.
I met a couple of persons associated full-time at the temple as care-takers, one of them seemed to be a public relations officer (PRO), who caught hold of any new person entering the temple to explain that it would be the “biggest Swaminarayan temple in the world” like once completed. The moment we entered in, he was there to explain all great things the temple would be: Not only that it was spread over 220 acres of land, but also that the stone which was being used in the temple came from Italy.
Introduced to him as a former Times of India political editor by the friend who took us to the temple, the PRO got terribly interested in me. He told me, the stone, bought in Italy, was shipped to India, where craftsmen in Rajasthan would cut them as per the design given to them. Tight-lipped on the Dalit workers, he said, the work at the temple had to be suspended for six months because of “certain problems”.
Residential area of temple authorities
Now, when the workers had all left, he said, “volunteers from across the US, mostly of Indian origin, mainly professionals, including doctors and IT engineers”, reached there to do construction activities “free of cost.” He told me, rather proudly, “They are about 450 of them… You can see, they are so devoted to the cause. They are given training, remain here for a fortnight to offer their service as volunteers, work in batches. We provide them with best of food and accommodation.”
I could see large parts of the 220 acres campus lying scattered with huge boxes, which I was told contained mainly Italian stones finished in India according to the requirements of the temple. Several areas were covered with blue curtains beyond which huge cranes could be seen for temple construction. I wondered where did those associated with the huge temple lived. One of those associated with the temple took us in his car to a sprawling campus where tens of huge independent houses in three different sizes had already come up.
Taking me to one of the houses under construction -- “this is one ours”, I was told by this person, who happens to a US citizen of Indian origin and has retired. “I am devoting my full time to the temple”, he said. In all, I was told, there are about 120 independent houses – 90 per cent of them owned by those associated with the temple.
On our return to the temple, a three minutes drive, the same PRO met me after we did our ‘darshan’ and spanned a few photographs at the spot especially designated for the purpose. Even as praising the world’s biggest Swaminarayan temple sky high again, what he said was news to me. Usually a spot where NJ’s Indian origin people visit here (NJ’s nearly 5 per cent population is said to be from India), at one point the temple, he said, received a “high profile American visitor.”
Without naming this visitor, the PRO said, “This gentleman told me that in the US churches are being closed down, as fewer and fewer people were visiting them, that the churches were being sold for purposes other than religion -- constructing commercial or residential premises. He asked me, given the lack of interest in religion, what was the purpose building such a huge temple; it would be deserted place after four decades. I was astonished by his observation. I replied: This temple will last for thousands of years…”
Large sections of Indian diaspora living in not just NJ but also the places where I visited on the eastern coast of US during my current stay in US know about the controversy surrounding the temple. However, I heard a strong defence of the act of bringing Indian workers to build the temple, though none of them were apparently there right now. A strong temple votary had this to say: “The workers had signed an agreement before being brought to the US, and they were being paid accordingly. They were being provided with free food and accommodation. What else did they want?”

Comments

Anonymous said…
The money for the temple, or for that matter any construction of a religious nature is better spent on human beings. Many would benefit from such large sums of money.
Thank you for writing this. In Ahmedabad if one goes to areas near the main Swaminarayan temple, many of the local houses have posters against the temple for trying to grab lands, homes.

TRENDING

Whither Govt of India strategy to reduce import dependence on crude oil, natural gas?

By NS Venkataraman*  India presently imports around 80% of it’s crude oil requirement and around 50% of its natural gas requirements . As the domestic production of crude oil and natural gas are virtually stagnant and the domestic demand is increasing at around 7% per annum, India’s steadily increasing dependence on import of the vital energy source is a matter of high energy security concern. This is particularly so, since the price of crude oil and natural gas are considerably fluctuating / increasing in the global market due to geo political factors, which are beyond the control of India. India has promised to achieve zero emission by the year 2070, which mean that the level of emission has to start declining at slow and steady rate from now onwards. It is now well recognized that global emission is caused largely due to use of coal as fuel and natural gas as fuel and feedstock. While burning of coal as fuel cause emission of global warming carbon dioxide gas and sulphur

'Blatant violation' of law by Central government in making NREGA payments

By Our Representative  In September third week, NREGA workers across the country were mobilised for two day so raise their issues and submit a memorandum to the Prime Minister. Organised the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha (NSM), a collective of groups that work with NREGA labourers across the country, workers from 13 states -- Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal -- carried out Kaam Do Abhiyaan, staging demonstrations and rallies against what they called blatant violation of law by the Central government in making NREGA payments. While NREGA has had very positive impacts, it has lately become fruitless, exploiting labour, even though workers who have put in honest hard work have to wait for their wages endlessly, it was suggested.  In such a situation, there is a need to firm up NREGA implementation and end systematic corruption to ensure that workers get their basic NREGA entit

Fascism on prowl? Religious meet 'deeply pained' at silence of Church, bishops, priests

Counterview Desk  The ‘Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace’which held its 17th National Convention at the Montfort Social Institute, Hyderabad, Telangana from 22 to 24 September 2022 on the theme “Deepening our Identity as Religious: Responding to the Signs of the Times”, has expressed concern “at the deteriorating situation of our nation on every front”, especially stating, “Fascism seems to have come to stay” in India. At the same time, the convention, which took place with the participation of 60 persons from 16 states representing 20 religious congregations, in its unanimously-adopted statement added, “We have reached abysmal depths on every parameter: be it social, economic and political”, underlining, “The poor in India become poorer every day; the rich and powerful continue to profiteer at their expense and amass scandalous amounts of wealth.” Text: We, members (63 women and men Religious, from 16 states representing 20 Congregations) of the Forum of Religious for Justice

Muslim intellectuals met Bhagwat, extra-constitutional authority 'like Sanjay Gandhi'

By Shamsul Islam*  In a significant development a delegation of five Muslim intellectuals namely former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi; former senior bureaucrat Najeeb Jung; former AMU vice-chancellor and Lt Gen (retd) Zameer U Shah; politician-cum-journalist Shahid Siddiqui (presently with RLD); and businessman Saeed Shervani [Samajvadi Party] met RSS Supremo Mohan Bhagwat at RSS Delhi headquarters. The meeting was kept secret for reasons known to the participants and was held in August. According to the Muslim intellectuals the meeting held in “a very cordial” atmosphere continued for 75 minutes whereas time allotted was 30 minutes! In a post-meeting justification of the parleys Quraishi stated that their main concern was “the insecurity being increasingly felt by the Muslim community in the wake of recurring incidents of lynching of innocents, calls by Hindutva hotheads for genocide and the marginalisation of the community in almost every sphere”. This delegation consistin

Rajasthan cops 'halt' Gujarat Dalit women's rally: homage to untouchability victim boy

By Our Representative  In a surprise move, the Rajasthan police stopped a Dalit women's rally from Gujarat on the borders after it crossed Gujarat alleging that it would "disturb peace" in village Surana, Jalore district, where the gruesome incident of death of a Dalit boy took place on August 13 after he was brutally beaten up by his teacher on touching the drinking water pot. Sources said, while the Gujarat government had "no objection" in allowing the rally, which originated from the Dalit Shakti Kendra (DSK), an empowerment-cut-technical institute for teens founded by human rights leader Martin Macwan, on September 24 morning, the Rajasthan police stopped it for two and a half hours before allowing it to proceed to Surana. The decision to take out a women's rally was taken at a DSK meeting on September 5 following a condolence meeting of the NGO Navsarjan Trust, also founded by Macwan, activists committed to work against caste-based discrimination, orga

Why Bose's India Gate statue suggests RSS, BJP need violence-loving ‘Hindu’ Netaji

By Prem Singh*  In a TV channel debate, a BJP spokesperson and anchor shared and served a lie that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's daughter in her letter to the Prime Minister has alleged that the Congress kept devaluing Netaji to further Gandhi's non-violence; because Netaji had taken the path of liberating the country through violence mode by forming the Azad Hind Fauj (INA). They also praised the Bombay Royal Naval Mutiny of 1946 to confirm that the country got its independence through a violent route. I stated that I have read the letter of Netaji's daughter, and there is no such allegation in it. But a lie told in the intoxication of power is bound to be blatant. Netaji's daughter Anita Bose Pfaff, even in the past, has already requested some earlier prime ministers of the country to bring back the mortal remains of her father from Japan to India. In none of the letters she has spoken about devaluation of her father’s role in the freedom movement on the basis of Gandh

Buddhist shrines were 'massively destroyed' by Brahmanical rulers: Historian DN Jha

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

Is coal import dependence of more than 50% by 2047 of any relevance to India?

By Shankar Sharma*  I have read the article " Building Resilience in India’s Power Sector " by N Vedachalam, released by the Observer Research Foundation, with a lot of interest. I expected it to provide few useful recommendations to our authorities in charting out a sustainable pathway to green energy transition much before the climate catastrophe push our communities to the precipice. But I am sorry to say that the overall discussions or the message implied in the article disappointed me. I was expecting the article, coming from an engineer with past experience in the power sector, to discuss the much needed recommendations to put the power sector on a sustainable developmental pathway. But I could notice mostly technical jargon and a lot of statistical information, which may already be available in the public domain.   The article also seems to have simply accepted what some of the official agencies seem to have indicated as inevitable for the power sector in our country;

'True decolonisation move': Demand to name new Parliament building after Ambedkar

By Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd*  In recent weeks, there has been a demand for the new Parliament building being constructed on the revamped Central Vista in New Delhi to be named after the architect of the Constitution and anti-caste leader BR Ambedkar. On September 14, the Telangana Assembly passed a resolution urging the Centre to name the new Parliament building after Ambedkar. The Bharatiya Janata Party was absent during the debate about the resolution. The next day, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi-led government declared that the new secretariat in the centre of Hyderabad would be named after Ambedkar. Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao added that he would write to Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting him to name the new Parliament building in Delhi “Ambedkar Parliament”. The demand is finding resonance among civil society groups too and has led to social media discussions as well as public mobilisation.  But two questions arise: Should a Parliament that makes laws for a nation over a

Government 'fails to take up' Indian migrants' unpaid wages issue with other countries

By Rafeek Ravuther, Chandan Kumar, Dharmendra Kumar*  The migrant workers were one of the most vulnerable sections during the pandemic. India experiences large-scale movement of migrants internally and internationally. After the outbreak of the pandemic, migrant workers continued to face injustice especially in getting wages in expedited manner. In the international context, India, the home of 9 million cross-border temporary labour migrants, carried out the largest repatriation exercise ‘Vande Bharat Mission’. Even though the Indian government addressed the immediate requirement of repatriation, it failed to understand and recognise their post-arrival grievances, like back wages, social protection etc. Recently many workers were deported from the middle- east region. Amidst the establishment of grievance mechanisms such as Consular Services Management System (MADAD) and helplines in Pravasi Bharatiya Sahayata Kendra (PBSK), the unresolved grievances remain high. The number of unresolv