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Human Trafficking Allegations Thrust Caste Into Spotlight For American Hindus

A class action lawsuit recently filed in federal court in New Jersey alleges that the BAPS Hindu temple in Robbinsville brought some 200 workers to the U.S. on R-1 visas as religious volunteers. The lawsuit alleges that the temple actually held them against their will and paid illegally low wages.
A class action lawsuit recently filed in federal court in New Jersey alleges that the BAPS Hindu temple in Robbinsville brought some 200 workers to the U.S. on R-1 visas as religious volunteers. The lawsuit alleges that the temple actually held them against their will and paid illegally low wages.

Software engineers and stone masons might not have much in common professionally, but both kinds of workers can face discrimination, if they're members of the Dalit caste in Hindu society — whether in South Asia or the United States.

So say leading advocates for the rights of Dalits, who were once known as "untouchables."

A class action lawsuit recently filed in federal court in New Jersey alleges that a massive Hindu temple in the city of Robbinsville brought some 200 workers to the U.S. on R-1 visas as religious volunteers.

But their lawyers filed court papers saying they were really held against their will, forced to work 13-hour shifts for weeks on end with no time off and paid just a little more than $1 an hour.

"Their caste position was used by the employer, and the entities affiliated with the employer, as a way to keep them subjugated or keep them constrained and feeling like they didn't have any options," says Patricia Kakalec, one of the lawyers representing the six named plaintiffs in a civil case filed in May.

Kakalec is suing for wage theft and violation of human trafficking laws, while federal investigators determine whether criminal charges are warranted.

After the civil lawsuit was filed, the FBI raided the walled temple compound. Officials from the BAPS sect, which runs the temple, declined to be interviewed, but in a statement they denied the allegations.

Spokesman Matthew Frankel wrote that "BAPS takes each accusation seriously and is conducting a thorough review." He wrote that he would not comment further "out of respect for the judicial process."

Dalit discrimination

Some Indian Americans in the area were shocked at the allegations, but many immigrants with Dalit backgrounds say they were not surprised.

They say discrimination is far more widespread in the U.S. than many of their fellow Hindus believe, existing for both manual laborers and white-collar workers in the information economy.

"If you hear the experiences of Dalit students on campuses in the United States, they say they have been vetted, by their castes, before being allowed into study groups," says Yashica Dutt, author of the book Coming Out as Dalit.

"They have escaped caste violence in their home country, and they come here, and they're subjected to the same kind of embarrassment, bullying, humiliation that they faced back home," Dutt says. "And because there is no understanding of caste in the U.S., they have no recourse and no one to complain to."

According to the Pew Research Center, about 0.7% of the U.S. population is Hindu. In their book, The Other One Percent: Indians in America, authors Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur and Nirvikar Singh report that the vast majority of Indian migrants to the U.S. are from the middle and upper castes.

Dalits are relatively small in number in the U.S., but they're increasingly vocal. In a survey of 1,500 Dalits conducted by an advocacy group called Equality Labs, two-thirds of respondents said they suffered discrimination at work, and one-third reported that they had faced discrimination in education.

Advocates are closely watching a lawsuit brought by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing against the tech company Cisco. The suit alleges that managers associated with upper castes harassed and discriminated against an engineer who is a Dalit.

A nascent legal movement is trying to make caste a protected category under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, alongside sex and race.

BAPS, which stands for Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, is a global organization with powerful political connections in both India and the United States. Professor Raymond Williams, who has studied Swaminarayan Hinduism for decades, says it emerged in the 19th century as a reform movement.

Today, BAPS is among the largest and wealthiest sects of Hinduism, due to an emphasis on education among other things, he says.

"Their systems of education are very well organized and administered around the world, including secular education," Williams says. "That emphasis has positioned many followers of BAPS to be prominent candidates for high-preference [visa] categories for the United States."

Community response

In interviews near the Robbinsville temple, several immigrants from India said that the allegations were troubling but that they were reserving judgment.

Rohul Dingra occasionally worships at the BAPS temple. Standing in the local supermarket, he says he didn't have any direct knowledge about the workers' situation, but he says for Hindus, building temples is a holy obligation.

"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 can happen in a temple," he says.

Dingra is one of several Robbinsville-area Hindus who say that caste conflicts exist in rural India, not in the country's urban areas — much less in the United States.

They say discrimination against Dalits, which is sometimes violent and is reportedly on the rise, is irrelevant to Indian American communities. And they say they personally view all people as individuals, not as members of a caste.

"There are Dalits in my restaurants, in my kitchens working, and they are my good friends," says Nikhil Rekundahlia, owner of Vatan Indian Vegetarian Cuisine & Bakery in nearby East Windsor. "We always treat them equally."

Rekundahlia says he would not object to his children marrying someone who is a Dalit. Outside the adjacent grocery store, Sai and Geedah Nagineni agreed. They dismissed caste as un-American.

"We both are from two different castes, and our children don't know what that is," Geedah Nagineni says. "They have zero knowledge of this, and we want it to be that way."

Many Dalits say the caste-blind idealism of their fellow Hindus is the perspective of people with power and privilege — comparable to white Americans maintaining that racism against Blacks is a thing of the past.

"Many people think [prejudice] is only caste related when a Dalit is being killed or visibly ostracized, but other forms of discrimination are pervasive," Dalit rights activist Yashica Dutt says.

"So many Dalits who work in IT," Dutt says, "who work in STEM fields — which are filled with South Asians — have no choice but to hide their identity or worry about how their identities might cost them their job."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: June 3, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story misspelled Nirvikar Singh's last name as Singhare.