- We call upon all Hindu Americans, and particularly Swaminarayan devotees, to speak out against this casteist exploitation taking place in their name.
On Thursday, May 11th, the New York Times reported on allegations that the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha is exploiting laborers (most of whom are Dalit) who were brought from India to build a massive temple in Robbinsville, New Jersey. The allegations were made by the laborers in a lawsuit filed against BAPS, and The New York Times also reported that FBI agents were seen on the temple grounds.
The article describes the living and working conditions described in the laborers’ lawsuit:
“The lawsuit said the men’s passports had been confiscated, and they were confined to the fenced-in and guarded site, where they were forbidden from talking to visitors. 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, according to the claim.”
This is unacceptable. We call upon all Hindu Americans, and particularly Swaminarayan devotees, to speak out against this casteist exploitation taking place in their name. We applaud these laborers for speaking out, and we are grateful for the advocacy of Swati Sawant, a Dalit lawyer who is helping fight their case.
Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR) is an organization of progressive, radically inclusive, and anti-caste Hindus. We have been at the forefront of the fight against caste in the United States. We supported Ambedkar International Center in filing an amicus brief in the ongoing Cisco caste discrimination lawsuit. A few weeks ago, we wrote to the Santa Clara County Human Rights Commission urging them to take steps to combat caste discrimination. Just yesterday, we co-sponsored a memo sent to the U.S. Equal Employment Commission by the International Commission on Dalit Rights, calling on the federal government to take steps to prohibit caste discrimination in American workplaces.
There are many Hindus who do not agree with us when we say caste is an inhuman and hierarchical system which has its origins in Hindu texts and beliefs and is very much alive today, both in South Asia and the diaspora. The work of Dalit rights organizations such as Ambedkar International Center, Ambedkar King Study Circle, Dalit Solidarity Forum and Equality Labs show us the very real ways that caste and caste discimination are rife in the United States.
Interestingly, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) also submitted an amicus brief in the same Cisco case; but on the opposing side, in defense of Cisco. Their position is that “Caste has no legal, social, or cultural definition in the United States, and is not an observable or objectively determinable trait or characteristic.”
For anyone in the South Asian American or Hindu American community who has been unconvinced of the malicious presence of caste and caste discrimination in our midst, we hope these allegations open your eyes. The claim that a Hindu organization in New Jersey has brought mostly-Dalit laborers from India to build their temple, has confiscated their passports, and is paying them $1 an hour proves beyond any doubt that caste exists, it is prevalent in the Hindu community, and it persists till today.
Organizations like HAF claim they are against the caste system. Indeed, leaders of BAPS, the temple at the center of this new scandal, also claim to be anti-caste. We each need to evaluate these claims for ourselves.
We in Hindus for Human Rights call on all Hindus to oppose not only the bigotry, violence, and Islamophobia of Hindu nationalism (Hindutva), but also the millennia-old atrocity that is caste.
Let us build our glorious heritage of reform and revolution, and continue the work of Narayana Guru, Kabir, Basavanna, Soyarabai, Kanakadasa, and so many other fiery voices from diverse Hindu traditions. Let us co-create together a way to live as Hindus, root ourselves in love of all humankind, and reject caste entirely.
Join us — it is not a moment too soon!
Sunita Viswanath is the cofounder of Hindus for Human Rights.