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BAPS temple in New Jersey: How caste determines the value of skilled work

A prototype of temple design
A prototype of temple design made by Sompura Brahmins and executed by Dalit and Adivasi stone carvers (Courtesy: @TempleCarvers)

The Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS), a Hindu sect known for its network of Akshardham temples, was slapped with a class action suit in the United States in May 2021. This suit brought to light violations of workers’ basic rights at the site of BAPS’s temple construction project in Robbinsville, New Jersey.

As per the details in the class action complaint, workers from India travelled to the US on the temporary R-1 or Religious Worker visas. They were presented to the US government as religious volunteers. However, they were made to perform manual labour for long hours and had to also face surveillance, underpayment of wages, trafficking with respect to forced labour, psychological coercion and illegal deductions from wages upon minor infractions. These wrongdoings by the BAPS have been challenged under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) and Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of the US. 

The workers performed tedious tasks for 87 hours per week at $1.20 per hour or $450 per month, and were paid a wage well below the federal as well as state minimum wage. The workers, most of whom are Dalits and Adivasis, were instructed to tell embassy officials that they would be performing decorative painting or carving work (nikashi) that would be unpaid, voluntary and ‘in service to the deities’. This was an attempt at evading employment status and thereby, flouting wage norms under the purview of the FLSA and the New Jersey Wage and Hour and Wage Payment laws. The document states that the “vast majority if not all of the nikashi work for the temple was in fact performed in India, and the stones were shipped to New Jersey already carved.” 

The workers did not engage in temple construction for religious reasons but in order to earn wages. They cut stones, laid them, removed garbage, did road work, dipped stones in chemicals, and performed a number of other tasks on the site in 12.5-hour shift. Workers were only paid $50 in cash per month and the rest of their salary was deposited in bank accounts in India so that they did not have immediate access to it and, in extension, any means to escape from forced labour. They were heavily penalised for minor infractions such as being observed without having a helmet on. One worker had to bear a 26% cut from his salary for not wearing one. 

The exploitation of workers both in India and abroad was highlighted in a statement drafted by the Pathar Gadhai Mazdoor Suraksha Sangh (PGMSS) along with the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers (BAC). The statement called attention to the joint exploitation of workers both based in India and abroad as the former are involved in carving the stone while the latter assemble the pieces in temples in the US and other countries. 

The PGMSS is a labour union of 3,000 Dalit and Adivasi workers that has been at the forefront of the fight for basic worker protections in India’s global temple building industry. The union is based in Pindwara, Rajasthan—India’s foremost hub of stone carving for temples—and represents the stone carvers of the region. The BAC has been fighting for the rights of masonry workers in North America, ensuring fair wages and proper implementation of safety standards, including federal safety regulations to counter the dangers of silica exposure on construction sites. 

The PGMSS has been working since 2016 to ensure that Dalit and Adivasi masonry workers and stone carvers are given protection from wage theft, lack of workplace safety and systemic marginalisation both in India and abroad. It has been fighting against the silicosis epidemic that disproportionately harms poor, marginalised workers who are being forced by BAPS to adopt faster but unsafe production processes to expand their network of Akshardham temples in the US. 

As skilled artisans, PGMSS workers demand that the glaring disparity in their socio-economic conditions be taken note of. In a video uploaded to their Twitter handle, PGMSS leader and longtime worker at the BAPS, New Jersey temple site, Prakash Ji questioned why the worker kept falling to the ground while the master continued making profits in the temple construction business. 

As per the PGMSS–BAC joint statement, “the BAPS’ supply chain is mired in high levels of death and disease of stone carvers.” The death of fellow worker and stone carver, Mohanlal, on the New Jersey jobsite is proof of the same. 

Aajeevika Bureau, an organisation that works on the issues of migration and labour in western India, explained in its blog the Brahminical nature of the temple building industry, which is sustained by exploitative caste-based contractual relations. While Dalit and Adivasi workers, mostly deemed as ‘unskilled labour,’ actually carve out the stone and build grand temples using ancient techniques, Sompura Brahmins retain their ritual power over the ‘skilled’ nature of temple architecture and design work. 

Historically, the Sompura Brahmins were temple architects who would carve out stones using a hammer and chisel. This continued until the temple building industry became heavily mechanised in the last few decades and they switched to designing temples. 

The intense work of carving out stones or even assembling them is no longer considered ‘skilled’, now that the divine touch of the Sompura is not directly involved. Instead, the Sompura has become a powerful intermediary who acts as an adviser to the process and is involved in designing the temple. Sompuras charge a 5-10% cut from religious trusts and factory owners. Their ritual authority is maintained till date and no one, not even the factory owners, can carry out a construction project without their involvement.

The Ram Mandir in Ayodhya is being designed by an influential family of Sompuras which has self-admittedly been involved in this line of work for 600 years. This Gujarat-based Sompura family has been closely associated with the Birlas for whom they have been doing temple construction work for generations. The Birlas, in fact, got them involved with the far-right Vishva Hindu Parishad that has been at the forefront of the temple construction project in Ayodhya. Chandrakant Sompura, the patriarch of the influential Sompura family, has been at the head of multiple temple construction projects such as the Gujarat Somnath temple that he designed with his great-grandfather. Both of Chandrakant’s sons are now involved in the same line of work and attend meetings with trusts such as the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Theertha Kshetra Trust that oversees the construction project in Ayodhya. 

Sompuras have far-reaching connections with people in power and hold a monopoly over temple construction. Although the nikashi is performed entirely by Dalit and Adivasi workers back home in India, it draws distinctive benefits for the Sompuras. While one party is conveniently subjected to a volunteer status, the other not only takes full credit for work that they claim has been in their families for hundreds of years but also monetises their ritual ‘purity’ over a job they no longer even perform. 

As reported by PGMSS members, the New Jersey case is just a tip of the iceberg. Thousands of Dalit and Adivasi stone carvers from Rajasthan have worked at the US and other BAPS temples across the world in exactly the same conditions as the New Jersey workers.

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