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Federal Agents Descend On Hindu Temple In Robbinsville After Lawsuit Alleges Human Trafficking, Forced Labor

ROBBINSVILLE, N.J. (CBS) -- A local palace of peace turned into the site of suffering, according to a new lawsuit filed against the largest Hindu temple in the country. FBI agents raided a Robbinsville, New Jersey, Hindu temple over allegations of forced labor. The lawsuit says hundreds of workers from India suffered torturous treatment.

Eyewitness News is told that there are still workers on the property Tuesday night, but that many did leave when offered by federal agents when they arrived this morning.

A "masterpiece of exquisite Indian design and workmanship" is how the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is described on its website.

Early Tuesday, federal agents entered those marble walls. They arrived in the wake of a civil lawsuit filed against the massive Hindu temple that alleges labor and immigration law violations.

"They were brought in as religious workers, but they were not religious workers and they certainly were not volunteers," Patricia Kakaleck, an attorney at Kakaleck Law, said.

Kakaleck represents six previous temple workers in a suit that involves at least 200 low-caste men allegedly lured from India to New Jersey.

"They had their passports taken and their visas confiscated," Kakaleck said.

Kakaleck says her clients worked long hours without days off between 2018 and 2020, performing hard manual labor and earned about $1.20 an hour. They lived in trailers on the property and were not permitted to leave.

"They were told that if they left that they could be subject to being picked up by the police," Kakaleck said.

Her firm describes this as one of the largest forced labor cases in decades and seeks back wages in accordance to New Jersey's minimum wage.

Eyewitness News received a statement from the communications firm working with BAPS Robbinsville: "We were first made aware of the accusations this morning. We are taking them very seriously and are thoroughly reviewing the issues raised."

Across the road is a worship center for the Sikh community. Sikander Ranu says his religion differs widely from the BAPS sect of Hinduism, including that Sikhism does not recognize the caste system, which he feels may have made these workers more vulnerable.

"We believe in one god and that all men are created equal," Ranu said.

While the temple appears complete, Eyewitness News is told that these workers were part of various ongoing construction projects.

The FBI would not confirm what action they took on the property.

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