BY- BHAVNA CHAUHAN
The Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha went to court to hold ‘non-Satsang’ Dalits out of their places of worship after India passed laws banning temples from refusing Dalits entry.
The organization that is being sued in the United States for breaching labor laws by underpaying staff – many of whom are Dalits – who were working on the construction of a temple in New Jersey was also involved in a contentious court case in India seven decades earlier, in which an injunction was sought to prohibit non-Satsangi Dalits from entering the Swaminarayan temple in Ahmedabad.
The New York Times announced on Tuesday that the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS), which runs the Swaminarayan temple in New Jersey, has been accused of importing a large number of stonecutters and other construction workers from India by falsely classifying them as religious workers and volunteers and then forcing them to work for a tenth of the minimum wage.
Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation paid a visit to the vast temple grounds in rural Robbinsville, where major expansion work is currently underway. The team arrived at the complex after over 200 Indian construction workers filed a lawsuit in the US District Court in Newark accusing the temple of “shocking violations of the most fundamental laws applicable to workers in this region, including laws prohibiting forced labor.” According to the lawsuit, many of these employees are Dalits.
On January 12, 1948, followers of the Swaminarayan sect, which was then headed by Shastriji Maharaj – the founder of BAPS – filed a civil suit in Ahmedabad seeking an injunction against Muldas Bhudardas Vaishya who was the president of the Maha Gujarat Dalit Sangh for preventing him from entering the temple.
Vaishya had intended to assert the rights of non-Satsangi Harijans (as Dalits were known at the time) to join Swaminarayan temples, which had recently been legislated with the passage of the Bombay Harijan Temple Entry Act, 1947. Every temple subject to the Act was required to be open to Dalits for worship in the same way and to the same extent as other Hindus.
The Swaminarayan sect said that Ahmedabad’s Sree Nar Narayan Dev temple and all its subordinate temples are “not temples within the scope of the Act.” They said that the Swaminarayan sect is a “distinct and independent religious sect unrelated to Hindus and Hindu faith,” and that as a result, their temples are exempt from the Act.
In September 1951, the trial court granted the declaration and injunction, concluding that it had not been established that the temples were used as places of religious worship by non-Satsangi Hindus by tradition, use, or otherwise, and thus did not fall within the scope of the word “temple” as specified by the Act.
The state of Bombay and Vaishya, as the original defendant number one, lodged an appeal with the Bombay high court. The high court overturned the trial court’s decision in 1958, affirming that citizens of all castes, including Dalits, have the right to join these temples. The Bombay Harijan Temple Entry Act, 1947 was repealed and replaced by the Bombay Hindu Places of Public Worship (Entry Authorisation) Act, 1956 by the time of the high court decision.
In the case, two main points were raised on behalf of the Swaminarayan, they were:
1. That the Swaminarayan Sampraday was a distinct religion from Hinduism.
2. Even on assuming that the followers of the Sampraday were Hindus by religion & the suit temples were also the Hindu religious institutions, within the meaning of the Bombay Hindu Places of Public Worship (Entry Authorisation) Act, 1956, still, that Act would be ultra vires Article 25(1) of the Indian constitution of India. Therefore, BAPS would be entitled to the reliefs that were claimed by them.
The appeal was granted, and the Swaminarayan group’s lawsuit was dismissed with costs, with the high court stating, “This oral evidence does not, in our view, determine that Swaminarayan Sampradaya is a distinct religion from Hinduism.”
According to the court, the teachings of Shikshapatri, the sect’s religious text, are based on the Hindu religion. “Shri Krishna is listed as the Sampradaya’s Ishta Dev (tutelary deity), and other Hindu Gods such as Vishnu, Shiva, Ganapati, Parvati, and Surya are mentioned as being worthy of worship in Shikshapatri. The four Hindu castes, namely Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras are recognized, according to the court.
“The main temple of Nar Narayan at Ahmedabad contains below the dome Hindu idols,” the court noted during the course of the litigation.
Importantly, the evidence presented to the high court showed that Hindu non-Satsangis have “freely visited and worshipped idols in this temple without any let or hindrance whatsoever,” with the exception of Dalits.
The court noted that the sect had placed a strong emphasis on the fact that people of other faiths, such as Muslims and Parsis, had been initiated as Satsangis and admitted to the Swaminarayan fold. “It is claimed that a Sampradaya accepting citizens of other faiths cannot be considered the Hindu faith,” the court said.
The judges, on the other hand, pointed out that this argument ignores the fact that people of other religions who have been initiated as Satsangis “have admittedly not ceased to belong to their own faith.”
“If that is the case, then it cannot be argued that the vast majority of Hindus who have joined the Swaminarayan Sampradaya have abandoned Hindu religion on their own,” they concluded.
The court giving permission to all the people to enter in temple, said that-
Under Section 3 of this Act notwithstanding any custom, usage, or law for the time being in force, temples would be open to generally to all Hindus including Harijans, and no Hindu, regardless of caste or class, can be prohibited, obstructed, or discouraged from entering these places of public worship, worshipping, or offering prayers there.”