Welcome to the World of Gurdwara Politics
By Jasveer Singh Gill
If you go into any Sikh temple – as anyone is free to do – then there are a few things that you will be certain to find. A free kitchen, serving food to one and all, 14 hours a day, seven days a week, including all public holidays. Serene music, promoting a mood of tranquillity for meditation. And apparently, corruption, allegation and scandal.
Claims of fraud, violence and enough court cases for a season of Judge Judy, all being used to try and claim one of the most powerful positions within the international Sikh community. This is a struggle for power fit for any of the latest TV dramas. This is the shockingly murky world of Gurdwara politics.
It seems not even in the name of God can an election be conducted without the accusations and indignities that seem to go hand-in-hand with modern day politics. From the White House to a West London Gurdwara (Sikh temple), wherever there is a chance to run a hugely influential organisation, the tarnishing tactics remain the same.
And let’s be clear, the Sikh temples in question (Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara has two sites in Southall; Park Avenue Gurdwara and Havelock Road Gurdwara) are both multi-million pound organisations and immensely authoritative establishments. These are venues visited by hundreds of people every day, even thousands on weekends and religious occasions, each of whom will make a monetary contribution when they visit. As well as this, Gurdwaras also benefit from government subsidies, comfy relationships with all the leading banks and contacts with lots of very important people.
A prominent Southall community figure, Baldeep Singh (not his real name) stated, “People in charge of Gurdwaras are always the target of criticism but people still fight for control because of the power that comes with the position. Banks will do personal favours to anyone getting a big organisation like a Gurdwara to bank with them. Being part of the committee also gives direct contact with high ranking politicians, police officials and powerful people within the Sikh community”.
Southall, known as the little-Punjab of Britain, is a hub of the worldwide Sikh community, familiar to Sikhs all across the world. The Havelock Road Gurdwara in the town is one of the biggest in the world outside of India and cost – depending on sources – anywhere from £9million to £17million to make. Although Southall has several other Sikh temples, as well as many more in neighbouring towns, the size of the two temples, as well as the history of the sites (both over 40 years old), make them arguably the most recognised Gurdwaras in Britain.
Those competing for control are willing to go to such extreme measures to attain control of these Gurdwaras that it took mediation from Cherie Blair, in her role as QC, to end court proceedings that threatened to destabilise the entire organisation.
Currently the Baaj (Falcon) Party are the committee in charge of both sites but are coming to the end of their three year term. The Baaj Party are headed by Himmat Singh Sohi former wrestler on the latter side of his 60s. The party is made up largely of a several families, including lots of burly men. Sohi was in charge of the Baaj Party even during the construction of the Havelock Road Gurdwara at the turn of the millennium, which is when the allegations reached a new level of indignity, thanks to the massive amounts of money floating about.
The allegations against the Baaj Party were and still are led by the Sher (Lion) Party, a group headed by local businessman Gurmail Singh Malhi, and made up of mainly older Sikhs, most of whom were once associated with the Baaj Party. Both parties are overwhelmingly made up of men, with women usually given token roles such as being in charge of the kitchen or taking up secretarial roles.
Control of the Gurdwaras has only bounced between the two groups, but not for the first time another party have made an attempt to break the hold the pair have. Tera Panth Vasse (For Your Path – in reference to what the Sikh Gurus taught), a mixed group made up mainly of Sikhs under 35 years old, are trying to appeal to Sikhs to go back to the roots of the religion and remove the politics completely, a tactic which is seemingly doomed to fail amongst the brash and outlandish political games being played by their rivals.
Tera Panth Vasse (TPV) have not just found gaining local support difficult either, with their Facebook page also claiming they have been victims of intimidation, threats and even vandalism. It is also stated that “we were threatened that anonymous letters would be written about the girls, dishonouring them with fake allegations, so that those girls would never even get married”. This led to the party only being able to offer up four candidates, as opposed to the required 21. TPV also claimed that Sangat TV, the self-claimed TV channel of the Sikh community, refused to let them participate in TV election debates. Due to the meagre standing of TPV, the battle largely remains between the Baaj and Sher parties, and neither is currently giving an inch in the mudslinging match.
Currently on the ropes, the Baaj Party are suffering the hangover effects of a major scandal last year which could have a major impact on whether or not they maintain power.
In his role as seva-dar (charity volunteer) with the Gurdwara, Southall resident Navpreet Singh allegedly saw Onkar Singh, the brother-in-law of Baaj head Sohi, take money from the Park Avenue collection box. If this was not bad enough, it is alleged that Navpreet was asked to keep quiet about the theft by members of the Baaj committee. When he did not do so, Navpreet was allegedly violently assaulted by four men outside his home, at approximately 5am, when he was on his way in to the Gurdwara for his regular shift, resulting in him needing hospital treatment. Navpreet, for his own safety, then went into hiding, and still has not returned to the either of the Southall Gurdwaras, although his family say he is safe.
Highly respected Surgeon and senior member of the Baaj Party, Dr Parvinder Singh Garcha was accused by many of trying to cover-up the incident. A man at the forefront of the party due to his eloquence, Garcha has continually denied the collection theft ever took place, and certainly has nothing to do with the assault on Navpreet.
The story of this allegation is being given out on leaflets by the Sher Party, given to many of the 30,000+ registered members of the Gurdwara, who are the only people allowed to vote in the up-coming election. In retaliation, in their own pamphlet, the Baaj Party note how OFCOM condemned Kismat Radio, a radio channel aimed at the senior British-Indian community, for airing these allegations. To their own discredit, Kismat Radio themselves did not ever publically mention their rebuke from OFCOM, nor apologise for airing the allegations. The party have not just gone on the defensive however, with the Baaj Party hitting back by outrageously claiming that Gurmail Singh Malhi has a secret criminal conviction, for hitting a child, over 20 years ago.
However, even these heinous accusations fall by the wayside when the claim of missing funds and misuse of the Sikh community’s money is discussed.
Most of the accusations centre around the construction of the Havelock Road Gurdwara. The Baaj Party have claimed millions have gone unaccounted for, from 2008-2011, whilst the Sher Party were the committee in power. The Baaj Party state the Gurdwara had a debt of £2.8million in 2008, accumulated from loans still outstanding from the construction of the Havelock Road site and more taken to build a Sikh Primary School.
The Baaj Party have produced documents to show that despite a £6.5million income during the Sher Party’s three year reign, the debt still somehow increased to £4.8million, even accounting for a £2.3million loan on the Gurdwara the Sher Party took out.
One reason the finances of the Gurdwara were not under serious scrutiny during this period may have been because the Sher Party were allegedly spending up to £500,000 to prevent Sohi running against them, attempting to have him declared unfit to be part of any Gurdwara committee, citing alleged evidence of misuse of the temple’s funds.
In the end, the attempted injunction was a costly failure. The Baaj Party have publicly shown letters proving that one group of solicitors were paid approximately £100,000 to look into their case against Sohi. Litigations only stopped after a 2010 sit down with Cherie Blair, which ended with Sohi being declared free to run for election.
As devious as the court cases against Sohi were, even shadier is the claim from the Baaj Party that Sher Party leader, Gurmail Singh Malhi, conspired to get the Gurdwara to pay thousands for windows that were of poor quality and improperly fitted, only for the company – G & B Windows – to go into liquidation, therefore dishonouring the warranty. A letter from the UK Border Agency sent to the Gurdwara during the Sher Party’s reign has also been showcased by the Baaj Party during their election campaign, highlighting many irregularities regarding the legitimacy of dozens of immigrants employed by the Gurdwara for maintenance duties.
The Sher Party have hit back by providing voters with alleged proof that the Baaj Party cut regular donations to Sikh charities from the Gurdwara without giving any reason. Showing just how deep the parties are willing to dig, the Sher group have even brought up an incident involving a Baaj member from over 25 years ago. Former Southall councillor and current member of the Baaj Party, Gurcharan Singh, punched another councillor to the floor, an incident which made the local newspapers in 1988.
More recent though, is a 2013 incident that actually resulted in Sikh parishioners of Southall staging a sit-in protest against the Baaj Party.
In February of last year, worshippers were shocked to find that a large painting, depicting the moments before the martyrdom of the children of Guru Gobind Singh Ji, the Sikh’s 10th Guru, had been removed. The local Sikh congregation claimed that no one was informed why the painting had been removed. When questioning the Baaj Party members brought no answers about why this was done, an overnight sit-in protest was held until the painting was brought back. Now, the Sher Party claim the picture, thought to be very valuable, was going to be secretly auctioned off, and only the actions of the community stopped the Baaj Party from doing so.
The mudslinging between Sher and Baaj has been on-going for over a decade, and both Parties have been left terribly stained. However, it is not just in Southall that Gurdwara politics has reached such contemptuous levels. In 2007, Birmingham police Chief Superintendent Andrew Jenkins openly linked the stabbing of a 44 year old Sikh man to the Smethwick Gurdwara election. Even in the Sikh’s holiest shrine of Harmandir Sahib (the Golden Temple), just three months ago a sword fight broke out between rival factions, with images of the incident going viral.
The reason these Gurdwara elections are fought for so venomously is clear and actually make many of the allegations all the more believable. Sikhs have largely been some of the most prosperous immigrants to have settled in Britain. Thus, being a figurehead for any part of the Sikh community can be a very powerful role.
Regardless of the politics, temple’s such as those in Southall still offer much to the community, from keep-fit classes for the elderly to free education for the youth. However, the shadow of all the scandals and allegations loom large over much of what the Gurdwaras do.
Baldeep added, “The youth have no voice. TPV have been trying to do something positive but have had doors shut on them everywhere. Although lots of people don’t want neither the Baaj or the Sher Party to run their Gurdwaras, they do not know how to get them out, so feel they have no other choice.”
Although nefariousness goes hand-in-hand with politics, it does not go hand-in-hand with the Sikh religion, leading to a conclusion many share, echoed by Baldeep.
“Our Gurus did not believe in election, they believed in selection. It is time for the elders to step down. Every election seems to get worse and it is turning people off being involved with the Gurdwara. Politics and Sikhi should not be mixed.”