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Gurpreet Singh: Community Split On Resolution Banning Nonbaptized Sikhs From Running Guru Nanak Temple


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By Gurpreet Singh, July 12, 2011

A resolution to bar nonbaptized members from top executive positions at Surrey’s Guru Nanak Sikh temple has once again divided the local Sikh community.

Passed by a show of hands by conservative Sikhs—who outnumbered moderates at a stormy temple meeting last month—the controversial resolution is likely to be challenged in the courts and at the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal. In fact, a group of moderates consulted a Vancouver lawyer this week, while some others have resolved to approach the tribunal with a complaint alleging discrimination.

Once implemented, the resolution will not allow the top 10 executive positions to go to nonbaptized Sikhs. This has enraged moderates who for years not only managed and controlled the temple, but who had in fact established it in early 1980s. After divisions arose, they were ousted by the conservative Sikh Youth slate in the 2009 temple election.

When Sikh militancy was at its peak in the 1980s, the temple was in the hands of fundamentalist supporters of a Sikh homeland, but came back to the moderates around mid 1990s. During this time, there were fights in the temple over an edict issued by clergy in India asking Sikhs not to use tables and chairs inside the temple's community meal room.

Instead, clergy wanted them to eat sitting cross-legged on the floor in accordance with the age-old tradition practised in Indian Sikh temples.

The more recently elected conservative body replaced tables and chairs inside the community meal hall with rugs. The president, Bikramjit Singh, is a baptized Sikh, whereas the previous moderate president of the temple, Balwant Singh Gill, was not and does not sport long hair and a beard.

In addition to the long hair and beard, a baptized Sikh must wear other articles of the faith, including the Kirpan (a sword).

Since those who established the Guru Nanak Sikh temple are not baptized, they are particularly bitter at the decision of the current management. Their argument is that as the majority of the congregation of the temple is not baptized, why must it be mandatory to have baptized Sikhs in the top 10 executive positions. They find the resolution highly discriminatory. After all, not all practising Sikhs are baptized.

Baptized Sikhs have to take a religious oath in which they are not supposed to cut their hair and must wear all articles of faith. In addition, they strictly follow a code of conduct that bars taking intoxicants, practising the caste system, and indulging in superstitions denounced by the tenets of the Sikh faith. But every Sikh who sports long hair is not necessarily baptized.

Moderates therefore feel that only a small minority within the Sikh community is baptized—and in a democratic society, those representing the majority cannot be slighted.

However, the conservative temple management does not agree that the resolution is discriminatory or aimed at dividing the community. According to them, temple officials have to become good role models to challenge apostasy among the youth.

Whatever the logic behind this move, it has once again brought Sikhs to a crossroads. Community leaders should hold a dialogue to resolve differences instead of fighting among themselves or wasting resources in court battles. They should learn to live with differences of opinion and work in harmony on common issues and challenges, such as racism or anti-immigration policies.

Neither a baptized nor a nonbaptized temple leadership alone can set a good example. Baptism alone cannot ensure good conduct. Like a true devout Sikh, even a nonbaptized practising Sikh can set a good example by following secular and liberal teachings of the Sikh religion that denounce casteism and discrimination.

Nobody should have a problem with baptized priests or preachers, but elected officials of temples which are like community centres in the Lower Mainland, can still be run by the people who are not baptized. For years, Sikh temples in the Vancouver area operated in a liberal environment.

Meanwhile, moderates should realize that the conservative Sikh Youth slate enjoys the mandate of the congregation. After all, they were elected to run the temple and people who voted them must have been familiar with their ideological stand on religious matters.

In a democracy, those in the majority can create new regulations. Moderates must also acknowledge that this state of affairs has been brought upon by themselves. Their arrogance and egos resulted in the divisions that helped the conservatives get elected.

Moderates who are still divided will possibly lose a different election at the Vancouver's Ross Street Sikh Temple if they do not bury their differences and fight against fundamentalism.

It's important to note that the big fight against religious extremism should not just remain confined to control over temples. Moderates should try to find secular allies in the wider community to isolate forces opposed to peace and unity outside the temple boundaries. Unless fundamentalism is defeated socially and politically, no institution can be immune to religious conservatism.

Gurpreet Singh is a Georgia Straight contributor, and the host of a program on Radio India. He's working on a book tentatively titled Canada's 9/11: Lessons from the Air India Bombings.


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