Gurpreet Singh: Community split on resolution banning nonbaptized Sikhs from running Guru Nanak temple

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.

Comments (12) Add New Comment
Mr. Singh
your obvious bias comes shining through when you talk about 'fighting' fundamentalism, etc.. You don't know what you are writing about. It isn't fundamentalism to be a baptized Sikh who actually practices the faith. You seem to think that actually being a practicing Sikh is equal to being a fundamentalist.

Sikh Gurdwaras are not like community centres in the GVRD. They are a place of religious worship for Sikhs and people interested in Sikhism. Baptized Sikhs are people who practice the religion and it makes common sense to have people who actually practice the religion in executive positions. I'm not baptized and I support that position as well.

You also seem to think that to be a conservative is to actually practice the religion. Why is that? Somehow 'liberalism' is better in your view?

Sikhs don't bar anyone from coming to the temple for upliftment - spiritual (religious discourse), emotional (group therapy, group events) and physical (exercise, sports), which is why Gurdwaras have been a focal point for Sikhs and non-Sikhs.

Don't put on the veneer of being even handed when it is quite obvious you have an emotional if not other type of vested stake in seeing Gurdwaras run by people who don't even believe in the religion.

Mr. Singh
Rating: +4
Sunny Gill
Sad commentary.... the author's bias clearly shows through towards the end of the article. How is setting a good example of a proper sikh a bad thing? In the sikh religion there is an important principle of doing before teaching. How can a person teach another to be a proper Sikh if they themselves don't follow the teachings? The current committee has embarked upon massive service programs while the previous committee did nothing for over a decade.

By referring to their position as fundamentalism, you have failed to address their position and have instead resorted to emotionally charged words to dismiss it. It's almost as bad as calling someone crazy.

"Their crazy! ignore them" is not too different from "Their fundamentalists! so their wrong!" It's a dismissive, bias, and agenda driven comment.
Rating: +4
no religion
a majority put jesus to the cross
a majority provoked mohamed to raise his sword in defence
is a majority always correct?
why can't the majority become bapatised moderates?
Rating: +1
So I guess in Gurpreet Singh's mind, no Amritdhari (initiatied Sikh) can ever be moderate and no moderate can ever be an Amritdhari. I better go explain that to my Amritdhari family that has progressive moderate views on society but believes in the fundamentals of their faith.

The ceremony for Sikhs to become Amritdhari is often call their initiation into the school of Sikhism (in which committed students are the Khalsa). If the gurdwaras are the schools in which this learning took place, shouldn't the organizers also have been initiated into the school? Shouldn't medical schools be run by doctors? I don't know how many law schools are run by non-lawyers.

Finally, if an individual can't be bothered to formally be initiatied into the faith, I have quite a few reservatiosn about their intentions in running religious organizations.
Rating: +2
Did the faith come first or the panth of the pure,
Of my conscious and my body which will endure,
Am I less holy and the initiated more ,
Is truth greater or are conventions core,
If baptised sikhs are priests commended,
Will the fellowship of the whole be ended?
Rating: +4
Holy Bias!
Gurpreet's article misses the mark and, not surprisingly, is a vehicle for his own slanted bias.

The Surrey Sikh Temple is, surprise surprise, a religious institution. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Temple requiring its members to be initiated in the Sikh faith.

Catholic Churches are run by - oh the horror - baptized Catholics.

Eastern Orthodox Churches are run by members baptized as Eastern Orthodox Christians - quick, someone call the Human Rights Tribunal!

That a Sikh Temple requires its members to be initiated as Sikhs and wishes to ensure its elected members prescribe to the tenets of the faith, is common-sense.

Rating: +7
What I don't understand is why people like Gurpreet keep saying this was a controversial motion that is splitting the community?!?

Of the over 3,000 people that attended the annual general meeting, only 50 or so people voted against the motion. If the issue was such a hot topic then many more people would have came out against the motion. The issue you should be talking about is how Balwant Gill the former president is now going to court over this, wasting the community's money, over what was a very clear decision by the temple membership.

This is another example of the media trying to make an issue out of nothing for their own gain.
Rating: +4
Sunny Gill
Actually Sokhi, the amrit sanchar has existed since the time of Guru Nanak. As the light of the Gurus remained the same while the form changed as Guruship passed from one to another; similarly, the form of the Amrit sanchar changed, but the Amrit was still there same as during Guru Nanak's day.
Rating: +1
Holy Bias!
Spot on Sukh. This was not a controversial issue. I was present at the AGM at the temple and it was packed! All of the resolutions easily passed with 90+% approval. Clearly, this is something the community wanted.

But hey, sometimes journalists have to make stories out of nothing - times are tough, and everyone needs to make a buck, right?
Rating: +3
Holy Bias x2
"Holy bias" is right! I was relieved to read majority of comments were similar to what I was thinking.
Speaking of the 'majority', the majority of people are uninformed and unwilling to learn or understand. No, baptist Sikhs are NOT fundamentalists (as you alluded to). Yes, Sikhi denounces discrimination but it also demands that we uphold and represent the pillars of our religion. And I do not believe that me, you or the moderates uphold the basic principle of Amrit!
Why OH why are Sikhs the only ones divided on such things as who is well equipped to be on the executive board of a Gurdwara?? How does it NOT make sense to have those that FOLLOW the religion, make decisions about the religion's place of worship?? It's like saying you don't have to be a doctor in order to be on the Board of Directors for Physicians. Come on.

Do you see un-orthodox Christians running the Church? Muslims debating on if an Imam should run the mosque?

I am not a baptised Sikh, from appearances I am far from it, but I am self aware enough to realize that I am not willing to give up my consumerism lifestyle and image-conscious behaviours to follow the path of Sikhi just yet. However, I greatly respect those that do it. One day when I may want to follow this path further (I say further because I believe we are all on this path , some more ahead than others) how can I seek guidance from my Gurdwara if those that run it represent the 'vast majority' of image-conscious, consumerism people?!

Also, I don't appreciate that you alluded that baptised Sikhs are essentially fundamentalists. The Air India bombings are a sad story in Canadian history but everyone needs to STOP painting baptised Sikhs with the same brush as those tried in that case. It's the same stupidity that causes the world to fear and hate orthodox muslims.

I think what it comes down to is that bapised Sikhs remind us all of what we are not strong enough to do or be. 'Moderates' feel judged. But no one is judging you, the conservatives are not judging you, it is your own insecurities!
Rating: -6
Who is this "Gurpreet Singh"? I dought he is even Sikh. These are the people who uses power of writing to create division within the community. Its a simple fact that "driver should drive the car because he has the license for it". I am not even sure who hired this idiot for writing; rather than commenting on his writing people should approach his superior to get rid of him.
Rating: 0
This is funny. I read this article on the day it was posted but didn't have a constructive feedback. Still don't... but the majority of the comment are exactly what I wanted to say. Gurpeet man, don't devide us Sikhs into yet smaller groups!
Rating: 0
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