American Turban

Gurdwara conflicts: When Sikhs live down to the stereotype

The internet is abuzz today with the reports and video of the violence at the Baba Makhan Shah Lubana Sikh Center, a Gurdwara in Queens, New York.

The reports of this incident paint a disgusting picture.  When Sikhs are dealing with an ignorant public (and I mean “ignorant” in its literal definition and not in a condescending way), these all-too-common conflicts only reinforce the stereotypes that are promoted in the media.  However, while there are those who legitimately object to how the violence at the Gurdwara in Queens has been reported, this is a secondary issue.

The violent outbursts  in our houses of worship are not unprecedented.  Such thuggery has occurred with unsettling frequency in Gurdwaras across the United States and around the world, and is a reason why people turn away from Gurdwaras.   We cannot pretend that these are isolated incidents. Situations such as what happened in Queens is an outright failure of those who are entrusted to manage our institutions to live up to the trust placed in them by the Sikh community.  But, this failure is almost as old as the religion itself.

Facsimile of Guru Gobind Singh’s Hukamnamah dated July 24, 1698 seeking 100 tolahs of gold (Hukamname, Ganda Singh Ed. Patiala: Punjabi University, p. 150) [sikhspectrum.com]

Be they in India, or outside the country, Gurdwaras – the social, religious and cultural centers of the Sikh community – are often scenes of conflict over who controls management.  There is a lot on the line.  Financial donations that come through the Gurdwara – for the Gurdwara – from worshippers are substantial, and those who sit on Gurdwara management committees many times see themselves as leaders of the community.  Many of the conflicts over control of the Gurdwaras have turned violent.

The fourth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Ram Das (1534-1581), instituted the tradition of the masands, who acted as deputies on behalf of the Guru across the Punjab to collect donations and manage the affairs of the fledgeling community.  However, by the time of the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), the masands had become corrupt and self-serving.  Towards the end of the 17th century, Guru Gobind Singh issued a Hukamnama that instructed the Sikhs to no longer trust the masands  and that their tradition be abolished.  One such proclamation that he issued in November of 1700 was as follows:

(The Gurus sign)
(As dictated to the scribe)

In the Name of One God, the True Guru –
This is the Guru’s order. The Guru will protect the entire congregation of Patan Frid. Let the sangat meditate on the Guru and its life will be blessed.
The whole sangat is my Khalsa. Whatever is collected for the Guru is not to be given to any masand.

Whichever Sikh comes to the Guru, let him bring it himself. Whoever cannot come, let him keep it. Then when the Guru’s written order comes let him execute a bankers draft and send it. This is my wish, that the one tola of gold requested by bank draft by the congregation. It is my wish that whoever fulfils this request shall prosper. Line 9

Let the entire sangat put on weapons and come together for the Holi festival. They will rejoice. Line 11
Do not give the offerings for the Guru to anyone. When you come then bring them yourselves to the Guru; but the Guru’s Sikhs must not associate with any masand, man or woman. Whoever obeys this order will have his hearts desires fulfilled. This is my wish. Line 14

It is clear that the Guru lost faith in the masands and wanted his followers to take responsibility of their donations in their own hands.  Fast-forward to the present day, when the current president, Gurmej Singh, of the Queens Gurdwara, was quoted as saying:

New temple President Gurmej Singh said he and his supporters had come to pray despite knowing there could be trouble…

“Something is behind this,” said Gurmej Singh, who accused the old regime of financial mismanagement. “It’s money.”

There are failures on both sides of this conflict that led to the violation of the sacred place of the Gurdwara.

It is clear that we, as Sikhs, continue to let history repeat itself and hope the solution will come from another’s hands. Those who violate the Sikh community’s trust in managing our places of worship, or violating the sanctity therein, must be condemned and ostracized.  Their actions are an attack on Sikhism itself. Why do they happen, and how do we prevent them?

We, ourselves, are the problem.  We, too, must be the solution.

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