Perched high in the hills of San Jose stands the country's largest Sikh temple — its rippling water fountain and onion-shaped roof are poignant symbols of the spiritual heart of a vibrant immigrant community.
Now, the temple will become even bigger. Crews are building a 17,000-square-foot prayer hall, 12 classrooms, living quarters for temple priests and among the largest vegetarian kitchens in California. But behind the growing facade is an escalating controversy that has split the Sikh community and focused intense scrutiny on a one-time San Jose planning commissioner and twice-defeated City Council candidate who has staked his reputation on the controversial $18 million project.
Strolling through the sprawling compound on a recent morning, Bhupindar "Bob" Dhillon, remains undaunted.
"For Sikhs, this is the place where everything happens," said Dhillon, 67, the most powerful lay leader at the temple. "People take pride in building a nice temple. It shows how strong the community is.''
But as the new temple is being built, Dhillon and his camp are fending off claims of sloppy workmanship, financial secrecy, political back-stabbing, assault and suppression of speech. One temple elder accused a Dhillon ally of yanking his beard — a taboo in Sikh culture where hair is considered sacred — when he made an inquiry about temple donations. The battle at Sikh Gurdwara-San Jose has grown beyond typical church infighting— it's now a full-fledged battle over power and money.
At the center of it all is Dhillon, whom critics say saves his soft-spoken manner for guests but is quick to anger when questioned.
"He's intimidating and insulting," said Harbans Singh, 67, a temple member and pharmacology instructor. "I've been writing checks to the temple, and all of a sudden I realized that my money would be wasted. "... It's awful to have these dirty politics in a religious place."Reference:: Sikh Philosophy Network http://www.sikhphilosophy.net/sikh-news/25780-controversy-surrounds-countrys-largest-sikh-temple.html
Dhillon agrees about the dirty politics — only in this scenario, he's the victim.
"The people who were elected out want back in," he said of the temple board. "They're trying to create an impression on what a bad guy I am. They are either lying or nitpicking and blowing things out of proportion. I've always offered that if anyone else wants this responsibility, that I'll back down. No one wanted it."
A real estate investor who came to the United States in 1960 from Rajastan, India, Dhillon grew up on a cotton farm, the son of an attorney. He cites his experience as a former Realtor and homebuilder, coupled with degrees in industrial and business administration from San Jose State and Santa Clara universities, as ample credentials.
Despite his vocal detractors, Dhillon has a close circle of supporters, too. Pritam Singh Grewal, the temple "stage secretary" and a liquor store owner, is one of them.
A lack of trust
"He's a hardworking person," Grewal said. "And very honest. This temple is happening due to Bob."
But critics say they don't trust Dhillon's leadership on the new temple. And they point to what happened when he helped guide the first phase of construction on the Murillo Avenue temple, which opened in 2004. That project was supposed to cost $6 million, and ended up costing more than $10 million.
Hoping to prevent similar problems, six temple members hired Fremont attorney Mark Cohen to try to persuade Dhillon to turn over checks so the congregation can see exactly what subcontractors are being paid. Millions of dollars still need to be raised from the congregation to pay off the new construction.
Dhillon stands by his accountability: He said he's posted annual financial statements on the temple Web site and opposes calls for an independent audit because he argues that would cost extra money. He claims to have brought the temple's original price tag down from $40 million because of his connections.
As the camps bicker over motives and money, a few facts are clear. Sloppy Workmanship
The workmanship on the temple so far is sloppy. As two examples, metal studs were installed upside down and joists holding concrete floor slabs have been placed askew. Last month, crews were forced to yank out plumbing because they had laid the pipes down where a wall was supposed to go — something that wouldn't have happened with "highly trained journeymen," said San Jose building inspector supervisor Greg Rindfleisch. "They are not getting the type of work you'd get at Valley Fair or Santana Row. They're paying a primo price but getting pretty shoddy workmanship."
Rindfleisch was quick to add, however, that the city will ensure the building is safe.
"The work might not be pretty," he said, "but the building won't fall down."
Dhillon remains optimistic that the construction can be completed in six months.
His former project manager strongly disagrees.
"I told Bob, 'You have a train wreck on your hands,' " said Chris Rael Sr. of Bay Area Construction Management.
Dhillon fired Rael, 48, and his son, Chris Rael Jr., 25, on June 16 — just hours after the Raels spoke to the Mercury News about what they allege is Dhillon's mismanagement of the project and his unwillingness to hire skilled workers. It's also the day a portion of the site failed a city inspection. Dhillon said he didn't know the Raels had spoken with the Mercury News and fired them for "poor performance."Reference:: Sikh Philosophy Network http://www.sikhphilosophy.net/showthread.php?t=25780
The following day, Dhillon appointed a 25-year-old San Jose State University construction management student as the new volunteer project manager. He called the student a "sharp guy," although he has no experience.
"All I need," Dhillon said, "is for someone to listen to me and do what I say."