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A New Guard Takes Over In The B.C. Sikh Community

Discussion in 'Hard Talk' started by Archived_Member16, Nov 21, 2009.

  1. Archived_Member16

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    Jan 7, 2005
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    A new guard takes over in the B.C. Sikh community

    November 21, 2009, National Post

    [Image: Bikramjit Singh Sandhar, centre, is president of the Youth Slate, the new management of Surrey’s Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, the second-largest Sikh temple in North America. The slate has vowed to introduce English into temple programs in an effort to attract young people who don’t speak Punjabi. Bill Keay/Canwest News Service]

    By Kenyon Wallace

    The lineup of thousands holding umbrellas and multi-coloured scarves to shelter themselves from the cold rain outside the Princess Margaret School in Surrey, B.C., last Sunday marked a conspicuous beginning of what some are calling a new era for Sikhs in the province.

    It was there that more than 21,000 members of the city’s Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, the second-largest Sikh temple in North America, waited patiently under heavy police presence to cast their ballots in the election for the temple’s management.

    In 1997, a ****** clash erupted at the temple between traditionalists and “moderates” over whether members should be allowed to sit in chairs or forced to sit on the ground during temple meals. Police in riot gear had to be called in to break up the fighting crowds. The spectre of violence this time around brought police out once again, but the election ended peacefully.
    By early Monday morning, the results were indisputable: The Youth Slate, running on a promise of a return to traditional customs, had decisively beaten the moderate slate of long-time community leaders by a margin of nearly 2-1. The Youth Slate garnered 13,458 votes, while the incumbents received 7,257.

    The victory is the result of a growing number of Sikh youth in B.C. -- with few living roots in Punjab, India -- taking an active interest in their religion, a trend that observers say could change the face and perception of Sikhism in this country.

    “The Sikh Youth Slate at the Surrey gurdwara are second- or third-generation Sikhs, and they, unlike the large majority of Sikh youth in Canada, are traditionalists in that they support and uphold the outward tenets and identity of Sikhism,” said Doris Jakobsh, a professor of religious studies at the University of Waterloo who has written extensively on Sikhism in Canada. “These developments are being watched closely by other Sikh groups across Canada and the U.S. While most gurdwaras will not follow suit immediately, in many ways, the ‘old guard’ has received a wake-up call.”

    Indeed, the savvy way in which the Youth Slate -- comprising 18 members mostly in their thirties, including three women -- were able to mobilize the community using Internet chat rooms, Facebook, and Twitter -- similar to the way mainstream political campaigns are run -- seemed to catch the temple’s current management and its moderate slate, led by businessman Harjinder Singh Cheema, off guard.

    The outgoing president of the temple, Balwant Singh Gill, seemed at a loss for words over the moderates’ resounding loss to a group whose candidates are an average of 20 years younger. “It’s a little bit disappointing but it’s the members’ decision,” said Mr. Gill, who has been temple president for 11 years. “We will see when they go into power what they change. They have so many things in their manifesto, we will see.”

    Sunday’s decision isn’t the first time the temple’s older leadership has been challenged by youth. Last year a conservative group led by Amardeep Singh beat out Mr. Gill’s moderates by nearly 6,000 votes, but the B.C. Supreme Court declared the results void because nomination forms were improperly filled out.

    This year’s Youth Slate, led by local insurance broker Bikramjit Singh Sandhar, 43, ran on a platform that on one level signifies a return to more traditional Sikh customs, such as removing tables and chairs during temple meals, and on another puts forward distinctly progressive ideas, such as creating services in the community for seniors and for women who suffer domestic abuse. The slate has also vowed to introduce English into temple programs in an effort to attract young people who don’t speak Punjabi.

    Guru Nanak Temple member Ranjeet Singh Khalsa, 55, says he voted for the Youth Slate because of its willingness to reach out to disillusioned Sikhs and create community programs to combat drugs and gangs.

    “They will do whatever the community needs to bring the youngsters. They understand their language and know how to modernize the system of preaching,” said Mr. Khalsa, who has a daughter in Grade 4 and a son in Grade 11.

    “We are seeing more and more youth who, if they don’t find what they need in the temple, will go elsewhere and become disillusioned with their religion,” said Youth Slate vice-president Sukhninder Singh Sangha, 34. “The policies that we want to implement are more garnished towards youth being brought up in Canada.”

    Mr. Sangha, a project manager for a software company and father of a three-year-old girl, notes that the Youth Slate’s outreach programs are not limited to the Sikh community in Surrey.

    “Not many people realize that Sikhs have been in Canada for over 100 years. We want to educate the broader population about simple things like why we wear different kinds of turbans and what they mean.”

    It’s an important step for Canada’s 300,000 Sikhs, a community often misunderstood and one that continues to shake the cloud surrounding the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182. The attack is said to have been planned by Sikh extremists in B.C. advocating for an independent Sikh state, Khalistan, in retaliation for the Indian government’s 1984 raid on the Golden Temple, the holiest place of worship in the Sikh religion.

    While Mr. Sangha says the Youth Slate is not pro-Khalistan, “we want a place where we can practice our religion free from persecution.”
    Such an ideal in many young Sikhs has been shaped by Khalistani attitudes focusing on the suffering of Sikhs through the Golden Temple raid, Prof. Jakobsh said.

    She also says the younger generation, fully grounded in mainstream Canadian society, are seeing the need to attend to the reputation and the well-being of their minority religion.

    “High on that list are youth issues, women’s issues and Sikh spiritual teachings and practices. These issues, they feel, as do their supporters evidently, have not been sufficiently addressed or even acknowledged by older generations,” she said. “This has been exacerbated by the increasing media coverage on issues like gang wars, domestic violence and gurdwara politics within the Sikh community, fairly or unfairly.

    “The Youth Slate very much has attempted to shift the focus from what they consider negative Sikh politics, both in Canada and in India, to central issues affecting the community, while at the same time attempting to change perceptions about the Sikh community in the Lower Mainland.”

    Not all worshippers at Guru Nanak Temple are in favour of the changes suggested by the Youth Slate. The debate over whether tables and chairs should be permitted in the temple continues to be a point of contention between the youth and the moderates.

    “We have replaced horses with cars, and now we have modern conveniences, but we’re still talking about mats on the floor,” Harbans Mann, an office manager and member of Guru Nanak temple for the past 18 years, told Canwest News Service. “[The traditionalists] want to pull us back 300 years. We don’t think it’s fair to have one person on the chair and another sitting on the floor. We are all Sikhs, and we want to be equal.”

    An edict handed down in the late 1990s by India’s Akal Takht Sahib, the supreme Sikh authority, stated that all temple-goers should sit at ground level during “langar,” the practice of community eating.

    Mr. Sangha said exceptions will be made for the disabled and elderly, but said temple-goers are expected to follow the edict. He noted the rule affects just some of the services offered at Guru Nanak temple, and said the opportunity to benefit Sikhs and the broader community has never been greater with the Youth Slate poised to take power. “We have a chance here to make a real difference in the community.”

    National Post

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