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United Sikhs Arbitration Needed For Gurdwara Disputes (World Sikh Council-American Region)




1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
A group of American gurdwaras initiated a plan this month to create a venue for settling disputes that would reduce the large number of court cases that funnel out gurdwara resources.

The World Sikh Council – America Region, at its recent convention, discussed forming a ‘connectional church’ hierarchy by which the parties involved in gurdwara disputes can approach the council for mediation. The decision of the council, which includes 38 gurdwaras, would be a binding resolution.

“The panth’s resources should be used in efforts of doing good rather than spending on those aspects in which resources are being drained,” said Surinderpal Singh, chairman of the council’s religious affairs committee.

Almost all gurdwaras in the United States have a congregational form of governance where the local sangats, through the board of trustees and management committees, theoretically control their constitutions and services. Each gurdwara also is autonomous and independent of other gurdwaras.

But gurdwaras also are embedded in a culture of litigation, he said. If resource were available where they can sit down and resolve things amicably, perhaps that would alleviate some of the financial waste.

“How to do this?”

One of the more successful connectional-type churches in the world is the Free Methodist Church. According to its Web site, its historic conviction is that local churches are safeguarded from error and extremism because they are held accountable to overseeing leaders and governing policies.

“So for the sake of greater effectiveness and for preserving doctrinal integrity Free Methodist churches ‘connect’ with one another in systems and structures of accountability,” the Web site says.

While the Free Methodist Church’s purpose for connectional structure is to “effect greater change and bear more fruit through combining resources and efforts,” the Sikh council’s purpose is to keep gurdwaras out of the courts.

Member gurdwaras will have a connectional hierarchy in which the Sikh council becomes the overseeing body. All disputes will come into its jurisdiction, said Satpal Singh, the council’s chairman.

“Our hope is (that) the gurdwaras that are members agree to these things,” he said. The council would have to form a venue for arbitration. Under the process, the two disputing parties would get together and talk while the council mediated the discussion. The agreement would be final.

“One of the difficulties we face if we go to court is that the judges and attorneys involved (in gurdwara cases) have no concept of Sikhi or its fundamental principles,” Satpal Singh said. “They have to make a judgment (in a situation) where they do not understand things properly, only legally.”

He pointed to the court case involving the Gurdwara of Rochester, New York.

The board of trustees at the Rochester gurdwara is petitioning the Supreme Court of New York in Manroe County to allow it to ban Kirpaans from the gurdwara. The trustees submitted that Kirpaans were dangerous weapons.

On June 10, Justice Kenneth Fisher ruled that until the dispute is settled “all persons entering the (gurdwara) premises are prohibited from bringing in or carrying ceremonial swords or other weapons that could cause injury or threats to persons within (gurdwara) premises.”

In its July news release, the council condemned the trustees for “demonizing and belittling the Kirpaan in a court of law, for promoting their legal interests with the motive of winning an internal management dispute, and in the process, getting the entry of Amritdharis into the gurdwara banned while the legal proceedings are underway.”

But there is nothing the council can do at this time because it has not yet formed the connectional structure and because the Rochester gurdwara is not one of its members.

“At our current level, with the current constitution, we can’t do that in any gurdwara,” Satpal Singh added. “Even if we do it, members have to agree… They would have to change their own constitutions to allow for this.”

Council members approached the Rochester trustees to resolve the Kirpaan matter but they were prevented by the trustees’ lawyer from engaging in any discussions of the pending case.

“The Board of Trustees of the Gurdwara of Rochester seems to have given preference to their parochial legal interests over the religious right of a Sikh to wear a Kirpaan on its premises,” said Manmohan Singh, the council’s secretary general, in the news release.

The council could only declare that “any Sikh institution that does not allow Kakaars on its premises can no longer be considered a Sikh Gurdwara” and urged the trustees to lift the ban and have all depositions on Sikh doctrine expunged from court documents.

“We hope (to settle) disputes like in this issue, which pertain to Sikhi concepts,” Satpal Singh told SikhNN. “A Kakaar cannot be left out of a gurdwara. Legal courts would not understand very well.”

At the convention in New Jersey, from Oct. 22 to 24, there was “overwhelming consensus” from member gurdwaras to form some kind of an arbitration structure, he said. “This was one place that everybody felt that something like this was necessary to settle disputes ourselves.”

Most of members were not familiar with the connectional church concept and many had questions about what it meant and how it would works. “If we can come up with any structure to avoid litigation” it’s worth it, they told him. But it may take several years.

This is a pilot project and a grass-roots effort, council members said. Unlike the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, which is under constant political pressure, the council is a representative body whose members provide panthic input.

The SGPC is a resource of the panth. But outside India, Sikhs have different issues.

“Our generations growing here face different kinds of problems,” Surinderpal Singh said. “…We have to think from that prospective.

“We are not at all in conflict with the SGPC.”