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Controversial From National Gurdwara To National Institution

Discussion in 'Hard Talk' started by Archived_Member16, Jul 29, 2010.

  1. Archived_Member16

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    Jan 7, 2005
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    From National Gurdwara to National Institution
    Date: Jul 22, 2010 - 11:40 PM

    The National Gurdwara is on Embassy Row, less than four miles from the White House.

    WASHINGTON – Financial difficulties have prompted the board of trustees at the Sikh Cultural Society of Washington, D.C., Inc. to seek a wealthy institution to transfer its ownership, but questions remain as to which institution will take over and what will happen to the $3 million note on the prestigious property that would benefit one man upon its transfer.

    The Sikh Cultural Society, incorporated in 1964, is the umbrella organization that built a gurdwara on its property at 3801 Massachusetts Ave., NW. The area, known as Embassy Row, is surrounded by the world’s embassies and is about 3.5 miles from the White House.

    Construction of the gurdwara began in 1999. Popularly known as the National Gurdwara, the building is approximately 4,000-square-feet on each of two full levels, and includes a mezzanine level. It is a steel-framed structure with brick and marble exterior. Inside, it has two halls, 12 rooms, a bathroom on each floor, three kitchens and underground parking for 27 cars. Planned additions include a gumbad (dome) and a 3,800-square-foot underground hall.

    The gurdwara was built using donations and personal loans from the sangat. Most of the construction cost was covered by personal loans from the Babra family and Satwant Kaur Bell, all from the metropolitan Washington area.

    Once completed, the society acquired a bank loan to pay off those personal loans, with interest. The gurdwara has been operating under debt ever since it opened its doors in 2005.


    Fear of a hostile takeover, as experienced by many gurdwaras in the country, lead to the transformation of the board. What began as a board of friends and colleagues more than 45 years ago, now consists of mostly family members. The head of the family is Shamsher Singh Babra, a retired World Bank economist and one of the original founders of the society. Five of the approximately 15 members are trustees. The rest are selected by the trustees. All but three are related to Shamsher Singh. None are paying members.

    A second safety net was put in place before the building was completed. It is a deed on the property that the board calls, “umbrella insurance.”

    According to the Deed of Trust Note of August 2004, “… the undersigned promises to pay to the order of Shamsher Singh Babra or assigns, the principal sum of Three Million Dollars ($3,000,000.00) with interest on the unpaid balance …”

    The undersigned are: Satwant Kaur Bell, former board member and president; Surendra Singh, former board member and treasurer; and Nanak Singh Manku, builder of the gurdwara, board member and secretary.

    “We did it out of sharda (devotion),” Surendra Singh said, regretingly. “He (Shamsher Singh) convinced us. There was no board meeting. We met at the attorney’s office, he convinced all of us.”

    Now that he is actively soliciting the transfer of the property, the sangat is wondering what will happen to the $3 million.

    Ronald Chasen, a lawyer from the Chasen and Chasen law firm in Washington, is the trustee on the deed. He did not return several calls for comment, nor did he reply to any of the questions emailed to his office.

    Without all the necessary information, “it’s hard to tell if this is something improper, but it does deserve scrutiny,” said Robert Tuttle, law professor at Georgetown University in Washington. “Until the clause is exercised, it’s not going to come to anybody’s attention.”

    Shamsher Singh legally has no choice but to dissolve the note or transfer it to the society. The Internal Revenue Service has very specific laws about undue benefit when it comes to nonprofit organizations. According to its Web site, “The organization must not be organized or operated for the benefit of private interests, and no part of a section 501(c)(3) organization's net earnings may inure to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual.”

    The IRS confirmed by phone that the society is registered as a nonprofit. It is also registered as a church, which means that it has special exemption from filing annual financial statements. All financial information in this report was disclosed by and confirmed by board members interviewed for this report.

    If the clause is exercised, the society could stand to lose its nonprofit status and Shamsher Singh would risk prosecution by the attorney general of Washington for charitable fraud.
    But writing the deed in the name of the society has no meaning, Shamsher Singh said. If an individual or organization forcibly takes over the society then the deed would also be taken over.

    “It had to be someone other than that,” he said. “With me being the oldest member and having a long record with the society, they (board) put my name. If tomorrow it gets transferred, they can’t sell it and go, pocket the money.

    “When the property is (properly) transferred, the note will also be transferred to the society,” he added.

    The rest of the board is behind him, he said.

    “I don’t think so that is Shamsher’s intention. At this stage, he will not run away with gurdwara money,” said Satwant Singh Grewal, a board member who is not part of Shamsher Singh’s family. “He’s 80 something. He wouldn’t have faught that well for this and for this community.”

    Shamsher Singh also said he would not take a penny of the money. He has had doubts about keeping the deed in his name. In 2008, he emailed his lawyer to take his name off the deed. The other signatories also previously asked that the note be cancelled. But nothing happened. The deed became a source of discomfort for some of the sangat.

    “Members of the congregation have a right to ask for full disclosure,” Tuttle said. “(But) there is not a whole lot that can be done. If they really thought that this was likely to be enforced by him, then there really is only one action, that is to go to court.”

    Money was a key issue in the board’s decision to take action at this time, Satwant Kaur said.

    With its debt rising, the loan was refinanced sometime last year and is now slightly larger. Shamsher Singh did not want to publically disclose the loan amount but said it is about 38 percent of the bank-appraised value of the property.


    There has been no shortage of Sikh groups willing to take over the National Gurdwara, including its own sangat. Shamsher Singh and the board want to continue with the gurdwara on the property, but will transfer the ownership of the property to an institution that has the financial means to run the gurdwara and add a heritage center.

    The sangat wants to separate the two entities and take over the gurdwara part.

    “It is very expensive real estate. It is located outside the hub of the Sikhs,” Shamsher Singh said. Very few Sikhs live here, most come from the surrounding suburbs of Maryland and Virginia. A gurdwara is not sustainable on sangat donations alone.

    Financial difficulties have forced board members to turn to the original ideals set forth in its charter. According to the Articles of Incorporation, among of the society’s original purposes was to establish a Sikh cultural center, maintain a library and encourage education and fine arts.

    Several other people, gurdwaras and Khalistani groups also offered to take over the gurdwara, “but none of them can see beyond gurdwara,” Shamsher Singh added. “It is not wise on the part of the community to use it only as a gurdwara.”

    “We never thought we would have the resources to have something on Mass. Ave. It’s a lifetime dream come true. (But) the gurdwara will always be limited. We have to recognize the reality. Take it to the next step.”

    But the sangat is concerned about the gurdwara, Satwant Kaur said.

    “I would like to see the establishment of Guru Granth Sahib’s place in Washington D.C,” she said. “We just want to come enjoy kirtan, eat langar and leave.”

    She, Surendra Singh and the rest of the managing committee wanted the gurdwara part turned over to the sangat, and offered last year to find dedicated donors to meet its expenses. But Shamsher Singh was not interested, she said.

    Board members said the group never came up with the financial commitments, even after being given a six-month ultimatum.

    “They keep saying we are sangat. They say give the gurdwara to them,” Shamsher Singh said. “We are not looking to individuals.”

    “The proposal never came,” said Harbhajan Singh, a board member, a family member and the current treasurer. But even if it did come, the board would not have approved it.
    “Dr. Shamsher Singh, people may like him, may not like him, but for the last 50 years he has maintained it,” he said. “It’s a proven track record. But with these other people there is no proven track record.

    “The board manages the place,” he added. “It’s for them to decide who will fulfill those ideals.”

    The board has identified three organizations that it considers as the ideal candidates to take over the property: The Sikh Foundation in California, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee in Amritsar and the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee.

    Discussions began last year but none have made a formal commitment, yet.

    Meanwhile, the society has moved ahead with planned expansion of the building and created architectural drawings of the 3,800-square-foot underground area, under the front walkway of the gurdwara.

    It’s “premature” to talk of plans, said Narinder Singh Kapany, founder and chairman of the Sikh Foundation, a non-profit in Palo Alto, California, which promotes Sikh heritage. Narinder Singh was the first person approached last year. He and Shamsher Singh are longtime friends who met during their college days in London in the early 1950s.
    Shamsher Singh hopes that the foundation would create a Sikh museum and cultural center. Such a project would require an endowment, he said.


    When committee members came to know that the Sikh Foundation may be interested in the property, they emailed Narinder Singh, asking that they work together. There was concern among the sangat that the new institution would take over the space of the gurdwara, Satwant Kaur said.
    “You don’t shove Guru Granth Sahib somewhere and have a token service,” she said.

    Board members were not clear as to where the darbar hall will be located after the transfer, in the current hall or the underground hall.

    “Like money is fungible, so is space,” Shamsher Singh said. “When you have two buildings, you can always interchange.”
    Shamsher Singh’s letter to the board regarding the transfer describes the building as being used as a gurdwara on weekends, but that “it is aptly suitable for an embassy, a school, a museum or a community center.”

    The sangat will have genuine concern for people coming in without heads covered and with shoes, so the gurdwara space and the new space are completely separated, he said. The planned underground hall has two entrances from outside, one on Massachusetts Avenue and one on 38th Street.

    Drawings of the underground extension indicate that it would be used as the new darbar hall.

    “This extra space could be made available for a number of years for conducting religious service with duly accorded sanctity,” the drawings say.

    Late last year, the committee discovered that the property was up for sale. It was listed by Cory Hoffman for $5,950,000 for a short time, but was removed when he realized that the person who asked for the listing was not authorized to do it, Hoffman said. He did not want to name that person.

    Satwant Kaur and others complained to Jus Punjabi. The cable channel invited Shamsher Singh in late January for an interview. He vehemently denied that the property was for sale.

    “Appraisal route costs money,” he later told SikhNN. “You list it and see what you can get and it costs nothing. This is how the gurdwara was made - saved money in every corner.”

    Gajinder Singh, a trustee and Shamsher Singh’s brother, made an announcement at the gurdwara to assure the sangat that the board was not selling the gurdwara. But that did not ease the sangat’s fears.

    The decision to find another group to take over the property divided the board and the managing committee, which is appointed by the board. While the board deliberated quietly, the committee complained that it was kept out of the loop.

    The sangat is reading about these things from everywhere but the board, Satwant Kaur said.

    “How does that make you feel? We come every Sunday and you don’t tell us what is happening. We hear it from news clippings, Web sites… This kind of news eventually comes out.”

    But for the board, silence is good business.
    “When you do negotiations, if you leak out everything then the negotiations fail,” Harbhajan Singh said. “That’s the way the business is conducted.”

    By May, Satwant Kaur was dismissed and the committee dispersed.

    “Good people like Surendra Singh, who had been treasurer for most of the time since 1964, and friends have been shoved aside,” she said. “All of us are feeling neither here or there.”

    Shamsher Singh also has had discussions with Manpreet Singh Badal, Punjab’s finance minister, and his uncle Parkash Singh Badal, Punjab’s chief minister. They met in April when Shamsher Singh was in Jullundher for the release of his new book, “Bethay Punjab Da Pind.” He and Parkash Singh also are longtime childhood friends.

    Soon after the meeting, newsweekindia.com on May 2 reported that the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee was acquiring the property. But that story was exaggerated, Shamsher Singh said.

    According to the report, Avtar Singh Makkar, head of the SGPG, told the news media during a news conference that two brothers had offered to donate prime property located on the road leading to White House.

    “The SGPC is getting the land at Washington only due to sincere efforts of Punjab Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal,” he said in the report. “The SGPC had already got an e-mail in this regard… sources said SGPC is getting unconditionally 10,000 square feet land of around Rs. 300 crore.” The committee had started the process to “clear all formalities,” the report says.

    “That’s not true,” Shamsher Singh said. “We don’t have any proposal from the SGPC. It is just in the discussion stage.” He does not know how the SGPC would use the property and said he was not concerned about its controversial image.

    Recent SGPC debacles such as accepting and then modifying the Nanakshahi calendar; and publishing and then banning the book, ‘Gurbilas Patshahi 6’, are political controversies that do not concern him.

    Who is more the blame, members of the SGPC or the people that elected them, he asked. “We elect them, we are equally a partner.”

    Shamsher Singh is very much interested in the SGPC because it is one of the few institutions that has the means to create and sustain a Sikh institution in Washington. Other members echoed the same opinion.

    “If you want to take this to another plane you need someone with resources, not only financial, but also intellectual and human resources - That is SGPC,” Harbhajan Singh said.
    The long shot among the three candidates is the DSGMC. Although Shamsher Singh did not meet with any of its representatives, they are aware of the gurdwara’s intention through word of mouth, he said.

    “This (all) is an oral discussion, and we are saying you have to come forward with a proposal,” Shamsher Singh said. At the National Gurdwara, “it’s his way or the highway,” Satwant Kaur said. “(But) I still like to believe his heart is still in the right place. This is his legacy. You should do something great while your name is good.”


    The National Gurdwara was completed in 2005, but the society’s history goes back to 1964, when it was incorporated.

    The society purchased its first property on Military Road in 1972 for about $37,000, said Surendra Singh, treasurer for most of the time from 1965 to 2007. It was under Shamsher Singh’s name, but the installments mostly came from the sangat, he said.

    A small, old two-story house on the property was used as the gurdwara, popularly known then as the Military Road Gurdwara. The second floor was rented to boarders, but the society still did not generate enough money to make ends meet. So it opened a charity casino.

    According to a 1993 Washington Times report, the society opened the casino in nearby Prince George’s County, Maryland. When local sangats from nearby gurdwaras found out, there was an uproar.

    “I left. I knew what was going on,” Surendra Singh said. Shamsher Singh’s relatives were involved in the casino.

    Shamsher Singh, the society’s original founder and senior member of the board told the Washington Times newspaper that he did not know about the gambling and that he would resign because of “tension.” He planned to resign days after the newspaper reported that “some area Sikhs were outraged a casino was operating under the name of their faith, which opposes gambling.” But he did not.

    The casino reported taking in $665,000 in 1992, the report says, and was in trouble with county regulators for not providing adequate documentation.

    The Military Road gurdwara was sold in 1996 to Shamsher Singh’s relatives for $140,000, Surendra Singh said. The society purchased land in 1981 on Massachusetts Avenue for $279,000.

    Surendra Singh again became treasurer in 1999 when construction began on the new building.

    by Anju Kaur, Sikh News Network staff journalist
    © Copyrigt 2001-2010 Sikh News Network, LLC.


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  3. spnadmin

    spnadmin United States
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    Jun 17, 2004
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    This may be the companion article to the story posted by Soul_jyot ji

    The Tribune – NRI Sikh offers prime land in US to SGPC
    K S Chawla

    Ludhiana, July 28. An NRI Sikh settled in the USA has offered a prime piece of land in Washington DC to the SGPC for the establishment of a Sikh cultural embassy.

    The piece of land has close proximity to the White House and is worth hundred crores.

    A gurdwara is already existing on this piece of land. Avtar Singh Makkar, president, SGPC, who visited the US, told The Tribune on his return that NRI Shamsher Singh was settled in the US some 50 years ago and had worked with World Bank.

    Shamsher had visited Punjab some time ago and met Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and the Finance Minister and offered them the piece of land with him in Washington. It was the Chief Minister who asked Makkar to discuss the matter with Shamsher and take necessary steps.

    Makkar had gone to the US, along with some officials of the SGPC, and discussed the issue with Shamsher.

    Shamsher was keen that the SGPC should set up a Sikh cultural centre where the wards of Sikhs living in the US and other countries should have links with their cultural heritage.

    Makkar said they would set up a Sikh mission of the SGPC in Washington at the land offered by Shamsher. This would be for the first time that the SGPC would be having a mission out of the country.

    He claimed that many Sikhs settled in the US and other countries had offered to provide land to the SGPC for the establishment of Sikh missions.

    Makkar said they were completing the legalities for taking possession of the land and only after that they would initiate further steps.

    The SGPC chief said a committee of Sikh intellectuals would be set up to start work on the mission.

    Makkar said during his stay in the US he had discussed with Sikhs the fact that the SGPC was finding it difficult to send Guru Granth Sahib in a respectful manner to foreign countries.

    He said if they offer land for a printing press then the SGPC could print Guru Granth Sahib in the US. He added that many Sikhs offered to help him in the venture.

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