Controversial Temples Of Strife: Power Struggles At Heart Of Recent Sikh Violence (Manjit Singh Mangat Interview)


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Temples of strife: Power struggles at heart of recent Sikh violence
Temples of strife: Power struggles at heart of recent Sikh violence - Holy Post

In the parking lot of a former Canadian Tire outlet in suburban Toronto, now painted in the blue and gold of a Sikh gurdwara, about a dozen police officers mingle with a throng of reporters drawn by the promise of a violent clash.

Inside, where the halls are decorated with pictures of purported martyrs who fought for an independent Sikh state and devotees sit barefoot in prayer, a banner across the back wall proclaims: "Sikh Homeland Khalistan."

I climb a set of stairs to a smaller meeting room with dingy walls and buzzing fluorescents, where about 30 Sikhs sit cross-legged on starched white sheets. As several old fans propel the stifling air and a heart-shaped clock ticks away the minutes, the board prepares to vote out 10 directors accused of embezzling donations.

Before they begin, a security guard approaches to warn me things have taken a dark turn outside, where some of the board's opponents are demanding access to the meeting. He swiftly asks me to leave.

"It's too dangerous," he explains, as three uniformed officers look on. "You could get backed into a corner here. Stabbed."

In the stairway just beyond the meeting-room door, a man in a rustcoloured turban is speaking animatedly, gesturing at security staff. He has moved past a table where attendees must present membership cards and photo ID, and the tension is palpable. (At a previous meeting inside this Rexdale temple, a group apparently stormed past the guards to incite a fistfight; in nearby Brampton last weekend, a similar clash occurred, but it involved hammers and axes.)

Before I know it, I'm being escorted into the blinking sunlight of the parking lot. "You have to leave now," the security guard explains on our way out. "It's not safe."

To most Canadians, Sikh infighting is solely about Khalistan, a movement that has all but died in India, yet continues to foment support in Canada. But in gurdwaras around greater Toronto, questions of nationhood are being overshadowed by narrow power struggles. Disputes have exploded into violence at several Sikh holy sites in recent days; some link the skirmishes to a broader battle for territory between two umbrella groups that each control about a dozen large Ontario temples.

Knowledgeable observers insist the conflicts are not about the shared separatist ideology, but about managerial issues: There are allegations of stealing from the cash box, of stacking boards with cronies, of failing to facilitate proper internal elections. At the heart of the matter is a desire for ultimate power--for he who controls the temple controls the cash, the community and the politician's ear, or so the story goes.

These types of disputes are nothing new; for years, they have been going on behind closed doors and far beyond the glare of mainstream media.
But the issue came into sharp focus after the stabbing three weeks ago of Brampton lawyer Manjit Singh Mangat, who heads the Sikh Lehar temple in that city and admits his misfortune appeared to trigger a vicious chain of events.

"People woke up now," Mr. Mangat said.

In his mind, the issues are black and white. Righteous rebels want to wrest control of temples from violent Sikhs who Mr. Mangat links to the Ontario Gurdwara Committee (one of two umbrella groups aligned with about half the province's large temples; the other is the Ontario Sikh and Gurdwara Council).

Members of the committee reportedly have links to Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a controversial Sikh figure killed in the 1984 attack on the Golden Temple in India, and "they use that to control the masses," Mr. Mangat suggested.

The gurdwara committee and the council were part of a single body until about a decade ago, when they split into two separate groups, ostensibly over a disagreement on whether the Sikh holy book could be brought into party halls, said Punjabi journalist Balraj Deol. But "the undercurrent was a power struggle," said Mr. Deol, who edits a local newspaper in Brampton. "Their biggest dispute was who would be the big boss."

That struggle has continued for years on a micro scale within various member temples, Mr. Deol said. But Mr. Mangat's stabbing appeared to be something of a tipping point, when backroom finagling devolved into a very public war for control.

Both sides -- the rebels and those they are trying to unseat -- accuse the other of bringing violence into the equation, but at the end of the day, very little seems to divide the two groups other than the desire to maintain ultimate power.

"Control in itself is the reason," Mr. Mangat said.

Mr. Deol points to the appeal of managing millions in cash donations -- "It's up to you and your group how much you put in the bank" -- and currying favour among politicians enticed by the assumption that temple leaders control key voting blocs.

"You have a chance to fit your children into this MLA or MPP or MP's office, or the premier's office," Mr. Deol said.

Though the Sikh community openly acknowledges, and rues, the level of discord at many local temples, the level to which the rival umbrella groups are pulling strings remains unclear.

The Ontario Gurdwara Committee, for now, has no one to respond on its behalf after leader Amarjit Singh Mann was charged with assault for his role in the Brampton melee last weekend. Secretary Rajinder Sandhu says he no longer considers himself a part of that organization, which has been "disgraced" by the allegations against Mr. Mann.

"We have been damaged. Our people have been injured," Mr. Sandhu said.

Meanwhile, Manjit Parmar of the Ontario Sikh and Gurdwara Council flatly denies any discord between his group and the committee, saying recent disputes are specific to each temple and are not backed by any larger forces.

Yet at several recent altercations, each coming under sharper scrutiny than the last, attendees reported seeing a number of the same faces.

The first was Mr. Mangat's stabbing during a protest at his Lehar temple by opponents of a local preacher. Mr. Mangat is still healing from stab wounds on his legs and abdomen inflicted by a kirpan, the ceremonial dagger carried by devout Sikhs.

"There were 20 people who ganged uponme," Mr. Mangat recalled. "Somebody hit me in the leg. Somebody hit me on my side, grabbed me by the arm and pulled me down. After that I was not able to see. I was just lying down, and they kicked me, they stabbed me."

A couple of weeks later, a management meeting at Brampton's Sri Guru Nanak Sikh Centre spiralled into a physical brawl involving hammers, axes and machetes. Five people have been arrested in the incident, which sent four men to hospital with minor injuries. In the end, the rebel group took control, changing the temple's locks the very next day.

Finally, there is Rexdale, where I wait in the blue-and-gold parking lot until the management meeting ends with the removal of 10 directors--and with both sides claiming control of the temple. Despite heightened tensions and shouted allegations outside, a brawl does not ensue, prompting centre member Raj Jhajj to speculate that, "If the police were not here, this would be physical violence."

Major Singh, the centre's secretary, threatens legal action unless the rebel group backs down: "If they're doing illegal meetings there will be a court action against them... I will do my best to keep the peace."

These disputes remain far from resolved, and there are reports of other struggles threatening to boil over in the nearby Malton area. The situation has left the Sikh community fearful as to when the next shoe will drop.

On Sunday, Sikhs will gather at Toronto's CNE grounds to celebrate Khalsa Day, the Sikh New Year. More than 70,000 people and a number of prominent politicians are expected to attend, yet they will celebrate under a cloud.

Mr. Mangat says the public clashes have embarrassed Sikhs throughout the region, who are losing faith in their temple leaders.

"They are losing control," Mr. Mangat said of those leaders. "They are losing the sanctity of the people in the Sikh community.... Everybody has stood up in arms against them."

(Photo: Manjit Singh Mangat was stabbed with a kirpan during a dispute at a Brampton, Ont., temple. "There were 20 people who ganged up on me," he says. "I was just lying down, and they kicked me, they stabbed me."; photo by Tim Fraser for National Post)


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