Walking on egg shells

How did the Sikhs become such passive spectators at their own institutions…Ideally, gurduaras should be sangat-driven, hence sangat-governed.

| Opinion | 17 Feb 2017 | Asia Samachar |


By I.J. Singh

Walking on egg shells remains a risky business, wouldn’t you say? Yet, it’s so tempting. I am embarking on such an endeavor today, though only metaphorically.

The local gurduara that I often frequent, to my mind, is highly odd and I confess that I am conflicted about it.

It has a constitution and the usual structural framework of a committee with procedural safeguards of an electoral process, but the last election was held, not a year, or 2 or even 5 or 6 years ago, but almost a decade ago.

During the active electoral phase, congregational peace was fractured, not every year but often enough.

Now a dominant cabal of two or three people has seized control. All procedural safeguards or laws have been suspended, buried and forgotten. The new “bosses” run it mostly by remote control. They rarely attend the gurduara; it’s in my view an absentee management.

The irony is that this gurduara serves very special congregations, the crème de la crème of the Sikhs many of the programs and initiatives of those in power are fairly attractive.

In our neighborhood, there is another gurduara that has been, from its inception some years ago, a totally closed shop in matters of management; there never is a changeover. This exclusive/limited framework is enshrined in their constitutional framework. Their programs, too, are attractive and peaceful.

SEE ALSO: Roles and functions of a gurdwara

SEE ALSO: JAGIR: Without guidance, all gurdwaras would be on their own

These are not the only existing examples of dera-structured gurduaras in North America. I know of a few and they are proud as peacocks of their closed shops.

My dilemma: How did the Sikhs become such passive spectators at their own institutions. I am absolutely flabbergasted.

It seems unnatural. It is against the universal ideals of transparency and accountability that are core Sikh values. It negates self-governance seen in free people and enlightened nations that tout responsible management.

In earlier essays I have argued at length that such ideals were and remain the foundational principles of Sikhi as well — of Sikh practices during the Guru period, also during post-Guru time when Misls held sway, but progressively diminished during Ranjit Singh’s rule of greater Punjab and thereafter until today.

Our subsequent record in such matters seems to have taken on an increasingly murkier downward slope since then, and even more acutely since India’s independence from the British in 1947. Now we seem to have hit bottom.

Ideally, gurduaras should be sangat-driven, hence sangat-governed. Many models for such governance exist but that’s not the issue here today.

Why the move towards privately held closed shops is not a mystery. It is easily understood when we explore the past decade or two of gurduaras in North America. Even the most jaundiced eye will concede that an alarming number have faced election related violence with concomitant police-enforced fragile peace, court cases and legal decrees – and even a run or two to the Akal Takht.

The dollars lost are in the millions, the downside of fragmenting the community and the loss of trust immeasurable; its repair forbiddingly difficult if not impossible.

Gurduaras controlled by an iron hand suffer in many ways: A primary harm (as a non-dollar loss) is the fact that the topic of sangat-driven gurduara hardly ever surfaces in conversation; we avoid it like the plague. It’s like running away from any talk about a scandalous relative or a drunken mother. We run from the topic as fast as our little legs will carry us.

What do we do instead? We dismiss all or any conversation on gurduara management quite handily by a big beatific smile and platitudes. We thank God and Guru that we have peace in the gurduara. Any attempt at further ideas on such matters feels as if we are stepping on egg shells.

This, then, becomes the graveyard of ideas, not people; and any query summarily dismissed or ignored. Is such a gurduara any better than a dera that’s run by one man, no matter how pious? I am tempted dub it the peace of a cemetery.

When life deals us a seemingly intractable dilemma it also offers us several alternatives. In ascending order, our response can be: 1. to ignore the Hobson’s choice facing us and become like a dove with eyes closed facing an eagle, 2. to poke the idea as an enemy — gingerly like a rattlesnake, 3. to open a frank dialogue seeking an honest and fair resolution, 4. to explore outside the system for possible allies like the judicial system, or 5. to go on a violent rampage.

Our community seems to be largely at level one. Failing that, we rush headlong to level 4 or 5. These two choices seem interchangeable and sometimes coexist. Whenever these two are on the table, there is a lot of talk – entirely unconnected to any program or direction but over laden by tons of innuendo and insult.

Doesn’t it remind one of the Republican Party’s primaries and the election season that just concluded? Review the recent exchanges between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.  Hillary’s speeches were some of her best; she heaped insults on the Donald with piercing sharp verbiage and Trump responded a day later with an outburst that outdid hers. The insults and sound bites were rare collectables. What was lacking was even an iota of programmatic vision on either side.

Our disagreements at gurduaras are qualitatively no different. Have we Sikhs found in our new home in America a kindred Yankee spirit or have the Americans caught some virus native to us? Or is such behavior embedded in the human gene?

Life will bestow us many good things and many more that are not fun, nice, useful, or comfortable. We can’t always run away from them, nor can we beat them into oblivion. We need to hone the tactics of patience, grace, conversation and sehaj, to cope with them effectively.

What we, as a community, haven’t mastered yet is the skill to disagree without becoming disagreeable. Remember that peace is not just an absence of war; it is a state of mind.  Remember that even the most contradictory word preserves contact, it is silence that isolates.

I am reminded of the fact that even walking can be painful for very tender feet. But is the idea of gurduara management so alien or threatening that we can’t even try a tentative step towards the role of the sangat in management. To me this is more than a trivial matter; it has existential overtones – all negative.

Is the gurduara and community so like egg shells that visiting that hallowed ground guarantees untold suffering?

Guru Granth Sahib admonishes us to gather together to work out through our doubts and differences ਹੋਇ ਇਕਤ੍ਰ ਮਿਲਹੁ ਮੇਰੇ ਭਾਈ ਦੁਬਿਧਾ ਦੂਰਿ ਕਰਹੁ ਲਿਵ ਲਾਇ ॥ (“Hoai ikatr milo meray bhai, dubhida door karo liv laaye…” p 1185).

We can’t behave like mugwumps all the time, can we?


IJsingh-newI.J. Singh is a New York based writer and speaker on Sikhism in the Diaspora, and a Professor of Anatomy. Email: ijsingh99@gmail.com

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