Walking on Egg Shells

Ideally, Gurdwaras should be Sangat-driven, hence Sangat-governed.

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

It has a Constitution and the usual structural framework of a committee with the procedural safeguards of an electoral process, but the last election was held, not last year, or 2 or 3, 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 Gurdwara; it’s in my view an absentee management, but not always asleep.

The irony is that many of the programs and initiatives of the management in power are attractive.

In the neighborhood, there is another Gurdwara that has been, from its inception some years ago, a totally closed shop as far as its management is concerned. This exclusivity is enshrined in their constitutional framework. Their programs too are even more attractive and peaceful.

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

The first Gurdwara that I mentioned serves very special congregations, the crème de la crème of the Sikhs. My dilemma: how did the Sikhs became 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 the 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 cornerstone of Sikhi as well as 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 gone down an increasingly murkier downward slope since then, and even more acutely since India’s independence from the British in 1947.

Ideally, Gurdwaras 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 cast a clear eye on the past decade or two of Gurdwaras in North America. The most jaundiced eye will concede that an alarming number have faced election related violence with concomitant police-enforced fragile peace, followed by 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 and its repair forbiddingly difficult if not impossible.

Gurdwaras controlled by an iron hand suffer in many ways: A primary harm done (as a non-dollar loss) is the fact that the topic of a Sangat-driven Gurdwara 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 Gurdwara management very handily with a big beatific smile and platitudes. We thank God and Guru that we have peace in the Gurdwara. Any attempt to approach 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 is summarily dismissed or ignored. Is such a Gurdwara 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 simultaneously offers us several alternatives. In ascending degree, our involvement 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 as if poking 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 at level one. Failing that, we rush headlong to level four or five. The last 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 that just concluded? Better yet 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 Gurdwaras are 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 perhaps this behavior is embedded in the human genome?

Life will give us many good things, along with many more that are not so fun, nice, useful or comfortable. We can’t always run away from them, nor can we beat them into submission. 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 words preserve contact, it is silence that isolates.

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

Is the Gurdwara and community as delicate as egg shells so that visiting that hallowed ground guarantees breakage and suffering?

Guru Granth Sahib admonishes us to gather together to work through our doubts and differences (Hoai ikatr milo meray bhai, dubhida door karo liv laaye "Come and join together, O my siblings of destiny; dispel your sense of duality and let yourselves be lovingly absorbed in the Lord. Ang 1185) 

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

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IJ Singh

Dr. I.J Singh has a probing mind and a wry sense of humor. His prolific pool of essays poke, provoke and ultimately force the reader to think more deeply. His work has graced SikhNet's pages for some time.

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