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Secrets of the Temple, Round Two

Leaders of the Bay Area's most powerful Sikh enclave may finally have to risk their positions with open elections.

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After nearly two years of litigation, rulings, and appeals, a San Francisco appellate court upheld a lower court decision last week requiring leaders of Fremont's politically powerful Sikh temple, or gurdwara, to put their seats to a temple-wide vote. The current five-man Supreme Council has not held elections since 1996, when its members seized power of the gurdwara -- and its estimated $1 million treasury -- in a violent, beard-pulling, sword-wielding coup.

The court validated a 2002 ruling by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Julia Spain, and determined that Spain's decision did not violate free-speech rights or represent an unconstitutional entanglement of church and state, as temple leaders claimed in their appeal.

The Fremont gurdwara is the Bay Area's largest and most politically influential Sikh temple, with an estimated six thousand congregants. In the years since the temple coup, internal power struggles have led to numerous fights and three lawsuits, including the suit that led to last week's decision. Police in riot gear have been called to oversee congregation-wide meetings, and the temple has been the site of shootings and stabbings. What's more, some members of the circle of acquaintances who dominate the temple are under investigation by the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Fremont police.

The struggles for temple control, and alleged criminal connections, illicit weapons deals, and strong-arm tactics of some of its leaders were the focus of a recent Express cover story ("Singh vs. Singh," November 19, 2003).

Plaintiffs attorney Mark Cohen, whose clients contend that they won a chaotic vote for Supreme Council governance in March 2002, says last week's ruling vindicates his clients' efforts. "I'm excited about it because obviously I'm on the right side of this; you know, the winning side," he says. "But it was such a well-researched and written opinion, and it backed up everything I was trying to do -- my strategy at trial -- but it also, more practically important, affirmed the process."

Temple leaders, unsurprisingly, remained unswayed. "The election of the Supreme Council is selected, not elected," says Gurdial Singh, who, along with Harjot Singh, Amarjit Singh, and Gurdev Singh has held power since the 1996 coup. (As a symbol of equality, Sikh males take the surname Singh, which means "lion.") A fifth member, Mota Singh, was appointed to the Supreme Council in 1999. "I still believe selection is the right process," Gurdial says.

Pending a possible petition for review in the state Supreme Court, the appeals court's decision should be finalized within a month. The case will then revert to Judge Spain's Hayward courtroom, where she will likely re-implement her order demanding that the temple follow the California Corporations Code, which requires nonprofit religious organizations to hold annual elections.

"I disagree with that decision. But that doesn't mean I won't honor the decision," Gurdial Singh says of the appeal. "They didn't accept our way of thinking; that's okay." Still, he adds, "I'm not participating in the election."

That's cold comfort to Ram Singh, who along with Gurmeet Singh Khalsa, Karnail Singh, Harjinder Pal Singh, Joginder Singh, Sukhdev Singh, and Ala Singh filed the original lawsuit in March 2002. "It's not over yet; these guys are very, very stubborn," Ram Singh says. "Change is only going to happen when the election takes place."

And that could still be many months away. The gurdwara's current leaders are meeting this week with their Fresno attorney, Walter Whelan. "We're going have to make a decision about whether we're going to appeal to the Supreme Court," Whelan says. "It would have been nice to turn it over. That's why we made the effort to persuade the appellate court, but we were unsuccessful."

Whelan stressed that his clients had not yet made a decision regarding a possible second appeal. Gurdial Singh, for one, thought it unlikely. "Personally, I don't think so; I haven't talked to the other guys," he says. "I don't think people were dissatisfied ... but if people are not happy, what can you do?"

Gurdial Singh's conciliatory tone aside, Cohen says he thinks temple leaders will take their case to the high court. "I have to believe it," he says. If they were to accept the ruling, Cohen adds, "it would be inconsistent with anything they've done." Following Judge Spain's original ruling, Supreme Council members asked permission to delay the elections until their appeal could be heard. The judge agreed, but demanded they put up a $900,000 bond to ensure they didn't use an inappropriate amount from the temple coffers to finance their appeal. "Most people don't pull out all stops in an effort to prevent a decision from being implemented," Cohen says. "It was understood that they would do everything they could to hold on to power. I expect them to do everything that people who are desperate do."

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