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Trusts vs Gurdwara Elections (fallout)
Har Iqbal Singh Sara
1. Empirically, it seems evident that traditional Sikh method is selection rather than election.
2. Prominently enough, the late Bhai Sahib Sirdar Kapur Singh, ex. I.C.S., revered National Professor of Sikhism, used to highlight this historical conclusion, founded in the Sikh precept of ‘numenism’. On that latter precept, I have good reason to believe, my old friend and scholar, Dr Gurmail Singh Sidhu, now of California, would have more to say, as his inspiration has led him to focus on that subject. This alone, no doubt, would keep the indomitable spirit of the giant amongst intellectuals, as the great Sirdar was, alive. Because, Sirdar Kapur Singh oft emphasized ‘numenism’ as a distinguishing doctrine of Sikhism.
3. Today, Sikh gurdwaras (Sikh temples) are everywhere. But so are Sikh Gurdwara ‘Societies’. There appears to be a ‘dominos’ effect. If there is, or has been, a Sikh Gurdwara Society, that is taken as reason enough to have one of our own. One can think of innumerable Societies, being used by Sikhs all across Canada and the U.S.A. The usual declared purposes of such Sikh Gurdwara Societies include, “to establish and operate places or centres of Sikh religious worship, or gurdwaras, etc.”
4. When it comes to the property aspect of the gurdwara institution, one finds property of land usually legally invested or registered in the name of the particular Gurdwara Society. Because the Society, as a fictional ‘person’, can hold and transfer or acquire property. The Society is regulated by the rules of a usual ‘Societies Act’. That necessitates the holding of annual general meetings, electing directors, setting their powers and duties as legislated, keeping membership registers, filing in Government offices the annual reports and changes in directorship or registered office addresses. All in all a tedious and cumbersome, and expensive, and restrictive, as well as a fractious lay out. The use of this method of gurdwara management and regulation has persistently illustrated its unsatisfactory nature. The Hindu press has lost no time in picking out the inevitable fights and ugly scenes precipitated by gurdwara elections, everywhere in U.S.A., Canada and U.K., thus, further to depict Sikhs as a backward and uncivilized community.
5. The question of property and a Gurdwara Society entails further complexity and complication. How can it be assumed that religious offerings of money, for instance, harvested at Sikh religious worship in a gurdwara, belong to the Gurdwara Society ? Nonetheless, all money thus accumulated is taken into the control of the directors of the particular Gurdwara Society, and is at their disposal. They may bank it in the Society’s bank account, or appropriate it otherwise, as they may decide. The Society directors, elected in the Western civilization’s style and manner, are put in a position of authority where they not only control the property associated with the function of a gurdwara, but also control the quality of spiritual services dispensed at a particular gurdwara. The donations, are offered to the gurdwara. Yet the directors of the Society are able to convert it to the credit of the statutory Society — which has been able to keep a gurdwara. If a gurdwara can be imagined as a cow, belonging to a Society, then the offerings are its milk, which the Society directors will take as their own. Indeed, gurdwara establishment can be viewed as a good piece of investment, which would pay off dividends in terms of money, political clout and social status, to a shrewd individual or group. No wonder gurdwaras (or the Societies that keep them) are a regular arena of power psyche of the Charhdi-kala seeking Khalsa ! In every city, there seems to be a ‘parliament’ of Sikhs in north America. It is a local gurdwara and its elections. The reasons behind this phenomenon are quite obvious from the foregoing discussion. This gains an added dimension, since the Khalsa has no other sovereign territory to call its own. It is the gurdwara — and the gurdwara alone — that fills the bill, in the peculiar vacuum of statelessness.
6. It is submitted that, in general terms, the gurdwara operation and service should be supervised by a recognized ecclesiastical seminary or ‘Order’ — to borrow terminology from Christian monastic organization —throughout Sikhdom. It ought not to be the turf of any changeable Society and its directors — who come and go, as if through a revolving door. The functions of the gurdwara, its property and its income (from donations and offerings) must not come into the hands of any directors of a statutory Society — in the business of gurdwaras. It is important that the Sikh nation should ensure that crass ‘directors’ of a venture must cease to become the policy makers of the Sikh religion, in different locations. Not infrequently they have played into the hands of our political detractors.
7. Consistent with Sikh traditions, the function of the north American gurdwaras should be in the hands of suitable sewaks or volunteers, committed enough to seek to render selfless service. Their appointment should be by common local consensus. The method of casting parchis (or casting lots) has been historically used in line with the doctrine of ‘numenism’. Thus, only by common consensus, would they be chosen, signifying the Guru’s hukam or divine will. They would assume charge of the dispensations of a particular gurdwara. The standard of gurdwara service would be uniform and unadulterated, everywhere. The sole motivation of individuals would be service and service alone, for the Guru.
8. Such selfless service, in the Christian organization, is also evident. That is why there are ‘sidesmen’ in the Church of England; ‘ushers’ in the United Church in Canada, and church ‘deacons’ and other voluntary servants of the Christian religion. Actually, Sikhism is a great improvement and expansion of the role of the church in Christianity. Sikhism is the synthesis of the promise to fill both the spiritual and the temporal ambitions of the believer and the seeker. The Guru’s dispensation is so complete. There is nothing left to be desired. The self-mastery, made possible by this fulfillment, has to be nothing but unique, in man’s experience.
9. In this perspective, it is suggested that when a gurdwara is to be established or founded, when it is to be invested with property (land, money, or both), the Sikh donors (settlors) should first consider creating a trust, appoint trustee/s. A trust should be created for the benefit of the gurdwara and its sangat or congregation and the Sikh public. A trust usually has some fund or money which is to be administrated. Income, such as offerings, could well be part of the same trust funds, and included therein. This would form an arrangement of an almost permanent nature, not susceptible to the unsettling and unpredictable changes consequent to the administration through a society or incorporation, and a succession of ‘directors’.
10. Trusts are created either by the act of a party, or by operation of law — such a resulting trust, or a constructive trust. In most cases, at least 3 people are involved when a trust is created :
The Settlor - who creates the trust;
The Trustee - whose it is to carry out the terms of the trust;
The Beneficiary - for whose benefit the trust is created.
The property which is the subject of the trust, is called the trust property.
11. By definition, therefore, a trust is an equitable obligation created by the ‘settlor’, binding the ‘trustee’ — to deal with the trust property, for the benefit of the ‘beneficiaries’. The ‘settlor’ (such as the Sikh public or donors) himself may be a beneficiary. And any one of the beneficiaries may enforce the obligation.
12. Dealing with the question of gurdwaras and their property, especially in Britain, Canada and the U.S.A., it would be well to focus on express trusts, created during lifetime, by the method of specific documents, for particular purposes. In creating express trusts, some common methods are :
a. A declaration by the owner of property that he (or, it, if it is a society or company) holds it as Trustee for another person.
It is here, that it can be possible that a Gurdwara Society would declare that property recorded or registered in its name, is held in trust for so and so, such as, the Sikh worshippers, or at least the gurdwara congregation. If such ‘declaration’ is filed, there is no need for conveyance of the property and no passing of legal title. A common example is, where a parent is registered owner of a share certificate but is actually holding it on behalf of a child.
b. A transfer, during lifetime, of the legal title to the property by the owner to another person as trustee, either for the transferor himself (such as the donor Sikh public or group), or, more usually, for a third person (which could, for instance, be the Sikh congregations, or even a Sikh society) linked with the gurdwara.
For example, A may give a share certificate to B, and cause it to be registered in B’s name, and B is to hold it for the benefit of C.
It is important also, that directions contained in a trust must be imperative.
13. For comparison, the pattern of monastic church organization may be viewed at least as a point of reference, in the north American Sikhs’ search for a better role and management of centres of Sikh religious worship — the gurdwaras. Since early English history, the instrument of ‘trust’ has played the desired role to make possible the endowment of property for the propagation and maintenance of Christian beliefs. Only thus had the monasteries been able to provide the vital support to the poor and the needy in Christendom. Sikhism and Christianity are prominent in emphasising service to fellow-man.
14. Visiting in Devonshire, England, last year, I took a tour to Buckfast Abbey, of the order of Franciscan monks. It is not too far from Plymouth, on the west coastal district of Devon. The Abbey had been wiped out, and disappeared altogether, as a result of Henry VIII’s supremacy, and suppression of the monasteries. When Henry came to throne in 1509 AD much of the land in the kingdom was in the hands of the Church.
The cathedrals, monasteries, chapels, and Abbey’s held estates, by the income of which they were maintained. Henry the Tudor took it away from them. It caused much suffering to the poor, because the hungry, in the middle ages, had always been certain of a meal at the monastery gate. Our gurdwaras are a modern resonance of the spirit of Christianity in the medieval ages, in many respects. The history of gurdwaras has indeed shaped the history of the Sikh nation. The Nanakana Sahib liberation front, the Jallianwala Bagh agitation in Amritsar, and other assertions of the freedom of the Sikh church, are an important portion of the Anglo-Sikh history, following the loss of the Sikh kingdom to Whitehall.
In any case, father Nicholas conducted us on a intimate tour of the Buckfast Abbey church. We learned that it was the absolute and single-minded dedication of just a few monks that rediscovered the old foundations of the lost Abbey, earlier this century. Then, just 6 monks, who learned some skills on the job, reconstructed, over a period of 35 years, the present simple Abbey in Gothic style of a pleasant aspect. It was finished in 1935. There it stands today, in the peace and tranquility of Devonshire countryside and its coastal hills. Yet, it was not there for 4 centuries!
What struck me particularly inside, was the explanation of Father Nicholas about the figures of two deer (bucks) etched on the front side of the box-like table before the altar. The deer, he explained, thirsts for stream water, in biblical allegory, and is symbolic of man’s thirst for the Supreme. Well, said I, this is certainly most remarkable because, the Sikh gospel of Sri Guru Granth Sahib, is also replete with similar similes. The oriental imagery recalls the anguished longing of sarang, papiha, catrick, feathered creatures of different kind, for a drop of the rain water, conjuring the same thirst for God’s name (Naam), attested to in the altar decorations of the Buckfast Abbey church. ‘Bhaj, Sarang Pani’, and many other references in Sri Guru Granth Sahib, repeat the same spirit in our religion.
15. In this perspective, it is high time for Western Sikhs to reanalyse the role and effect of Sikh gurdwara management. It is quite obvious that Sikhs, here and elsewhere, have to back away from the internecine turmoil and friction that so characterise our gurdwara elections. The competition for the impact of theological centres, be those Christian churches, or Sikh gurdwaras, makes such review of our gurdwara system almost mandatory.
Those listening to holy teaching
And having faith, find abode in their true home.
By God-given wisdom through laudation of the Eternal Truth
Is found the Lord, repository of noble attributes.
Those dyed in God’s devotion are the truly pure;
May I ever be a sacrifice to them !
— Guru Granth Sahib, p. 27