“The Indian government has a lot of interference in our religion,” says former president of oldest U.S. gurdwara
STOCKTON, California—Manjit Singh Uppal, the past president of the historic Stockton Gurdwara, has been chosen by the North American Sikh Summit to join four others to represent their interests in the November 10th Sarbat Khalsa in Amritsar, Punjab.
The 2015 Sarbat Khalsa is an historic event aiming to bring global representation to the selection process of leaders in the Sikh religion. Uppal’s involvement is significant considering that Stockton is home to the first Sikh Gurdwara in the United States, which is directly linked to India’s independence struggle and was home to the Ghadar (Revolution) Party that agitated for a free, independent, and united India four decades before that status was achieved in 1950. Sikhs describe Stockton as “ground zero for India’s independence struggle.”
Manjit Singh Uppal took a few minutes to talk with Organization for Minorities of India’s Steve Macías about the upcoming Sarbat Khalsa.
Steve Macias (SM) : Now, you yourself are significant to this because you’ve been part of the Stockton Temple for close to forty years. Could you explain why you were picked and the role your leadership in Stockton is playing in this situation?
Manjit Singh Uppal (MU): Basically, Stockton Gurdwara has been working on this issue for the last four or five years. What’s happening in Amritsar at the Akal Takht is a main point for all the Sikhs. This is our center of Sikhism, yet the Sikhs that live outside of India have no voice in what goes on there. So this is the whole idea: we want all Sikhs to be represented in decision making on our religious issues.
Luckily, this opportunity came along to have the Sarbat Khalsa, which basically means a time for everyone to get together to decide who is going to be our next leader (or appointee) of the Panth in the Sikh religion.
SM: So this is an historic moment. I know that Sikhs have traditionally held the Sarbat Khalsa, but when was the last time this has been done in recent history?
MU: The last Sarbat Khalsa was in 1986, but this has always been done within India. There was no system to have a worldwide representation. This is the first time that everyone is going to get together to try and come up with a system that represents everyone. We need a system that includes Sikhs from all over the world and is willing to hear their issues.
SM: I understand that this Sarbat Khalsa is being held outside the Akal Takt. Is there friction here with the current leadership?
MU: The party that controls the Akal Takt right now is a small group. They have their own system and they would like to keep control over it. To Sikhs, it doesn’t matter where you hold the Sarbat Khalsa. It is not the building that is itself important, but the concept of it.
SM: Now, you are representing a pretty large group of Sikhs from North America. You met together on October 31st in Yuba City. Can you tell me about who was involved in the Summit?
MU: We held two summits. The first was at the Stockton Gurdwara and the second one was this past weekend in Yuba City. We had 121 Gurdwaras and 50 Sikh groups that were there representing the United States and Canada.
We got together for this conference and appointed certain people to go to India. I am part of this group of five that is now going there. Overall, we have about 30 people who will be going to the Sarbat Khalsa in India.
SM: Your group will be presenting a set of resolutions at the Sarbat, right?
MU: Five of us are flying to India to represent the conference we had and the resolutions that we passed. We are hoping to introduce these at the Sarbat on November 10th and then to come back to these ideas in six months with another meeting. The goal here is to develop our system to include people outside of India and create real representation of all the Sikhs on all four corners of the world.
SM: Do you anticipate that the Sikhs will cooperate at the Sarbat? Do you think they will be able to find an international consensus or will there be difficulty in coming to an agreement?
MU: In India it is hard to tell, but over ninety-nine percent of the Sikhs around the world are on board. There are some people in India — the ones who are trying to control things — who don’t want this. So I am not sure what kind of front they will have or what their ideology is. But Sikhs around the world are on board, and they want representation of their own, and they don’t want someone else to be appointing their main Sikh representatives. We won’t find out until that day or the day before what they are planning to do.
But Sikhs are united on this. Sikhs throughout India and outside of India are very united around this Sarbat Khalsa. We all recognize that we need a system that represents all the Sikhs, not just the leaders in Punjab. Even in Punjab, where there are three other parties, we only have one party controlling the entire situation.
SM: Is the Indian government interfering with the leadership there?
MU: The Indian government plays a big role there. In Punjab, the Indian government has a lot of interference in our religion. That’s one of the main reasons we think the Sarbat Khalsa should be held. We aren’t trying to be political. This is a religious issue. We are trying to remove politics from our religious affairs.
SM: Do you anticipate the government trying to interfere with the Sarbat Khalsa?
MU: It is hard to tell, but I have heard reports that the security forces are already there. I don’t know what their participation will be. We need to do for our religion what we need to do. Like I said, over ninety-nine percent of Sikhs are for this, and we have to go to carry the message forward. This is our religion, so we don’t want it mixed up in struggles to gain political control. We’re talking about our main hub, where every Sikh looks for direction.
SM: What do you hope this Sarbat Khalsa accomplishes?
MU: We only have two basic goals that came out of the conference. We need to build a system for our representation so that we can hold another Sarbat Khalsa in six months. Also, we need to decide how we can represent the Sikhs all over the world that live outside of India. That is our biggest goal. Then we will decide who will be the Jathedar — our appointee. This will be an interim Sarbat Khalsa while we work on a procedure. This work might take six months or more. Once we have a system, we can call another Sarbat Khalsa to decide who to appoint as our representative. Right now, whoever we elect on the 10th will be interim until we develop a system that includes everybody.
SM: I understand that there is lots of tension in Punjab and some violence and there is this desecration of the Sikh scriptures that happened. Are you concerned about the future of Punjab and the safety of the Golden Temple?
MU: Definitely. The situation in Punjab is right at the border of blowing up. The burning of the Guru Granth Sahib and tearing out the pages is worrying Sikhs all over the world. But the Sikhs in Punjab have been protesting peacefully and that is how we want it to continue. We want everything to be done peacefully. We need to, at least, set up a system where the Sikhs of the Panth control their representation. The Sikh religion is caught in the middle of this because it is being used by others for political gain. If we were in a true democracy, these desecrations would not be happening and those responsible would have been arrested by now. This violence is being used for political gain and that is not good for Punjab or India.
India is a democracy, and every religion should be free to govern their own affairs without these deep interventions from the government. We took this from the American ideology that religion should be free from any political parties. This should be religious-based, and that’s all there is. We want this to be representative of all groups, and we need a system that wants to hear from everyone. We don’t want a system where the government picks the Sikh representatives.
SM: You have five people in your group going to India. How were these five picked?
MU: At the October 31 Conference, the 110 Gurdwaras decided to send over 30 people to the Sarbat. Of these, five people were picked to be the spokesmen for that group in any talks or negotiations. They are doing the same thing in India and all over the world. Together we all will be part of the Sarbat Khalsa committee.
SM: Do you expect big changes to happen in the next six months?
MU: This is our long term vision: we at least want Jathedars and our main leaders that are appointed by the Panth and the Golden Temple complex to be independent from any party or government. That complex itself represents Sikhism for Sikhs around the globe. It should not be controlled by any special interest group. But that will take time — maybe two or three years — but our ultimate goal is to have the Harminder Sahib independent from any political groups. This is something new. First we have to develop our system of representation for the global Sikhs.
This is the first time for Sikhs all around the world to get together and discuss this all openly. On November 10, we can talk about all these proposals and work on our plans going forward. Nothing will be concrete. Then we can hold
another Sarbat Khalsa in six months. But right now we have no system to do anything because everything is being run by the Punjab government. This is the first time, so we are trying to get together and build something that will be
representative of all the Sikhs around the world. That is our perspective from the Yuba City Conference.
SM: We are praying for your safe travel and thank you for your time today.
MU: Thanks, Steve, stay in touch.