Published On: Tue, Sep 1st, 2015

San Jose Sikhs flock to elect new leaders

SAN JOSE (Sep. 1st) - From early morning to past sunset, thousands of Sikhs cast ballots Sunday to elect new leaders of a large and majestic house of worship beset by internal power struggles and a tangle of lawsuits.

“The people are showing up to speak their minds again,” Summan Tersen Singh, an Applied Materials technician, said as he stood in a long line at The Sikh Gurdwara San Jose. “This is a good day for everyone here.”

The election mood at one of America’s largest gurdwaras — where 6,802 members registered to vote — was happy and optimistic as hundreds of voters stayed for hours after casting their ballots to chat and pray in anticipation of the results.

For years, Gurdwara San Jose probably has been known as much in Santa Clara County Court for the lawsuits filed between its litigious leaders as in the greater community for the congregation’s religious and community activities. Sunday’s election — ordered by a superior court judge — was largely a contest between two slates with clearly defined agendas.

The incumbent Parbandhat, or steering committee, promised continued growth and prosperity while the challengers on the Sadh Sangat committee said they would restore honesty and accountability in matters around finance and governance. Each slate ran 21 candidates for a new steering committee, with two others running independently. Voters could cast ballots for up to 21 candidates of their choice.

“Everybody can see what we’ve done and they like it,” said Pritam Singh Grewal, a candidate of the Parbandhat. He and other incumbents want to build an elder-care facility, funeral home and Sikh heritage park and a path around the sprawling complex in the EvergreenValley hills, southeast of downtown San Jose.

Ajit Singh said he and other family members cast their votes for the current leaders.

“They made this place and have done a very good job,” he said.

However, the challengers seemed to have plenty of supporters, too.

A challenger assessed his own chances for victory.

“My guys’ chances are pretty good,” said Singh Jaspal, a candidate with the challenging slate whose members had long accused the incumbents of rigging temple elections and stifling the opposition. “We will never restrict anybody from saying what they think or feel.”

The election was long anticipated for Cheema Karampal Kaur, whose father, Sukhmander Singh Dhaliwal, helped established the gurdwara in 1985. Members of both slates personally lobbied for her family’s support.

“There was a lot of anxiety here between the two committees,” Kaur said. “It’s time for change, time to make room for the next generation and to make the community more involved.”

Retired countyJudge Kevin Murphy monitored the election for the court.

“It looks like this has been a pretty impressive turnout,” he said.

Outside a large room with 26 voting booths, dozens of men and women in street clothes or traditional clothing lined up to cast ballots from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Murphy said the final count could run into late Sunday night.

Sukhi Chahal, an engineer and founder of the nonprofit Punjab Foundation, said the election results will be watched by gurdwaras across North America where disagreements too often end up in the courts.

“This was one of the most aggressive campaigns I have ever seen in the Bay Area,” Chahal said. “There is a lot at stake here.”