Healing and accountability in the wake of allegations old and new
In the United States, 1 in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys under the age of 18 have experienced sexual abuse or assault at an adult’s hands.i. As a community, we are not strangers to the sexual abuse of minors, especially by kirtanias (Sabad-Wisdom singers) and granthis (religious custodians at the Sikh place of learning Gurduara) we trust and respect. There are countless cases of abuse perpetrated by those who benefit from their status as religious leaders, and who enjoy a kind of immunity when it is revealed that they have committed abuse. Due to lack of precedent and skills on how to respond, more often than not, sangats (congregations) rush to support them, institutions rush to conceal abuse, and survivors are left with their trauma and the realization that their community chose to fail them.
We fail survivors again and again.
We have no adequate collective responses to these cases.
We have no adequate institutional responses to these cases.
When an anonymous blog surfaced this summer, reiterating the allegations related to one such case and providing links to articles and court documents, Gurdarshan Singh, the Granthi of the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation (GGSF) in Potomac, Maryland, began to hear rumblings from the broader community, asking for accountability.
Growing up in the DC area, I remember hearing the adults around me say things like, “we don’t go to that Gurduara,” referring to GGSF. This was in the late 1990s. I was too young to understand why, but a few years ago, I learned that the charges against Gurdashan Singh for sexual abuse of a child were well-known. The court documents stated that the abuse took place for more than a year, during kirtan (singing of Gurbani; Divine Praise) lessons. From 1989 until 1991, the abuse took place years before the court case came to light; the survivor was between 11 and 13 years of age.
Much to my horror, even though the court records were available to the public and these accusations were commonly known amongst the sangat, Gurdarshan Singh continued to sit on the stage at GGSF and sing sabads, deliver his kathas (explanatory talks), and benefit from the name he had made for himself as the charismatic Granthi who could do katha in English. He continued to be given access to children, and parents of children in the sangat continued to trust him with teaching their kids. I remember being horrified — I still am — at the notion that an entire sangat rallied around a man who pleaded guilty to abusing a child.
This past weekend, the parents of one survivor bravely came forward with their recollection of that time. In their interview, they describe how, in their words, the Board of the GGSF Gurduara, led by Dr. Rajwant Singh, decided to protect Gurdarshan Singh’s reputation and the reputation of their institution by smearing the reputation of the survivor. They made that decision twenty-five years ago, and the survivor and her family suffered for it.
In a June 1997 article written by Ritu Yadav for News India Times, Rajwant Singh is quoted as calling the allegations “frivolous,” framing the survivor as nothing more than a child with confused ideas about what took place. He said, Gurdarshan Singh “may have come into some physical contact with the girl, but this was unavoidable as he was also teaching religious music to her,” and that Gurdarshan Singh continued to officiate “with the full support of his parishioners.” The article also states that Gurdarshan Singh was “originally charged with child abuse and a third-degree sexual offense crime which carried a combined maximum sentence of 25 years in prison.”
Twenty-five years later, as the circumstances of the case resurfaced, Gurdarshan Singh resigned. GGSF released a salt-wounding statement, vaguely addressing his resignation and emphasizing his thirty years of service. There was no acknowledgment of the reason for it. No acknowledgment of the pain caused to the survivors and their families both from the abuse and the decision to attack the survivor’s credibility
Earlier this year, GGSF’s tabla (small drum) player, Sucha Singh, was charged in yet another sexual abuse case of a minor. GGSF swiftly fired him but made no public statements as to why. Instead, they let rumors foment about meat-eating and drinking at the Gurduara as a possible explanation for his departure. For reasons unknown, the case was dropped. However, Sucha Singh traveled to California and played on Gurduara stages there. He ended up in Long Island, where he currently sits on a stage playing tabla with Sarabjit Singh Rangila, one of the most well-known ragis in the community, for some of the wealthiest sangats in the country. As I sat and reflected on these three moments of GGSF and their Board failing to rise to the occasion to show selfless leadership, I wondered what we have become as a community. I am still grappling with that question. But the broader questions I want to ask are as follows:
Are we more worried about the reputation of our Gurduaras than the well-being of our children and the survivors?
What does healing look like?
What does accountability look like?
What happens when abusers roam free, dismissed from one place only to land in another?
What happens when we rush to justify or make excuses, bolster abusers with our money and power?
Who are we responsible for?
Who are we accountable to?
Power and its harm
Part of what I want to encourage us to grapple with as a community — which I believe we are grappling with in this case — is that we cannot solely focus on holding the abusers accountable.
We must also look at the networks of power, money, and influence that keep them protected from being accountable. We must hold those who rush to sweep these cases under the rug, withhold information from the sangat, and pour money into court cases and defense lawyers to avoid deportation (in the case of Gurdarshan Singh), responsible for the added harm they caused and continue to cause.
We cannot ignore that Rajwant Singh and his institution hold immense power and influence over both the local and the national sangat. We cannot ignore the fact that Gurdarshan Singh is well-known and well-loved by many of the wealthiest, most privileged, and most influential families in the US Diaspora. Similar patterns are visible in other known and documented sexual abuse cases among Sikh and non-Sikh communities.
In Pauri 14 of Asa Ki Var (Song of Hope), Guru Nanak Sahib uses the extended metaphor of the silk-cotton tree to describe powerful people who outwardly present themselves as mighty and successful, but who ultimately do not live up to appearances. The silk-cotton tree is tall and thick, and birds come to it with hopes of relishing its flowers and fruits. But they return disappointed. As its flowers are scentless, its fruits tasteless, and its leaves of no worth. This is a statement about status. No matter a person’s outward status or appearance, the sweetness cannot be talked about or physically displayed — it is exhibited in one’s sweet humility.
We might look up to people we consider to be successful and influential, these tall and mighty pillars of our communities, large and small, and due to the way they present themselves, we might think that we can go to them for help or advice. We might think we can rely on them. But, Guru Nanak Sahib says, it is those people who present themselves as powerful and humble who may end up disappointing us with their empty talk. When powerful people have empty humility, we are left disappointed. Guru Nanak Sahib talks about the necessity of sweet humility. This sweet humility is the essence of all virtues and goodness. If we are great and high and impressive and beautiful but lacking in that sweetness, what good is any of the rest of it?
Guru Nanak Sahib distinguishes between the appearance of sweet humility and real inner sweet humility. It is not good enough to physically bow in humility, claim that we are low, or perform this sweet humility for other people. If we were to weigh our actions on a scale, we would see who is living in sweet humility. Because Guru Nanak Sahib says, even a hunter who hunts deer, bows twice as much while aiming — those who have criminal intent, those who engage in “bad” behaviors will bend twice as much as those people who do not engage in these behaviors. What good is it then, to bow our heads if there is no sweet humility, no cleansing in our hearts?
We have seen this in the case of Gurdarshan Singh and Rajwant Singh. Both have immense influence and use it to their advantage, holding each other up through the years, accomplices in the far-reaching harm they have failed to mitigate.
Guru Nanak Sahib says that these kinds of powerful people lie so eloquently, with such skill, with such sharp tongues that their lies come out looking like gold and gems. They present themselves a certain way; they wear a certain uniform to “look the part.” And they play their part perfectly. In today’s context, they may be the people who appear in PR campaigns and million-dollar documentary projects; they may take photos at the White House and perform piety. But, Guru Nanak Sahib says, all of this is worthless — the uniform and the “deeds.”
The ghost-like populace wanders in circles
And understandably, that kind of visible power and influence is alluring. So many have come to these powerful men in hopes of gaining access to a world that feels elusive. Many have placed them on such high pedestals that now, they cannot bring them back down and take a closer look to see them for who they really are. Sometimes, it is our instinct to latch on to power where we see it, hoping to bask in the shadow of giants, sacrificing our consciences for the possibility of some kind of proximity to this power. But we must not fall for it anymore.
Guru Nanak Sahib says that there are people who perform in the earthly theater, prey on our emotions, egos, and temporary feelings, who lie to us as they go through the motions, forever going in circles. Guru Nanak Sahib lists out various things which spin in circles to compare them to the dance-rotations of the street-artists: potter’s wheels, hand mills, spinning tops, churning sticks, grain threshers, and birds flying in circles.
Oil-press, spinning wheel, hand mill, potter’s wheel (and) many endless whirlwinds of the deserts. Spinning tops, churning sticks, grain threshers (and) the (flocks of) wandering birds, do not take a breath.
Having been mounted on the spike, (many more) devices are rotated. Nanak! There are neither countings nor ends to the rotating (devices and beings).
Having tied in the bonds, that (formless One alone) makes (the beings) wander. In accordance with the inscribed writ, everyone dances.
— Asa Ki Var, Pauri 5, Salok 2 . ii
We are collectively circling, too. In the case of GGSF and its Board, we watch history repeat itself. We watch an institution, twenty-five years later, demonstrate that it has not learned anything from its previous actions, as it continues to sweep sexual abuse out of sight.
We have watched some people struggle to separate their emotional relationships with Gurdarshan Singh, some who see him as family, some who feel he has been central to their Sikhi journeys. It is not easy to process for anyone, especially not for people who had previously only heard his side of the story. But on the other side, the evidence is out. The court documents are available. The information is there. As a community, we must learn how to avoid our gut instinct to defend the ones we hold in such high esteem so vehemently without asking the necessary questions. And now that those questions have been answered so bravely by the parents of one survivor, what is critical now is how we take on the responsibility of knowing this information. Twenty-five years ago, her sangat deeply betrayed this survivor. Today, the silence of otherwise progressive and Panthic Sikhs on these matters is deafening. We must not make that mistake again.
Unfortunately, we have watched some reacting the exact way others did back in the 1990s, making excuses for the abuser, defending his reputation, and blaming the survivors. We have watched that same institution make some of the same mistakes with another case of abuse, and we have watched that abuser continue to comfortably sit on a stage in a community that knows about his guilty plea for sexual abuse of a minor. For some, the circling continues.
Devoid of wisdom, the blind citizenry (wander) like the dead, fuel the fire (of their craving).
— Asa Ki Var, Pauri 11, Salok 2 . iii
We wander around like ghosts, Guru Nanak Sahib says, blind without wisdom, fueling the fires of our baseline emotions and temptations.
We are walking around, dead to our realities.
We are enthralled with powerful men who say things they do not mean.
We do not question.
We do not speak up.
We do not protest.
We do not bear witness to the truth.
Wounding a new generation
And the circular nature of these events means that now, an entirely new generation and a half of Sikhs have to grapple with and heal from the horrifying reality that the institutions that were meant to be places of refuge and safety protected these abusers. They have to grapple with and heal from the other painful reality that many of their parents knew and did not care, knew and blamed the survivors, knew and invited Gurdarshan Singh to youth camps, knew and had him sing at their functions, knew and sent their own children to lessons with him anyway.
These realizations actually might make a new generation of survivors less likely to come forward, as they understand that even those who they expected to make protecting children their first priority didn’t.
I have heard many say that because their children or children they know did not experience sexual abuse, they are justified in continuing to support these known abusers. I have heard some state that they did their “due diligence,” sitting with their children during lessons, or going to camps and introducing themselves to the volunteers and those in charge so they “know who they will be messing with.” These responses make dangerous and harmful insinuations that the parents of those survivors did not do enough to protect their child. It is especially detrimental because these parents already feel guilt over what their children experienced. These responses also relieve the abusers of their guilt and perpetuate the idea that instead of removing abusers from our Gurduaras and camps for our children’s safety, we must leave every family to their own devices to ensure that known abusers do not choose to abuse their children.
We are meant to be a Panth (Sikh collective). So why is it that in these cases, we stop caring about protecting each other?
O Nanak, having created the living beings, the Divine cherishes them all.
The Creator who created the creation, takes care of it as well.
The Creator who formed the world, cares for it.
— Guru Granth Sahib, 467 . iv
All of creation is equally Divine, equally cherished by and cared for by the Creator, and so we too, as part of creation, must do our best to see IkOankar in all. And not just see it — to act on it in our daily lives and in our interactions with other people. This foundational principle translates into acting as allies for other marginalized communities and fighting for those who are not treated equally or with compassion either by individuals or by entire oppression systems. Simply put, it means taking care of each other. In this context, it means protecting children (not just our own children), supporting survivors, and helping them speak up or speaking up on their behalf if they do not feel comfortable speaking up themselves. It means believing them when they do speak up.
It means that when we know a person is a danger to our most vulnerable, we remove them from places where they can inflict harm even by being present. It means that when a man is charged with sexually abusing a minor, it is not enough for a Gurduara to quietly fire him with no explanation, no information or warning given to the sangat, and no broader communication with other Gurduaras around the country about his abuse. It means that if that abusive man ends up in Long Island sitting on stages of some of the most prestigious Gurduaras in the country, all we have done is move a harmful person from one place to another to perpetuate more harm. It means all we have done is sent him away and washed our hands of him, hoping that he is no longer our problem. That is not Panthic. That is choosing to act in the interests of preserving your institution’s reputation and brand over choosing to protect children. It is irresponsible, and it is actively harmful. It is a betrayal to survivors and to every child who is put in harm’s way as a result. What have we done as a community if we do not protect our most vulnerable across state lines and across oceans?
What does our history tell us?
Historically, when there was an iota of doubt of wrongdoing, making apologies was not the extent to which people were held accountable. There were at least two cases in the 18th century. In the case of Jassa Singh Ramgarhia, leader of a Sikh Misl (group in Sikh confederacy of commonwealth) and one of the twelve foremost leaders in the Sikh world, was excommunicated and boycotted by the community after being accused of female infanticide.v. Even such a prominent figure was not spared from the consequences outlined in the Rahitnama (writing on the code of conduct or lifestyle of a Sikh). Bhai Daia Singh, first volunteer amongst the original Panj Piara on the Vaisakhi of 1699 to join the newly inaugurated Khalsa order, wrote in his 1708 Rahitnama that those who had sex with a minor would be charged a serious fine.vi.
In more recent history, another wealthy and influential diasporic institution — 3HO — finally did something to respond to sexual abuse accusations many years later by opening an investigation and making their findings public.
In the spirit of these historical examples, we can conclude that Sikh leaders have a moral and ethical responsibility to the Panth that must be honored, which extends beyond the realm of seeking justice from the legal system. The leadership’s responsibility is to inform the broader public, carry out consequences, and take accusations seriously.
However, far from holding Gurdarshan Singh accountable and communicating with the sangat, the Gurduara effectively ignored the the sexual abuse conviction as soon as they could. According to the parents' video statement, a few days after the verdict, Gurdarshan Singh was allowed to be present at an Amrit Sanchar (initiation ceremony).
Where do we go from here?
In Pauri 17 of Asa Ki Var, Guru Nanak Sahib writes about the Hindu ceremony, which is performed to ensure that one’s ancestors are still living well in the afterlife, where the Pandit plays a particular role as the interpolator. But the ceremony is situated in the context of those corrupt elites who have stolen from the ordinary people and offered their “blood money” or ill-gotten gains to their ancestors. Guru Nanak Sahib says that if a thief breaks into a house and then offers the stolen goods to their ancestors, the thief is inadvertently turning their ancestors into thieves as well. If the Brahmin priest plays the role of religious interpolator in the ceremony with these stolen goods, the Brahmin is a thief.
The responsibility for these ill-gotten gains lies on all three players (the thief, the priest, and the ancestors) involved in the ceremony, and all three players will be punished as a result. In fact, the middle man faces a more drastic punishment, as they facilitate and, by virtue of their status, legitimize these kinds of false ceremonies and unethical transactions.
We see the parallels here, as the abusers are responsible, but so are those in positions of power who poured money into protecting them, and so too are those in the sangat who turned a blind eye. All must be held accountable.
In an ideal situation, the Gurduara would have learned from their past actions, fired Gurdarshan Singh and Sucha Singh, provided public statements as to why they were fired and apologized publicly to the survivors. They would have offered to provide counseling and support to survivors. They would have provided counseling to the perpetrators and treated what is classified as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, instead of only asking for an apology. They would have facilitated a reconciliation if that is what the survivor wanted. They would have disseminated information on these abusers to Gurduaras around the country and abroad to ensure that they were not given platforms and access to children, fulfilling their responsibility to the Panth at large. Youth camp organizers who knew about the abuse would not have continued to invite abusers to their camps. The Board that decided to attack the credibility of a survivor instead of holding an abuser accountable would step down. The man whose influence over the situation continues to be only harmful, who continues to demonstrate that he has no remorse over how he has enabled and protected an abuser for over two decades, would step down.
In a letter to Rajwant Singh dated July 18, 1997, the Jathedar of the Akal Takht, Ranjit Singh, asked for clarifications on these allegations, but that is all that is publicly known. Was there a follow-up? We do not currently have mechanisms to respond to these cases and ensure accountability. We cannot address these cases Panthically by merely requiring an apology.
When the survivor’s family sends out repeated pleas to the Board, the most recent dated July 2020, enumerating a series of requests meant to facilitate reconciliation and healing and it is ignored, where do we go from there?
We must reflect deeply on these events and allow them to open up conversations that are long overdue about hero-worship, networks of power and influence and money in our community, and about responsibility and accountability on both individual and institutional levels. We must treat the cause and its effects by providing counseling to the perpetrators and the survivors and their families, respectively. We must make it our responsibility to protect one another by refusing to sweep these cases under the rug.
In Pauri 22 of Asa Ki Var, Guru Angad Sahib uses the metaphor of a seed and says that whatever is within the seed, that is what grows or comes out of it. Whatever is in our minds and hearts, unfailingly manifests in our behavior. Behavior or words that are different from what is inside of our hearts are of no use.
If we are sowing the seeds of poison, we cannot reap the fruits of nectar.
To expect that would be to expect justice to be turned on its head.
To expect that would be hypocritical.
To expect that would be to expect the impossible.
So then the question is, what will we learn from this? What are we planting? And what is growing from the things we have planted? What will we leave for the generations to come? How will we show that we have Identified with IkOankar by expecting better of our community and protecting each other? Can we rise up to the challenge?
Update: October 1, 2020 statement from the GGSF Board is the first of many necessary steps toward reconciliation and accountability. However, it leaves many concerns unaddressed.
Update: October 17, 2020 statement from SikhRI Board of Directors