Power struggle at Sikh temple in Hughson leads to fight, arrests

About 10 Sikh women crowded into the offices of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on Thursday morning. The organization’s president listened to them detail their claims of threats and violence toward them at their temple, while his staff took notes of civil rights violations relayed by the women.

The night before, violence broke out at their temple in Hughson, fueled by a power struggle over the leadership of the facility, they said. Three people were arrested.

The temple, Gurdwara Sahib on East Hatch Road, has been in a state of unrest for nearly a month since a group of men changed locks there, took control of its contribution box and appointed itself the interim executive committee.

The women say they are being threatened and intimidated by members of the takeover committee when they go to the temple to worship or when they speak out against the takeover committee.

“We are moderates. They are hard-core extremists. We are not safe there,” said one woman, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. “We cannot worship. Whoever speaks against these people, they have no place to worship.”

The takeover committee members argue that the 11-member elected committee had mismanaged the temple’s finances and refused to provide any accounting of expenditures.

Elections for the committee are currently on hold until a lawsuit and countersuit between the temple and one of its members concerning the bylaws of committee elections is resolved.

Dupinder Bajwa, a member of the takeover committee, said his group does not want the issue to be handled in court but instead settled within the congregation, which he thinks could happen in a few months.

Michael Ijams of law firm Berliner Cohen’s Modesto office has been representing the temple on behalf of the elected committee members since the first lawsuit was filed almost two years ago.

“We are trying to work out whether this can be resolved through negotiations, but have not ruled out legal action at this point,” he said.

Bajwa said five members from his committee and five from the former elected committee met Wednesday in an effort to reach some resolution over bylaws and temple management and practices.

Representatives from both sides disagree over the success of the meeting, but it was afterward, while announcing decisions made at the meeting, that verbal disputes allegedly escalated into physical violence.

Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department Lt. Keith Rakoncza said there were about 200 people in the parking lot when deputies responded to the reported fight. It’s the third time deputies have responded to conflicts at the temple since the takeover Sept. 7.

Boota Basi, who locally writes and publishes the Punjabi-language weekly newspaper Sanjhi Soch, said the fight was sparked by a woman who disagreed with his coverage of the committee conflict.

The woman told The Modesto Bee that Basi’s articles were defamatory toward her and other women in the temple.

Basi, who was cited and released on suspicion of committing assault, said the woman was the instigator and he intends to have charges brought against her.

Another man, Natha Singh, was arrested and booked on suspicion of battery, Rakoncza said. He said a third man was arrested and booked on suspicion of being drunk in public, but he did not have that man’s name.

The Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office has not filed charges against Basi or Singh at this time.