A couple of weeks ago, posts on social media circled around a former investigation and court case involving the Head Granthi of Guru Gobind Singh Foundation of Maryland, Gurdarshan Singh. This was the first I’ve heard of the court case. In short, in 1996/1997, Gurdarshan Singh was accused of sexual misconduct after a survivor spoke about the sexual abuse they suffered from their keertan teacher in the State of Maryland. The court documents in record state that the minor was abused over the course of 3 years and aged 11–13 years old. In 1997, Gurdarshan Singh pleaded guilty to sexual offense in the 4th degree. According to The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), sexual offense in the 4th degree in Maryland is the nonconsensual sexual contact or sexual act with a minor. This is synonymous with the accepted definition of Child Sexual Abuse.
He was sentenced to 1 year of imprisonment which was not completed and instead reduced to 18 months probation. (Side note, as a prison abolitionist, regardless of the crime I do not think prison time is an appropriate sentence, but more on that later). It’s worth noting that the court documents are about an immigration case and not the actual child abuse case probably because those records are sealed.
Disclaimer About Me
If you do not believe survivors, this article is not for you. You will not learn or agree or reflect on any of the viewpoints further made in this article. And while I personally would be appalled to know people who blatantly cannot accept and believe survivor stories, I must recognize these people exist because if they did not we would not have sexual predators in this world at all.
However, if you would like to read more about the complexity of believing survivors and also believing there must be a path forward for improvement and rehabilitation for the perpetrators, maybe this article will be useful. Maybe not. This viewpoint is largely analyzing the issue on Gurdarshan Singh’s side. That in itself is problematic- we should be thinking and speaking about the survivors here. Unfortunately, I think the Sikh Community could benefit from this alternative framing in order to learn and grow.
Now a little about me. I am not someone who is personally affected by Gurdarshan’s teachings or leadership. He is not part of my sangat. I’ve met him a handful of times but have never actually exchanged words with him. It is important for me to note this because there are hundreds of people who were positively impacted by Gurdarshan Singh’s teaching, friendship and sangat over the years. He’s somewhat of a celebrity figure in the Maryland, Virginia and Texas areas. He is a Sikh leader that could connect with everyone, young and old. He’s a father figure to many. He is not that to me.
I will not be able to speak to how earth shattering it can be for someone who truly loves Gurdarshan Singh and then to find out about these crimes of child sexual abuse over 20 years later. I am not in that state of mind. My only advice for those that are going through these mixed emotions is to take care of yourself, work through these feelings with a trained professional and refrain from staying within circles and conversations where only like minded people exist with this issue. There is no movement for growth in that siloed space.
To some, this is a complex case. To some it is not. Because I have no direct line to Gurdarshan Singh, for me, this case is similar to learning about a Priest in a Roman Catholic Church abusing little boys. When allegations after allegations came out against The Catholic Church, I had no room within me to doubt those allegations. I supported survivors speaking out and I believed that The Church was not an adequate authoritative body to punish leaders that were among their own. I am sure that there were plenty of people who supported individual perpetrators because of all the good that they had done for their faith and The Church.
But here are aspect of the case that I think are noteworthy:
- The allegations, convictions, sentencing and public records are 20 years old. I have no timeline of events from 1997 to 2020. Did Gurdarshan Singh seek peshi from The Panj Pyare? Did Gurdarshan Singh go through intense therapy because we know that sexual predation and pedophilia is considered a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association? Was there a plan for rehabilitation and was that plan executed fully? I would love to have these questions answered. I think the Sikh Community deserves these answers.
- In the last 20 years, Gurdarshan Singh has had access to Sikh minors through various Sikh Camps and Keertan classes. Again, I have no way of knowing if Gurdarshan Singh was properly rehabilitated, but I do think that if I was a parent, I would want to know if any teachers or leaders in youth settings have had past criminal convictions or allegations of abuse against them. I would not send my kids to learn from a previously convicted sex offender. This is my preference. (Side note, just as a school systems, I think all Sikh Camps and Sikh Youth Spaces should do an adequate background check on all teachers & staff)
- Post 1997, Gurdarshan Singh has held positions of power within the Sikh Community. As Head Granthi of Guru Gobind Singh Foundation, he is someone that sangat is supposed to trust for spiritual guidance. (Side note: I think all Gurdwara constitutions should have rules against convicted persons from holding leadership positions. For example, we would not want to elect someone who’s been convicted of money laundering and fraud to be the Gurdwara Treasurer. In that similar context, maybe we should not institute a Head Granthi that is there to guide sangat in Sikhi when sexual assault of any kind is anti-Sikh)
- If there was proper rehabilitation, why did so many Sangat members not know about Gurdarshan Singh’s past convictions? Why was this secret? Who decided to keep this a secret? Was it a secret because people did not believe this to be true despite Gurdarshan Singh pleading guilty? Did those that knew about this feel that the Sangat would react poorly if they knew about the past sexual abuse? Who were the people that swept this under the rug? They should be held accountable. Does the Sangat not have every right to all the information before making a conscious decision on where they go to Gurdwara? Do sangat members not have the freedom to choose the sangat they keep? Again, if I had known about this, I 100% would not be sending my family members or kids to learn from Gurdarshan Singh but I 100% think that this decision each individual is entitled to make for themselves. If there are Sikhs that feel comfortable being part of Gurdarshan’s Sangat, who am I to stop that? But in regards to keeping this a secret, there is however one point that I must admit myself. I have often wanted to silence bad news or stories about Sikhs from the media. Pre 9/11 and post, I did not want Sikhs to be shown in a bad light in the mainstream media. I did not think the Sikh Community could risk bad press and to some extent I will always feel that way. But I think now in 2020, I need to look past this. I cannot protect the world from knowing that some Sikhs are in fact, bad people. It goes without saying but, religions aren’t inherently bad but people can be bad. If it is hard for someone to separate those two differences then I do not believe they are ready to learn and grow. They are not someone I’d let dictate what stories I talk publicly about and what stories I keep private. You could also say that if you are a child abuser, you are not Sikh at all. You do not uphold the Sikh teachings given to us by our Gurus.
- Lastly, how did Gurdarshan Singh’s immigration status and his escape from persecution in India affect his court case in The States? Do we think silencing the victim’s story was a tool used to make sure Gurdarshan Singh was not deported back to India? Do we think that Gurdarshan Singh pleaded guilty so he could appeal his deportation case? Regardless of the guilty plea, I still stand with the survivor’s story.
It goes without saying that in all cases of systemic oppression, privilege and power dynamics that we MUST believe victims and survivors.
However, if as a Sikh Community, we stand by Black Americans and understand their horrible mistreatment within society, we need to recognize that it is 1000% easier to recognize anti-Black racism when the perpetrators of racism are white people.
And in this case, it may be hard to look at a child abuser because the perpetrator is Sikh. How many times do we believe survivors when white people are the predators? Or just non-Sikh perpetrators, like R Kelly? R Kelly was charged with over 10 counts of sexual abuse of a minor and it is pretty well understood and believed.
To know where I stand on cancel culture, a great article in Huffington Post sums it up. In fact, I have a whole podcast on cancel culture. In short, my feelings on cancel culture are similar to my feelings on Black Lives Matter protests, vandalism of Confederate statues, Defunding the Police and looting. It’s worth noting that Black Lives Matter and Child Abuse are two completely serious but separate issues, and while neither can be compared to each other, I’m using BLM as an analogy to bring my point across.
For Black Lives Matter the Black Community and beyond has hit it’s breaking point. The anger and suffering has gone on long enough. The anger cannot be contained. And achieving racial equity must be attained by any means and cost. This means that I believe these “extreme” acts such as lighting police cars on fire, sitting on the lawns of City Hall for months on end and calling for the large reallocation of the Police funding — all of it is needed to make change. It’s worth noting that this is working. All of this is working. We’ve seen small steps for change. In the three weeks after the murder of George Floyd, more than a dozen states have introduced, amended or passed bills related to policing and police reform. This also means that in systems of power and oppression, I think all steps taken by the oppressed party is justified to attain a specific end.
Back to cancel culture. This means that because there are hundreds of predators in the world and there is tons of research that shows how difficult it is for survivors to achieve justice in court (especially when the victim is a minor), cancel culture is a tool used so that the collective citizens of the world can hold people in power accountable for their actions. To me, collective citizens protesting every day against white supremacy is the same as cancel culture but in physical form. Protestors are using signs and their voice and their physical bodies to call out racism and are calling for leaders to resign from their jobs.
Similarly, the much smaller scale of social media outpour against Gurdarshan Singh also achieved an intended outcome- his resignation as Head Granthi. I also want to note that while the cancelation was “successful,” canceling Gurdarshan Singh does not mean there is no path towards atonement or forgiveness. Removing an abuser in power is the bare minimum and still leaves a lot of room for the abuser to change and achieve forgiveness.
Remember, there would be no reason to cancel anyone if white people didn’t exhibit racism, or if men didn’t sexually harass their female colleagues, or if people weren’t committing hate crimes against LGBTQIA+ and People of Color. So instead of focusing on why cancel culture is bad, focus on why people need to “cancel” someone in the first place. Instead of focusing on looting, focus on what has happened to the Black community to be forced to loot and vandalize cop cars.
I do not believe having just a dialogue with Gurdarshan Singh cuts it. And to be frank, just having a dialogue and being passive is not the only thing taught in Sikhi. We are taught the concept of Sant Sipahi or “Warrior Saint.” Therefore, “canceling” or cyber bullying a person believed to be a child sexual abuser until they have resigned from their position of power is something I’m okay with, as long as the focus is on the predator only- not their family members or friends. Those that find pleasure in threatening the innocent family members of Gurdarshan Singh are not any better than Gurdarshan Singh. They are in fact ruining cancel culture for everyone else.
Atonement and Rehabilitation: What That Looks Like
Like I mentioned earlier, I do not know if Gurdarshan Singh was properly punished or rehabilitated or if rehabilitation is even something that can be successfully achieved. I have yet to learn more about that, but I am open to gaining clarity.
In Sikhi we do have a formal process for Amritdhari Sikhs to speak about their sins in the presence of The Guru Granth Sahib and The Panj Pyare. This is known as Peshi. I’m going to assume Gurdarshan Singh did in fact take Peshi and followed through on the “punishment” the Panj Pyare may have given him. This is a good first step.
But I challenge you this, do we feel that The Sikh Community has adequately grappled with the sexual abuse that is within religious leaders and Sikh institutions? We all completely understand that in Sikhism, any non-consensual sexual activity is strictly forbidden- there is no disagreement there. We all know it. But do we feel that the Sikh Community has had enough “success stories” about preventing, stopping and punishing sexual predators in Sikh spaces?
I compare this to the movement within the Roman Catholic Church. Allegation after allegations came out of Priests in power preying on young boys in their perishes in the early 2000s. The Archdioceses involved did consider punishment in these cases and their punishments in the early years and for many years was to relocate these Priests to new communities. The abuse continued and it took a front page article in The Boston Globe plus many years after that for The Archdiocese and The Pope himself to come out with a statement and a full condemnation of sexual abuse within Catholic Spaces. Have we heard a similar condemnation from Akal Takht? I have hope that we will not only have a statement of condemnation but real examples of punishments being carried out. And I hope it will not take a public display such as a front page news article for change to happen. We are better than that. We’ve learned to be better than that.
Beyond the Sikh forms of Peshi, these are my suggestions (but not the only suggestions as I am not an expert in this) for punishment for sexual predators beyond a prison sentence:
- Mandatory Therapy for survivors and perpetrators. While there is no “treatment or cure” for child abusers, there are proven therapy methods that teach predators (mostly pedophiles) on how not to act on sexual urges. It is worth noting that according to research, the best way to reduce harm to children is to prevent predators from accessing children in the first place.
- A Removal of all platforms of power for the predator. Cut off all access from power structures and dynamics. This is extremely important. While the process of rehabilitation is incomplete, Gurdarshan Singh should not have had access to children alone in Sikh spaces and should not have been in a leadership position in the Sikh Community. Period.
- Transparency. Community members have the right to know the process in which rehabilitation & punishment should occur and what it should look like.
- Education. Any type of education for Gurdarshan Singh on why what he did was wrong should not be on the burden of victims or survivors or on anyone that does not feel comfortable keeping a dialogue with him. Similar to educating white people on anti-Black racism- that burden should not fall on Black people. This type of emotional labor should be taken upon other Sikh leaders in power. I have to recognize that while I am not a survivor here, I would not be able to tolerate a dialogue on education or rehabilitation with Gurdarshan Singh. I simply do not have the strength. But I do believe it is so important that a dialogue exists for him to learn.
I’ve spoken a lot about Gurdarshan Singh so far and I have not heard from the victim or family of the victim. Have we not created a safe space for victims to speak freely? Have we made the Gurdwara a safe space for the victim? We definitely have not. We need to center all conversations and voices of the victim(s). I want all survivors to know that I believe you and the Sikh Community should too. None of the good he did for individual Sikhs who learned The Sikh Way of Life from him can be done at the expense of our children.
I have lots of thoughts but mostly, unanswered questions. I look to those that knew about the abuse for answers. In order for the Sikh community to learn and prevent abuse from happening again, I think I need a proper understanding of how and when things went wrong and how we failed the survivors. Let me clear, I am not trying to rationalize child abuse. I want to know how some members of The Sikh Community failed to keep Sikh children safe. Answers are needed because we cannot continue to let this happen. We need to protect our children and we need to carve out a path for abusers to recognize their abusive behavior, be punished for it and then learn from it so we can stop the pattern of abuse.