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Sikh Women Gain Voting Rights at Bristol Gurdwara
By KAMALLA ROSE KAUR
The Sikh Times, Aug. 31, 2008
Photo: Bristol Gurdwara
Come join with me, my sisters,
And sing songs of joy and delight.
My true friends have arrived in my home!
--Guru Nanak, Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh scripture), p. 764
The Sikh religion preaches and promotes equal rights for women. Female subordination, the practice of taking a father's or a husband's last name, practicing rituals that imply dependence are all alien to Sikh principles. Yet in the last 400 years, most Sikh institutions have been run by Sikh men. In the West, it is often elderly men whose concerns and politics are back in India.
--Walayti Singh Chauhan, current President of the Bristol Gurdwara
On October 14 2007, the management committee of the Sikh gurdwara (temple) at Fishponds Road, Bristol, U.K. voted seven to one for women's suffrage. The lone opposing vote was cast by the then General Secretary Mohinderjit Singh Bhatti.
In the following weeks and months no confirmation of the historic reform was announced to the Sikh sangat (congregation). In response to this silence, several Sikh women met with the Gurdwara President Walayti Singh Chauhan. He agreed that the decision would be announced and confirmed in a letter to the Sikh community.
'Walayti Singh took the brave step and put the committee's agreement of October 2007 onto paper, knowing that he may face resentment.' Gurdip Kaur, a member and women's rights activist in her 60s, said, 'He is responsible for ensuring that the basic tenets of Sikhi (Sikhism) were enforced; to treat all humankind as equals. He stood up for what is right.'
Sikh women from Bristol have been demanding their right to vote in gurdwara elections for decades. According to Gurdip Kaur, 'Over seventy-five letters were sent to gurdwara committees over the last twenty-five years regarding total equality for Sikh women. These letters have all been disregarded.'
President Walayti Singh also supported the women's plans to celebrate their success at an upcoming event. Six female Sikh speakers were contacted and several notable non-Sikhs were asked to speak including Dave Chapple, the national chair of the U.K. National Shop Stewards Network.
However, General Secretary Mohinderjit Singh Bhatti refused to allow more than two women speakers and would not approve any non-Sikh speakers.
The president and the women activists complied with the general secretary's wishes and only two Sikh women spoke on Sunday, May 4. The outside speakers were cancelled. The activists felt that the most important part was that Sikh women had gotten the vote.
After the women spoke, General Secretary Mohinderjit Singh Bhatti took to the podium and strongly urged against women's suffrage. He did not acknowledge that the management committee had already approved the reform.
From the perspective of the congregation, the general secretary stood on the right side of the podium and the president stood on the left. While General Secretary Mohinderjit Singh was attempting to persuade the congregation to reverse the women's victory, Gurudip Kaur approached President Walayti Singh and asked if she might speak. He agreed and she was handed the microphone when he concluded his own speech. Seeing this, the general secretary crossed the podium and took the microphone from Gurudip Kaur despite her resistance. The following uproar resulted in a ten-minute shouting match.
Javinder Singh, who would soon be elected the new general secretary of the committee, noted, 'Seeing an insult against an elderly woman of this sort was unbelievable; this act was totally deplorable and extremely sad.'
In response to this incident, President Walayti Singh Chauhan suspended Mohinderjit Singh Bhatti from the role of general secretary, asking him to return gurdwara documents in his possession until the incident could be investigated. The gurdwara election, scheduled for May 11, 2008, was postponed so that women members had time to register to vote and to let things cool down.
But in the days after the incident Mohinderjit Singh Bhatti failed to return the gurdwara documents. After three formal requests, legal counsel was sought by President Walayti Singh and legal proceedings were launched to retrieve the documents. The documents contained minutes of committee meetings and records of decisions made.
Mohinderjit Singh Bhatti ceased attending gurdwara services and so did the vice president and vice treasurer of the committee. His backers now included three out of the eight members of the gurdwara's management committee, although they had originally voted for women's suffrage in October 2007.
Seeking a quick election before the women could register, Mohinderjit Singh's group went to the Bristol police. They explained that Walayti Singh's term as gurdwara president was already up and they felt he had no right to postpone the election. The police agreed to mediate the dispute using five representatives from each side. Mohinderjit Singh Bhatti's side was composed of older men, all born in the Punjab. The women's suffrage group included a wide range of ages, with both sexes represented, four born in the U.K. and one in India. They met with the police once.
Over two weeks, plus a few extra days' extension, Sikh women registered. By the end of this period, 170 Sikh women were ready to vote. With suffrage established, three women, Narindar Kaur, Anita Kaur and Sheila Kaur, pursued management committee positions. They became part of the pro-suffrage team, with Walayti Singh Chauhan running for another term as gurdwara president.
On election day, Sikh voters would cast only one vote, choosing one management committee team or the other. Although Mohinderjit Singh Bhatti was not on the ballot, his brother ran for the position of general secretary. On the other side, Walayti Singh's team offered the Sikh community a revolutionary new committee with men and women, and adults of all ages.
The pro-women's-suffrage slate was comprised of Walayti Singh Chauhan (president), Shamsher Singh Patel (vice president), Javinder Singh (general secretary), Satchet Singh (vice general secretary), Kuldip Singh (treasurer), Narindar Kaur (vice treasurer), Anita Kaur (langar jathedar), and Sheila Kaur (vice langar jathedar).
The anti-women's-suffrage slate was comprised of Raghir Singh Nirman (president), Baldev Singh (vice president), Mohanjit Singh Bhatti (general secretary), Jaswant Singh (vice general secretary), Mohan Singh (treasurer), Satnam Singh Amritsaria (vice treasurer), Harpal Singh (langar jathedar), and Raju Singh (vice langar jathedar).
Mohinderjit Singh hired an attorney and requested that the attorney be allowed to be present during the negotiations. When the police firmly declined this request, Mohinderjit Singh's group decided to stop attending the meetings. Instead, they informed the police that the election would be held on July 6, 2008. They added that they were hiring a private security firm to keep the peace on election day.
However, Bhatti's team did not inform the Sikh congregation adequately about the election. Many Sikhs worshiping that Sunday did not know that it was an election day.
Fearing an outbreak in violence the Bristol police interceded and dismissed the hired security guards. They insisted that proper voting procedures be in place prior to the election. They asked for two members from each side to meet with them immediately. Over the next few weeks the two sides successfully negotiated the details of the upcoming election and signed a contract.
Mohinderjit Singh Bhatti's side was asked by the police to stop sending out letters to the sangat, as this was confusing the members. It was agreed that an independent voting company should be brought in. The Association of Electoral Administrators agreed to conduct the election. Voting registration was again extended to allow the traditionally-minded Sikh women, who do not believe in their right to vote, to register to vote. The voting company insisted that the registration be complete a week before the election and that the final voting list be just that, the final voting list.
For the next two weeks Sikh women were encouraged to register to vote and on the last day they extended the registration by a few hours so that the latecomers standing in line could finish registering.
Yet on July 27, 2008, two days after registration had closed and the voting list had been finalized, Mohinderjit Singh Bhatti's team insisted that they had seventy-nine more women they needed to register. The voting company refused, citing the contracts in place.
'The anti-women's-suffrage side were in fear that their power would be cut off forever. So they were doing everything possible to win,' Javinder Singh, the new general secretary, commented. 'They knew if they lost it would be the end for their sort.'
On Sunday morning, August 3, 2008, many Sikhs from both sides arrived at the gurdwara at 8 A.M. Voting would begin at 10 A.M. Tensions were running high. The seventy-nine Sikh women who had not made the registration deadline - women who were angry that they were denied their right to vote against their right to vote - were vocal. The police blockaded the street and the media arrived. One Sikh man was arrested but later released. Some of the seventy-nine women and their supporters surrounded the voting company manager's car in protest.
'The Association of Electoral Administrators was very patient during the negotiation leading up to the elections,' reported Javinder Singh. 'They were understanding, firm and fair throughout the election process. They ensured the elections were conducted independently and professionally.'
Fifteen minutes before the election was due to start the police called a meeting of both sides, which delayed the election for two hours. The pro-women's-suffrage side offered to let 80% of the unregistered women register and the voting company agreed. This offer was angrily dismissed and Mohinderjit Singh and his supporters boycotted the election.
The election, although delayed, went forward. 93% of the votes went to the pro-women's-suffrage team with Mohinderjit Singh Bhatti's side receiving only 4% of the vote. Seemingly, even if the anti-women's-suffrage side had voted - including all seventy-nine late registering Sikh women - Mohinderjit Singh Bhatti's side would have lost.
'We commend the Avon & Somerset police for their understanding of the situation that we found ourselves in,' said newly-re-elected President Walayti Singh Chauhan. 'It was a great job done. They were sensitive and respectful of the Sikh principles at all times.'
Javinder Singh, the new general secretary added, 'When the women bowed to our holy Sikh scripture (Guru Granth Sahib), our Guruji, to accept their official duties, they glowed with a happiness and joy that seemed almost transcendent to me. I realized I had never seen that look on the faces of those Sikh women before and that made me determined to keep fighting for the rights of Sikh sisters and women everywhere.'