The financially burdened gurdwara in Washington, formally named the Sikh Cultural Center of America, was transferred last week to the Maryland-based Jaswant Sawhney Irrevocable Charitable Trust.
According to its Web site, the trust was founded on July 19, 2004, to help raise funds for the All India Pingalwara Charitable Society, a home for the mentally challenged, aged, incurably sick and destitute, founded by Bhagat Puran Singh.
“We have a free and clear title to the real estate,” said Daljit Singh Sawhney, of Ellicott City, Maryland, who also is one of the trustees of the Pingalwara fund.
The gurdwara will be run by Gurmat tradition, he said. “We hope it becomes an example of how to run a gurdwara very well.”
Daljit Singh was among several Sikh individuals and groups interested in the acquiring the gurdwara.
In late 2009, the gurdwara’s former trustees identified three organizations that they preferred to take over the property: The Sikh Foundation in Palo Alto, California, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, in Amritsar, and the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee.
Shamsher Singh, head of the gurdwara’s former board of trustees, took charge of all negotiations. Some negotiations took place nearly simultaneously.
In April 2010, Shamsher Singh met with Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal to lobby for his intervention. At his behest, the SGPC became interested in the property and considered using it as a gurdwara, a museum and as a hub for distributing Guru Granth Sahib beerhs in North America.
In June 2010, Narinder Singh Kapany, head of The Sikh Foundation, proposed converting the property into a Sikh museum, and move the gurdwara underground. Ultimately, the foundation was unable to raise the $10 million needed to establish a trust fund that would financially support the project.
In December 2010, SGPC representatives came to survey the property and discuss the terms with the trustees. But negotiations later fell apart on cost issues.
The DSGMC never submitted a formal proposal.
Non-Sikh organizations were also interested in purchasing the valuable property on Washington’s Embassy Row, including a Muslim group that surveyed the property on several occasions.
Daljit Singh also made an offer at that time but nothing materialized.
The plan for a gurdwara in Washington was first conceived in 1964. Located on Embassy Row, the gurdwara finally opened in 2005, more than 40 years later. But because it is located far from the local sangat population, it could not attract a large enough sangat to support it financially. The National Gurdwara had been operating under debt from the day it opened.
Financial troubles led to considerable stress between board members and the sangat, especially when its keertanyaa, Bhai Surinder Singh and jathaa, were dismissed. The gurdwara was reduced to opening only on Sundays, but even that did not last long. Its doors were locked indefinitely by 2011.
“Politics and all should not be in a gurdwara, a place of worship,” Daljit Singh told SikhNN. “There should be equal rights and dignity for everybody. I hope we all stay humble and true to Sikh traditions.
“Our purpose was to bring the sangat back together and open a gurdwara for Sikhs.”
Shamsher Singh and the rest of the former trustees transferred the property to the trust on May 8. It will continue as a gurdwara of the Sikhs.
“That was the idea from beginning,” said Harbhajan Singh, one of the former trustees, from Bethesda, Maryland. It was his dream, and the dream of many sangat members for many years to have a gurdwara there.
“We keep our fingers crossed that it will be run (successfully),” he added. “It’s up to Waheguru how he guides” its new trustees.
The trust paid about $2 million for the property, Daljit Singh said. It is a greater amount than the nearly $1.7 million mortgage because the trustees explained they had to borrow additional money to make the monthly payments, he said.
“They were very cooperative and helped us,” he said.
Daljit Singh, a medical doctor, is also planning to collaborate with other Sikh physicians in the area to establish a free medical clinic at the gurdwara, he said. And a museum is in the works for the future.
But for now, he and the sangat are repairing the neglected building for Akhand Paath this weekend to thank Waheguru. In the near future, they will focus on cleaning the building, adding a dome and creating a big sign with a new name.
What do you think of “Sikh Gurdwara?” he asked. “It makes a convincing message.” The word “Sikh” should be prominent because people mistake Sikhs for Muslim, he said. That was especially apparent last year during the Wisconsin shooting tragedy. And the word “Gurdwara” will force people to find out what it means. Perhaps it would encourage the public to call a Sikh place of worship a gurdwara, not a temple.
The gurdwara will be run like a “business enterprise,” he added. It will be governed by the by-laws of the trust. And, Bhai Surinder Singh will return as its full-time, salaried keertanyaa.
“This is a new beginning, a kind of a next step for Pingalwara and a new beginning for the Sawhney family.”
The gurdwara will be a family affair. Daljit Singh’s niece, Harpreet Kaur Chadha, will be in charge for religious affairs. And his sister, Jatinder Kaur Dusaj, will be in charge of financial affairs. There will be no other officers such as president or secretary, he said. Everyone will be called “sayvaadhaar.”