A Path Divided

Years ago, a dispute over money and power split the Valley's Sikh community. Then one of their own was gunned down after September 11. Will the bloodshed be enough to put them back on the same path?

It was mid-April, and although neither group realized it, five blocks from each other Sikhs were readying themselves for respective celebrations of the traditional Indian Vaisakhi festival. Kirpan, the symbolic swords Sikhs carry, were polished until they sparkled in the sunlight. At almost the same moment, two processions of Sikhs clad in tunics of saffron and azure set out from their respective temples, fronted by five adults and five children holding their swords high above their heads. The air was filled with chanting, music, and the glint of steel. As they marched down the street, they were headed straight for each other; it must have seemed like walking into a mirror.

"We went on a parade around the block and forgot to tell the other [temple]," recalls Hari with a chuckle. "We almost ran into them."

"We had to take turns. We waited while they marched around, and then we went," says Bisla curtly. "It was kind of silly."

People from throughout the area contributed to a Mesa memorial honoring Balbir Singh Sodhi.
Dan Huff
People from throughout the area contributed to a Mesa memorial honoring Balbir Singh Sodhi.
One of the duties of the new Sikh Task Force is to develop educational materials, like this poster, to prevent further violence against Sikhs.
Click for larger view
One of the duties of the new Sikh Task Force is to develop educational materials, like this poster, to prevent further violence against Sikhs.

Click for larger view

Although both sides look back on the incident with humor, Bisla says it was perceived differently then, as an infringement on Sikh Dharma's territory. "They were mad," he says. "They [thought] we purposely moved into their backyard."

As a result of the nearly colliding parades, Bisla's temple approached Sikh Dharma and suggested that both groups coordinate their activities on religious holidays to prevent another awkward encounter. But Bisla says Sikh Dharma refused to discuss the proposal; Guru Roop of Sikh Dharma declines to discuss the incident.

As Bisla speculates, the chilly relations would have continued, had it not been for Balbir's murder.

The Sunday after Balbir's death, two separate memorial services where held for him at the same time, one at each temple.

But on the following Sunday, September 23, at Phoenix Civic Plaza, members of both temples watched Balbir Sodhi's 4-year-old nephew stand as tall as he could on the stage, his face dwarfed by the giant microphone; not much more than his eyes and blue child's turban were visible over the podium. He clutched a white piece of paper firmly in his hands and spoke strong and clear, telling the 3,000 people in attendance how much he would miss his uncle and the candy he was sure to bring on every visit.

The words he spoke came from his heart, not from the blank piece of paper he clung to. The boy couldn't read yet; the "speech" he held was a prop.

He also couldn't read the large banner behind him that read, "One God, Many Paths: United We Stand." Given the recent history shared by many in the audience that day, the second line of the banner, the coda tacked on to the familiar phrase to express their shared grief, was not without irony.

Days after Balbir Sodhi's death, the two temples agreed to form a common bond -- a Sikh Task Force -- in order to accomplish the goals Balbir had laid out in his meeting with Guru Roop just before he was killed. The task force was designed to address issues of safety, security and education, and a by-product of it has been a cautious rapprochement that has begun to thaw five years of chilly relations.

In early November, the two congregations found themselves marching together onto a rented bus and traveling to Mesa. They attended a Day of the Dead celebration together there, where an altar had been constructed honoring Balbir. "We went together, and it was good," says Bisla with guarded enthusiasm.

But the task force itself is still a symptom of the persistent tensions. Sikhs from the Indian temple are active only in a small subcommittee of the main task force, which Guru Roop calls the "Communications Liaison" branch. As of mid-December, they had met three times.

"The only time we meet is at the Sunday morning meeting," Bisla says of the liaison team, of which he is a member. "Four from their side and four from ours. I know for a fact that no one from the Arizona Sikh Gurdwara [the Indian temple] goes to any other meetings."

According to Guru Roop, however, all Sikhs are welcome to attend all meetings; the Indian Sikhs just haven't been "called" yet. "You go where your spirit moves you, pray and serve when so moved. It is not that defined," Roop says, when asked whether Sikhs from both temples attend any other meetings together. "The Sikh path is very open."

However open the path may seem to Roop, it is only Sikhs from the Ninth and Oak temple who are involved in creating the PowerPoint presentations on airport security, the letters to neighbors explaining the Sikh religion, the planning of a Community Awareness golf tournament, and ultimately, the definition of what a Sikh is which will be used in the task force's informational brochures. "The Americans are handling all of that," says Bisla.

And yet, even he, who first worked to trigger the split with the American Sikhs some five years ago, sees some virtue in the changes that Balbir's death has brought about. "Things are getting better now," he admits, "and that's a good thing." Although Bisla cites the bus trip, for example, as a positive step, he doesn't foresee the two groups having contact with each other again until April's traditional Vaisakhi celebration. Which at least assures that this year they won't be competing with one another for parade space.

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