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Sikh temple vote a battle of two generations Add to ...

A hotly contested election tomorrow at Surrey's Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, one of Canada's largest Sikh temples, has reinvigorated bitter debates in the community over a religious tradition that led to violence 12 years ago.

With aggressive campaign tactics borrowed from mainstream politics, a youth slate is challenging a group that has managed the temple since members attacked each other in 1997 over whether they were required to sit on the floor for a meal to show their commitment to equality. The temple provides tables and chairs in the dining hall; traditionalists want mats on the floor.

About 33,000 members are eligible to vote for candidates to serve on the temple's 18-member management committee.

Harjinder Singh Cheema, a wealthy businessman with extensive investments in real estate, construction, trucking and an insurance company, agreed a few weeks ago to lead the slate of moderates, which currently controls temple affairs. "I talked to others about it for a few days, then for 24 hours, I thought about it," he said in a recent interview. "It's a lot of work," he added, as if he was caught by surprise.

Mr. Cheema, 59, has given money and moral support to the moderate faction at the temple for more than a decade. He has also been active in organizing Kabaddi tournaments in Surrey. He has not been involved in the confrontations over rituals that have torn the immigrant community apart. He said the moderate slate would maintain tables and chairs in the dining hall. He also promises expansion of an adjoining Punjabi language school, developing more programs for temple youth and a new building for wedding receptions.

The competing group of conservative Sikhs, called the Sikh Youth Slate, is headed by Bikramjit Singh Sandhar, an insurance and mutual fund broker. He agreed to lead the challenge to the moderates after some temple members persuaded him and his parents that his candidacy would bring out many supporters for their cause.

Those advocating a return to Sikh tradition are about 20 years younger than those in control. Mr. Sandhar, 43, said young people want the temple to step up efforts to educate the community about the history and rituals of Sikhism. They would expand youth-oriented activities and make rituals more accessible to young people who prefer English over Punjabi.

Mr. Sandhar resigned from the executive of the Gurdwara Sahib Sukh Sagar in New Westminster to lead the youth slate in Surrey. His priority, he said, would be unity. "One issue has separated Sikh families for the last 12 years," he said, referring to the tables-and-chairs controversy. He said the youth slate would achieve unity by clearing away most of the tables and chairs but leave some for seniors and others who want to use them.

Mr. Sandhar has also been involved in mainstream politics outside the Sikh community. Friends asked him to join a political party or show up at a meeting to support a nomination for a political party, and he did, he told The Globe and Mail in an interview during the 2006 federal election campaign. He has bought memberships in more than one party, and voted for the party that drove him to the polls.

The impact of mainstream politics is clear. Campaign headquarters for both slates resemble a candidate's makeshift office during a federal or provincial election.

Mimicking a common political approach, the youth campaign is shaped to appeal to specific voting blocks. The slate promotes itself as the voice of change. It has a website, http://www.newfuture.ca, and a bouncy, enthusiastic video on YouTube urging young people to vote for change.

Mr. Cheema's campaign uses Facebook to spread its message. A team of Mr. Cheema's enthusiastic supporters hit the streets earlier this week to knock on 10,000 doors. They have also stuffed glossy campaign flyers under countless Both sides are involved in vigorous whisper campaigns, suggesting their opponents have hidden agendas. The moderates say traditionalists might prohibit clean-shaven men and women in jeans and sleeveless tops from participating fully in the temple, a charge the traditionalists deny. Meanwhile, traditionalists minimize achievements of the moderates, alleging mismanagement of temple finances and programs.

Likewise, their allegations are denied.

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