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Khalsa vs. Khalsa

A simmering lawsuit could decide the fate of a $1 billion Sikh empire

July 7, 2010, 12:00 am
The young woman locked the door to her office. In the hall, a man was shouting. He began pounding on her door.

She knew who it was, and she knew what he wanted. He wanted the keys.

The siege on the second floor was the most dramatic moment of a coup, years in the making, that went down seven months ago in dusty Española.

The modesty of the setting belies the stakes: control of a large private army that has won more than $3.5 billion in government contracts, ownership of a trans-Atlantic natural foods empire and, not least, the fate of an influential decades-old religious sect called Sikh Dharma.

The sect’s founder, the late Yogi Bhajan, inspired thousands of mostly white, middle-class men and women to stop cutting their hair, put on turbans and adopt a common surname: Khalsa.

Bhajan died in 2004. Soon after, his inner circle began to splinter. The disputes were quiet at first. By Dec. 3, 2009, the divided loyalties could no longer be ignored.

It was on that day that Guru Kirin Kaur learned that she and her colleagues had been given an ultimatum. Over 14 years—most of her adult life—Kirin had worked her way up to become chief financial officer of Sikh Dharma International, the sect’s religious nonprofit organization; now she, her coworkers, her boss and the SDI board could either sign a new loyalty oath, or find new jobs.

The demand came from Guruchander Singh, the sect’s chief numerologist and manager of the administrative nonprofit, Sikh Dharma Stewardship.

Kirin parked her car outside a long, white building at Sikh Dharma’s picturesque Española campus. There in the gravel parking lot, she claims, she met Guruchander.

“He started to verbally assault me, accusing me of stealing and yelling that I would be going to jail,” she writes in an email posted to an online Sikh forum. “He was extremely hostile, escalating into a violent rage, and frankly, very scary.”

When another employee tried to call the police, Guruchander allegedly said, “Hang up if you want to keep your job.”

Kirin claims Guruchander followed her upstairs, where she locked herself in her office. “The next thing I knew he was kicking at my door so hard the building shook,” she writes.

Hearing her colleagues enter the hall, Kirin opened her door. Guruchander then barged inside, she claims, making off with computers full of confidential information. Later, she claims, he used her Social Security number to convince a Santa Fe Wells Fargo employee to put SDI’s bank accounts under his control. Then, he allegedly tried to have the locks changed.

A legal complaint filed later says Guruchander, who also co-directs the Yoga Santa Fe studio on Llano Street and serves on the state Board of Chiropractic Examiners, “behaved in a manner that was more akin to a violent criminal than a supposedly peaceful Sikh.”

Sikh Dharma’s leading numerologist, Guruchander Singh, serves on the New Mexico Board of Chiropractic Examiners.

Kirin, Guruchander and others in the office that day either ignored SFR’s messages or declined comment for this story. “I have no response as the legal case is still pending,” Guruchander writes in an email to SFR.

Indeed, the action has moved to a courtroom 1,300 miles away, in Portland, Ore. A judge there will decide who should control the late Bhajan’s business empire, including the omnipresent Yogi tea brand and what may be New Mexico’s largest private company, Akal Security.

Will control remain with the coup leaders—the Sikh Dharma Stewardship and its parent company, Unto Infinity of Oregon—whom Bhajan left in charge of the sect’s business side?

Or will it go to the former SDI board, which includes Bhajan’s widow and others entrusted with religious matters?

Neither side can claim total purity. Some leaders of the former group have renounced key tenets of Sikh Dharma, cut their hair and allegedly raised their own salaries. A few in the latter group are connected to long-standing charges of impropriety and mismanagement.

Yet the stereotype of the bully in a business suit creates some sympathy for the religious leaders, even among those reluctant to take sides.

“I almost feel sorry for the religious heads in Española,” Kamalla Rose Kaur, who runs an online forum for other ex-followers of what she calls the “Yogi Bhajan cult,” tells SFR. “They’re really the underdogs, at the moment.”

Lucky for them, long odds are nothing new to the followers of Sikh Dharma.

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