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Tensions Rise in Local Sikh Community : North Hollywood: Money is at the heart of fight for control of temple.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It was an unholy scene: Worshipers hitting other worshipers with pipes and sticks as services ended at a Sikh temple on Lankershim Boulevard. Reports abounded of death threats, serious assaults and intimidation at gunpoint.

As the accusations and counter-accusations flew, the entire mess wound up in Los Angeles Superior Court, where turbaned men carrying tiny curved daggers in their belts packed the audience.

What is going on here? There are no easy answers and, as police, attorneys and judges have learned, there may never be.

This month’s confrontation over a temple on Lankershim Boulevard is but the latest round in the decade-long saga of Los Angeles’ warring Sikhs. It stands as living proof of history’s ability to repeat itself when it comes to matters of religion, politics, money and ego.

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Ask one Sikh what the fighting is all about and he’ll tell you about similar events that happened five years ago at a temple in Los Angeles. Ask another and he’ll go back 500 years, then fast-forward to events now occurring in India.

Some of the participants say the dispute has as much to do with the Sikh independence movement in the Indian state of Punjab as it has to do with Southern California Sikh temple buildings being governed by American-style corporate boards of directors.

Others say such political and religious issues are a smoke screen. The real issue is how one founding member of the temple recruited a band of extremist outsiders in a bid to regain church leadership--and his status in the Sikh community. The member in question--Lakhbir S. Chima--says that is nonsense.

Against a backdrop of increasing violence, the American legal system--which scrupulously honors the separation of church and state--finds itself dragged into a fracas it doesn’t always understand and is reluctant to resolve.

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Police officers from Buena Park to North Hollywood have been drawn into the fray to keep the peace. Judges have been asked to decide a raft of lawsuits.

One police officer seemed to sum up the frustration--and challenge--facing authorities recently when he met with some Sikhs outside the North Hollywood temple. As the men earnestly presented their case, the officer wearily rubbed his brow. Like other officers and judges, he was being asked to sort out a jumble of facts, myths and emotions--all delivered at fevered pitch.

The police were the first to come across the dispute when violence broke out at the North Hollywood temple March 23. Three hooded men, two armed with guns, forced their way into the temple and held two church members at gunpoint as they destroyed a $14,000 security system and vandalized the building’s telephones, said temple members. No charges were filed.

Nor did charges follow another fracas Oct. 3 at the same temple. Board members say in court papers they were attacked with steel rods and wooden sticks, resulting in such injuries as a fractured skull, neck and hand; head wounds requiring many stitches, and a punctured eardrum.

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The temple was filled with tear gas too, but who sprayed it--and why--is just another point of contention.

As a result of the violence, the directors closed the temple. But on Oct. 10 dissidents took over the building, started to worship and refused to leave.

About two weeks later, alleges Jaspal K. Mann, the temple president’s wife, she was terrorized on the Pomona Freeway by several men, one of whom pointed a gun at her while others yelled threats and obscenities at her from a car.

Mann stated in court papers that one of the passengers shouted at her: “Wait lady, first we are going to kill your husband and then the rest of your family if they don’t back off the temple dispute.”

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It was all enough to persuade a judge to order all the dissidents out of the temple last week.

Meanwhile, Maurice Schwartz, attorney for some of the dissidents, says his clients are peaceful people.

“The people I represent are not terrorists,” Schwartz said.

Police say they investigated the allegations of violence and presented a case to the district attorney’s office. But Deputy Dist. Atty. Larry Diamond said his office declined to file charges because it seemed unlikely anyone would be convicted. There were no independent witnesses.

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But one lawyer said he believes the religious nature of dispute has contributed to the lack of police action.

“They hear the term religion and they think of their religions,” said attorney Kevin O’Connell, who represents members of several temples’ boards of directors. “They don’t want to get involved. They think it can’t be that bad because nothing that bad happened with Rabbi Davis or Father O’Malley. That’s not the case here.”

When he returned to court last week to obtain a second restraining order to oust the dissidents from the temple, O’Connell warned the judge what might happen if nothing was done: “The court’s failure to grant this . . . temporary restraining order will most probably result in more serious bodily injury and death to one or more persons.”

Los Angeles Police Capt. David R. Doan said the strong police presence at the temple over the past two weeks was in itself an acknowledgment of the potential for violence. Normally, he said, police don’t get involved in such matters.

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Doan said he found himself responding to nuances that, if misunderstood, could set off more violence. When police entered the temple last week, they had received special permission to keep their shoes on--and agreed to wear their hats. Because Sikhs consider it sacrilegious to appear in the presence of their holy book with an uncovered head and wearing shoes, police allowed the dissidents to carry the book out of the temple before officers entered.

Sikhs and other sources disagree over whether the disputes are fueled by religious and political differences that mirror schisms between working and middle-class Sikhs in India and their commitment to creating an independent Sikh state called Khalistan.

But nearly everyone can agree that money--and lots of it--lies at the heart of the struggle.

The North Hollywood temple was founded in 1989, and each of the 101 founding members each were to pay between $5,000 and $20,000 for their elevated status, according to temple materials contained in court documents. Both sides allege that temple funds have been pilfered.

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“It’s our belief that (being a board member) is an easy way to get into a place where you’re going to make a lot of money,” O’Connell said. At a temple in Buena Park, for example, members paid off a $500,000 mortgage in eight years.

The board just refinanced a $440,000 mortgage on the Lankershim building that was purchased for more than $900,000 in 1989, according to court and other records.

“That’s how much money you can generate in these temples, so if the wrong people want to run them they can make a ton of money,” O’Connell said.

According to Sikh and other sources, who requested anonymity, Lakhbir S. Chima has been at the center of the Los Angeles and North Hollywood disputes. Chima, who sources say uses the nickname “Lucky,” is a civil engineer, liquor store owner and heavy political contributor who has dined with former Gov. Edmund G (Jerry) Brown Jr. and served on state commissions for Asian affairs and hate crimes.

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Chima is a founding member of the North Hollywood temple. Sources say he became angry when he couldn’t become board president and asked the temple to return his contributions, a request that was refused.

But Chima says some of that money was merely a loan. He contends the current officers are violating the corporate bylaws by refusing to hold elections even though their two-year terms expired long ago. And he says, he doesn’t want to be president.

“They are the ones with the egos,” he said of the officers.

Chima said shots have been fired at his Northridge house--and he has reported the incident to police. He said the Oct. 3 brawl began when someone tried to snatch his turban from his head--a sign of great disrespect among Sikhs.

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The chaotic series of legal disputes and violent confrontations, however, is not unique to the North Hollywood temple. O’Connell said he also represented directors at the Buena Park temple in May when fights began erupting there. The directors closed the building for two months until police agreed to arrest trespassers.

Five years ago, a string of disputes--some violent--that broke out at a Sikh temple in Los Angeles subsequently triggered eight lawsuits, O’Connell said. The lawsuits were all eventually dismissed.

O’Connell said problems at the Los Angeles temple eventually prompted some Sikhs to break away and found the North Hollywood temple.

Now, the issue is who is the legal board of directors of the North Hollywood temple. The dispute is back before the courts while the temple stands locked and empty.

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The case resumes Nov. 5, when O’Brien could decide whether to grant a preliminary injunction against the dissidents.


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