It began innocently enough. One bright October morning, a clean-shaven Sikh strode into the cramped Hayward offices of the Saffron Express trucking company and asked for a job. In a hardworking immigrant community that looks out for its own, people request favors from businessmen such as Jaswinder Singh Jandi and Jasjeet "Jesse" Singh Chela. But when the young jobseeker unveiled his list of inadequacies -- no experience, no rig, past drug problems -- the careful owners sent him on his way. The kid returned an hour later, and the next thing Jandi and Chela knew they were facedown on the floor and handcuffed, the quarry of a months-long federal sting.
The jobseeker was an undercover agent working with law enforcement. The sole purpose of his visit was to confirm the presence of Jandi, Chela, and a third business associate before more than a hundred agents stormed the yard. Chela and associate Jai Singh were soon escorted to jail on respective charges of immigration fraud and DVD piracy. And Jandi, a small man with deep-set eyes, a delicate nose, and a full black beard, was left beneath a eucalyptus tree to worry about his plight. "I am very peaceful," he said as he watched gun-toting agents confiscate a pair of hard drives. "Today I feel very unsafe. ... We have not done anything wrong. ... We don't know anything what's going on."
On the face of it, the owners of Saffron Express are shining examples of the immigrant dream. Not only do they own a multimillion-dollar trucking business, but Jandi is president of the Gurdwara Sahib Fremont, the Bay Area's most affluent and influential Sikh temple. Chela has a less formal role in the community -- though no less powerful. He is Jandi's closest adviser, and while he has never held an official position at the temple, he wields tremendous behind-the-scenes influence in the rough-and-tumble of its politics.
But looks may be deceiving. Jandi acted surprised that federal agents were interested in him and his associates, but many members of his congregation could have seen it coming. "They are thugs," said Ram Singh, one of Jandi's opponents at the temple. "These are the guys ... that have basically taken over this place by force."
Ram Singh was talking about the temple, and a beard-pulling, sword-wielding coup Jandi's associates staged in 1996. Jandi assumed the temple presidency two years later, and ever since, he, Chela, and their supporters have ruled with a none-too-subtle blend of fear, intimidation, and violence, according to opponents within the congregation.
Their turbulent reign has spawned three lawsuits for control of the Gurdwara. The current Supreme Council has not held a formal election since 1996, and has appealed recent court decisions ordering new elections. It's no small matter. The Fremont Gurdwara, or temple, is the spiritual, social, political, and economic hub of Alameda County's Sikh community. It sits on a plot of land valued at more than $4 million, and its treasury holds roughly $1 million in cash donations. He who controls the Gurdwara, controls the congregation -- and the money.
Temple politics always have been fast and fluid. Given a system in which anyone can address the congregation, power at the Gurdwara is inherently political: quickly granted, but rapidly lost. If temple leaders fail their charge, they are denounced, even deposed. It's always been this way, but Jandi and his allies have reportedly changed the rules. Disgruntled congregants allege that the newcomers have systematically removed -- at times under threat of force -- all Gurdwara elders who oppose them. In their place, Jandi and his associates have installed a handful of members of the Sikh Youth of America, a militant group that actively supports the creation of a Sikh homeland in parts of India and Pakistan.
Of course, Jandi and his people tell a very different story. According to them, the rumors and official scrutiny spring from a small but vocal temple minority who will stop at nothing to regain control of the Gurdwara. The visits from police are merely instruments in these personality conflicts, Jandi said. "They are close to some doctors and big names in the Gurdwara," Jandi alleged from under the eucalyptus tree. "I don't want to mention their names because I don't have enough money to hold a case." And though Jandi was in little mood to talk, Saffron Express insurance broker Bhajan Singh Bhinder sprang to his defense. "There's no hanky-panky," said Bhinder, who arrived at the trucking firm's offices shortly after the federal agents. "We don't want an election, because elections have been known to be abused."
It's a difficult situation for local law enforcement. The abstemious Sikhs always have been a sort of model minority: insular yet polite, exotic but hardworking. And while police have been called to the Gurdwara on more than one occasion to break up fights and oversee elections, Sikh leaders have gone out of their way to foster good relations with the outside community. Jandi has honored Fremont Police Chief Craig Steckler within the Gurdwara's walls. The temple routinely donates clothes, food, and blankets to the needy, and once even gave a German shepherd dog to the Fremont police.
But recent events have local and federal law enforcement officials scrutinizing temple leaders. Jandi and his associates have been accused of assaulting other Sikhs. Jai Singh now awaits trial for DVD piracy and, according to a police department press release, he is suspected of strong-arming local shopkeepers to make them sell his wares. Chela is currently under federal detention and could be deported for immigration fraud. Former temple secretary Harminder Singh Samana is charged by the federal government with preparing fraudulent political asylum requests. But perhaps most troubling to law enforcement is a certain tractor-trailer that was stopped in Skagit County, Washington, on April 5. The rig, driven by a Saffron subcontractor on a Saffron job, contained 238 pounds of B.C. bud -- a potent variety of marijuana -- and was headed for California.
Within this cocktail of alleged violence, immigration fraud, international drug trafficking, and bare-knuckled power grabs lurks a common toxin: The Sikh Youth of America.
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