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.
A two-month investigation by the East Bay Express, based upon an extensive review of state and federal court records and dozens of interviews with scholars, attorneys, government officials, Sikh journalists, and community members, paints a portrait of a Gurdwara-based crime ring linked to members of this mysterious separatist group. In what government officials say is a familiar template of immigrant crime, the temple’s leaders are accused of using their position to intimidate and exploit an immigrant population not wholly familiar with its adopted country. As one local investigator put it, “It’s a classic model for organized crime.”
Yet some federal officials believe the group’s activities go further than that. Members of the Sikh Youth are bound by their shared support for an independent Sikh homeland. Forged in the bloody struggle to liberate their people from an India now dominated by Hindu nationalists, their politics have not been dulled by their stay in the United States. The Sikh Youth remain freedom fighters, militants committed to a sacred cause. Of course, the term “freedom fighter” has been all but retired in John Ashcroft’s America, replaced by the less-nuanced “terrorist.” In this law-enforcement climate, some government officials allege that links exist between temple funds, proceeds from the international drug trade, and illicit arms deals for Punjabi terrorists. What started out as a not-so-simple case of racketeering and drug smuggling is being pushed toward the even-murkier realm of the “war on terror.” Many of the government’s suspicions hinge upon evidence that is more than a decade old, anonymous, or based upon hearsay. But if one considers this information, the reach of the Sikh Youth of America extends well beyond the spacious confines of the Fremont Gurdwara. It stretches across the Pacific, through Pakistan, and into their native Punjab in Northern India. In the words of one local investigator: “We’re just starting to recognize the scope of this.”
The Gurdwara Sahib Fremont is a graceful, cream-colored building with colonnades, gilded domes, and a wrought-iron fence. The temple is the spiritual, cultural, and financial center for its estimated six thousand congregants, who regularly visit to pray and socialize.
The building’s vast, blue-carpeted main hall is bisected by a narrow red carpet that leads directly to a triple-domed altar. The hall contains no chairs or pews, tribute to the notion that all Sikhs are equal before the Guru. Nonetheless, the Gurdwara is riven with inequalities, and has seen its share of fights, stabbings, even a shooting in 1994.
Local Sikhs are not proud of this history. The temple coup that occurred on September 29, 1996, is no exception. The Gurdwara usually begins filling up around 10:30 a.m. On that morning, however, there were already about two hundred congregants at the temple when the members of the Supreme Council arrived at about 9:00 a.m. A group that included several members of the Sikh Youth was addressing the congregation from the podium. They denounced the council’s autocracy and called for new leadership, presenting themselves as the men for the job.
The council members argued with the dissidents, accusing them of subverting the Gurdwara’s electoral process. But it was no use; the dissidents shouted them down. That’s when council leaders attacked: pulling beards, tearing turbans, grappling, slapping, and punching — some of which was caught on videotape. Fists met chins; heads hit ground; blood stained the podium. According to several witnesses, at least two combatants unsheathed their Kirpans — ceremonial daggers worn by most male Sikhs. The battle lasted no more than ten minutes before the five members of the Supreme Council realized they were outmatched: Those two hundred early arrivals were there in support of the dissidents.
When the Fremont police arrived, the Supreme Council members were panting on one side of the room. The dissidents seethed around them. When police asked who started the fight, two hundred index fingers pointed to the council members. The dissidents then filed citizen’s arrests, and the council members were summarily hauled off to jail. Within minutes, the dissidents held a vote, and awarded themselves control of the Supreme Council, one of the Gurdwara’s two governing bodies. The election results were later legitimized by a formal, court-ordered vote.
Although individual members of the Sikh Youth of America had previously held positions at the temple, never before had so many been in power simultaneously. According to press accounts, the group also has tried to take over Gurdwaras in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and suburban Washington, DC in recent years, but nowhere has it been as successful as in Fremont.
With its ascendancy came a renewed politicization of the congregation. “These guys are riding on that wave of the so-called pro-Khalistan movement,” said Ram Singh, an opponent of the takeover who was arrested shortly after the 1996 melee. “They claim that they do this for Khalistan.”
The dream of Khalistan — an independent nation that would be carved from the Indian state of Punjab and parts of Pakistan — exists today only in the minds of Sikhs. Fueled in large part by Sikhism’s uncomfortable relationship with India’s many rulers — first the Moguls, then the British, and finally the Hindus — the vision of Khalistan has lived in one form or another since Sikhism’s inception in around 1500. With Indian independence, however, and Indian Prime Minister Nehru’s famous 1946 declaration that the Sikhs too should “experience the glow of freedom,” Sikh separatists once again agitated for an independent state. But nothing came of Nehru’s sentiment, and relations between the Sikhs and the Indian government soured once again.
By the early 1980s, Sikhs were divided. Moderate Sikhs allied themselves with the Akali Dal, a political party trying to negotiate with the Indian government. The radical opposition was embodied by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a heavily armed Sikh separatist who had marauded through the Punjabi countryside for years. As relations between Sikhs and the Indian government deteriorated, the fugitive Bhindranwale holed up in Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar. In June of 1984, the government declared a curfew in Punjab. Telecommunications lines were cut in the state, and the government amassed an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 troops around the temple.
In the early hours of June 4, the shelling began. Operation Blue Star — one of the largest Indian military assaults since independence — was officially underway. The battle raged for 72 hours. Bhindranwale and all of his estimated five hundred supporters were killed, as were hundreds of civilian Sikhs who had gone to the shrine to pray. In a cruel twist, the assault coincided with the Martyrdom Day of Guru Arjun Dev, Sikhism’s fifth guru, who launched the construction of the Golden Temple.
Things worsened that November, when Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. The killing was said to be an act of vengeance not so much for Bhindranwale’s death, but for the insult heaped upon the Golden Temple. The ensuing communal violence paralyzed the Indian capital of New Delhi, and thousands more Sikhs were slaughtered — many of them pulled from their homes before having tires draped around their necks, doused in kerosene, and set aflame.
These massacres revived calls for a Sikh homeland of Khalistan, or “the land of the pure.” Many of the most radical Sikh groups — including the Babbar Khalsa, the Khalistan Liberation Front, and the International Sikh Youth Federation — were forged in the wake of Operation Blue Star. They found many eager recruits, and government estimates suggest that more than 21,000 people have died from violence related to this struggle over the past two decades. The majority of these deaths occurred between 1984 and 1993, when the notorious Punjabi police chief K.P.S. Gill, a Sikh himself, declared a veritable war on separatists. The Indian government backed Gill who, in a model of state-sanctioned violence, all but exterminated a generation of Khalistanis. To escape persecution and help fund their struggle, many separatists fled to the wealthy Western nations of Canada, Britain, and the United States — including the East Bay.
This is not to say that all — or even many — Bay Area Sikhs support an armed campaign for Khalistan. Sikhism’s radical elements always have been relatively few in number. And while many Sikhs support the idea of Khalistan, a large number also support the democratic process. “This is a movement that has seen better days,” said Dr. Cynthia Mahmood, an expert on religious separatism and director of undergraduate studies at Notre Dame’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. The wholesale slaughter of separatists during the 1980s and 1990s, Mahmood said, has decimated the separatist movement. Both in India and abroad, Khalistan has become more a dream than a goal.
But for those few militants who still believe, Khalistan remains a goal worth fighting for.
Distinctive and proud, the Sikhs have inherited a martial tradition of standing up to injustice. At times — such as during their service with the British in World War II — their fearlessness has fit well within Western legal structures and culture. And while violence is often decried by Sikhs, it remains, nonetheless, a feature of temple life. “When all other means have failed,” Sikhism’s tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh, is believed to have said, “only then is it righteous to take up the sword.”
In tribute to this “soldier saint” lineage, most Sikh men wear a Kirpan — a ceremonial dagger that symbolizes their fight against injustice. Similarly, their unshorn hair is brushed and bound with a Kanga — a comb symbolizing a Sikh’s hygiene as distinct from the unwashed ascetics who once populated the earth. Other worn symbols include the Kara, Kachera, and Kesh — a steel bracelet, distinctive underwear, and uncut hair that respectively symbolize brotherhood among Sikhs, marital fidelity, and spirituality.
Their faith often is described by scholars as a mixture of Hinduism and Islam — Hinduism in that Sikhs practice meditation, Islam because Sikhs are monotheistic and follow a single holy book. Each of Sikhism’s ten holy gurus (there will be no more, the tenth guru assured us) were men who carried the “divine flame” with them. Upon the tenth guru’s death, the “spiritual flame” entered Guru Granth Sahib, Sikhism’s holy book. The “worldly flame” entered the Sikh community, thus obviating the need for a formal clergy. In tribute to these ideas, most male Sikhs take the name Singh, or “lion” in Punjabi. Similarly, many Sikh women take the name Kaur, which means “princess.”
Belief in Sikh equality inspired Avtar Singh Dhami and another temple moderate, Avtar Singh Chahal, to join with members of the Sikh Youth in their 1996 bid for power at the Fremont Gurdwara. But like many area Sikhs, Dhami now has little to do with Gurdwara politics. “Most people don’t like the politics at all,” he said recently, surrounded by the meager comforts of his small trucking company. A large, turbaned man with an immense gray beard and calloused hands, Dhami now passes his days at the office. He goes to the temple only occasionally. On Sundays, he quietly sets up a small stand outside the Gurdwara to sell books, tapes, Kirpans, Karras, and Kangas. It’s a far cry from his role in the 1996 coup, when he joined the new Supreme Council with the idea of reforming the institution.
“Our intention was that we don’t want to run the Supreme Council system,” he recalled. “Once we get elected, we’re going to abolish that and let the people elect the executive committee.” But his fellow council members had other plans. Dhami said they blocked him at every turn — agreeing privately to decisions, only to later renounce them. “I didn’t realize who controlled those people that are with me,” he said. “There was somebody else controlling them.” That someone, he believes, was Jasjeet “Jesse” Singh Chela.
Dhami stepped down after only two years on the council. His fellow moderate, Avtar Singh Chahal, hung on a little longer. And while Dhami couldn’t then figure out who was controlling the Supreme Council, Chahal believes he met the man face-to-face after refusing to vote Jaswinder Singh Jandi onto the executive committee.
The former council member said he was at home one night when a knock came at the door. In walked Chela and four of his supporters. Chahal said they demanded he vote Jandi onto the eleven-member executive committee, the Gurdwara’s other governing body. When he refused, Chahal recalled that Chela said, “This is the time that you should resign.” The message was clear; life would become very rough for him if he continued to oppose Jandi. “They thought I was a stumbling block,” Chahal claimed. “My exit was a systematic design to bring Jandi to power. If I had gone to the court, they might have done something to my family.”
Chela is in detention, and could not be reached for comment. Jandi became Gurdwara president soon after Chahal’s departure. His council allies, Saffron drivers Amarjit Singh and Gurdev Singh and insurance agent Harjot Singh, now have effective control of the five-member Supreme Council. The other two members, Mota Singh and Gurdial Singh, are not members of Jandi’s inner circle.
And as for Chahal, he now lives in San Jose and rarely goes to the Fremont temple. When he does, he said, he warns the Fremont Police Department in advance. “I don’t want to lose my peace,” he said.
Critics of the temple leaders say that two years ago in another disagreement, Jandi, Chela, and their associates showed the congregation what happens to those who oppose them. The Supreme Council allegedly had promised the congregation that it would secure a few choice religious artifacts with $10,000 in donated funds. When the artifacts did not arrive, Gurdwara volunteer Sukhdev Singh publicly questioned the temple’s leaders, igniting their wrath. Following the afternoon’s services, Sukhdev and three witnesses claimed that Chela approached Sukhdev as he walked to his car. “Chela said: ‘Either you come with us on your own or we will teach you a lesson,'” Sukhdev recalled through an interpreter. “Jesse Singh [Chela] said it very clear, he said, you know, ‘You want to come with us? … You want come by bullet? You want to come by force?'” According to Sukhwinder Sandhar, a witness later interviewed by police, Chela allegedly then said: “We’re going to teach you a lesson today about the money.”
All four witnesses claim that Chela then repeatedly punched Sukhdev. Jandi, former temple secretary Harminder Singh Samana, and other temple leaders quickly joined the fray, Sukhdev said. He claims the temple leaders beat him with closed fists and used their steel Karas to bruise and cut him. They pulled his beard and knocked off his turban — two of the greatest indignities a Sikh can suffer at the temple. They broke his finger and gave him a concussion.
When the police arrived, they had trouble finding independent witnesses. Those who later spoke with police confessed that they were afraid to do so on the day of the assault. In what detractors say is a method often employed by the Sikh Youth, the assailants all stood as witnesses for one another. In the crude mathematics that weighs each side’s account against the other’s, the slight, bearded Sukhdev was outmatched.
The incident occurred exactly one month after 9/11, when Sikhs were feeling the heat of misplaced rage against Arabs. Temple leaders told police that Sukhdev had tried to rip down the Gurdwara’s American flag. It was their patriotic duty, they claimed, to protect the flag and restrain the errant, America-hating Sikh. They stand by that story today, alleging they were merely trying to subdue Sukhdev. Of the three witnesses who later stepped forward, however, none reported having seen Sukhdev tamper with a flag. All involved agree that Chela, Jandi, and Samana fought with Sukhdev. No criminal charges resulted from the incident. Sukhdev is now bringing a civil case against his assailants.
Nor was the assault on Sukhdev the last time local members of the Sikh Youth allegedly beat those who opposed them. In a pending lawsuit filed in Alameda County Superior Court, Satnam Singh Dhillon, the man who videotaped the 1996 temple coup, alleges that Chela and Jandi have tried to take control of his Punjabi-language television production company through “verbal and physical intimidation and threats.” Dhillon further alleges that one of Chela and Jandi’s colleagues threatened him “with a gun.” Jandi declined to comment about the incident.
Although many Bay Area Sikhs now work in transportation, the earliest Sikh immigrants were primarily agricultural laborers. Arriving in the waning days of the 19th century, they earned their living in the orchards, vineyards, and sugar beet fields of the San Joaquin Valley.
By 1915, Sikhs in Stockton had constructed the country’s first Gurdwara. And by 1920, Sikhs owned an estimated 2,099 acres of California farmland and leased an additional 86,340 acres. Though often subject to discrimination by groups such as the Asian Exclusion League and acts such as the Alien Land Law — which caused many to lose land they already had purchased — Sikhs nonetheless developed a reputation as a devout, responsible, hardworking people.
Precise data on the Sikh population is hard to come by — the Census Bureau generically classifies them as “Asian” — yet experts believe there are about 150,000 Sikhs living in Northern California, clustered around the Gurdwaras of San Jose, Fremont, El Sobrante, Roseville, and Yuba City.
Gurdwara Sahib Fremont is the largest, wealthiest, and most influential of these temples. On any given Sunday, congregants line up in two rows to offer donations — Kaurs on the left, Singhs on the right. The temple receives donations 24 hours a day, but on Sundays the line can be out the door. All the donations are in cash, and temple leaders are the only ones who count it. In other words, the Gurdwara is a ready source of untraceable money. Not only is the temple a tax-exempt religious nonprofit, which would make it difficult for law enforcement to audit its books, but even if authorities could gain access, the ledger reflects only those donations that get recorded. Such accounting is at the sole discretion of temple leadership.
Once the Supreme Council moderates Avtar Singh Dhami and Avtar Singh Chahal had been disposed of, Jandi, Chela and their supporters had unfettered access to Gurdwara finances. Chela even boasted of this control in a taped interview with an agent from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. “Chela stated that … the Sikh Youth of America was in control of the temple and the monies collected from the congregation,” DEA Special Agent Tim Lum stated in a recent court filing.
In a lawsuit currently on appeal at the Alameda County Superior Court in Hayward, a group of congregants who allege that they are the rightful Supreme Council argue that members of the existing council are misusing temple funds and not meeting regularly. In a motion for these plaintiffs, attorney Mark Cohen noted that Gurdwara leaders had written checks to cash for nearly $70,000. The plaintiffs also alleged that the Supreme Council did not meet between March 10, 2002 and February 9, 2003. “Money was being spent,” Cohen said in an interview. “The council was not meeting. … Somebody was making those decisions.” When presiding Judge Julia Spain finally ruled in favor of court-ordered elections, members of the council appealed and readily posted a $900,000 appeal bond.
It was not the first time that members of the Supreme Council majority have been accused of misusing the temple’s $1 million treasury, and there is no public evidence that Jandi and Chela have done so. But detractors of current temple leadership tend to look askance at Saffron Express, which Jandi and Chela started not long after Jandi’s 1998 rise to power. The company appeared to flourish immediately, and now owns nearly a dozen rigs and employs approximately fifty subcontractors, according to Gurtej Singh, the company’s third owner. Saffron’s trucks ply California’s highways, carting fruit and vegetables from Bakersfield to Sacramento and, according to Gurtej Singh, the company has an estimated annual gross income of $5 million to $6 million.
It’s a sizable business, and Jandi said he has worked hard to build it. So when a vehicle inspector in Washington State discovered that one of Saffron’s rigs was 266 miles off course, company management was understandably nervous. The truck was supposed to be hauling a shipment of Wendy’s frozen french fries. And so it was. But nestled among the russets were several U-Haul boxes brimming with 238 pounds of potent Canadian marijuana. Driven by Saffron subcontractor Jashandeep “Shantu” Singh, the rig was en route from Vancouver to Los Angeles.
DEA agents now suspect the haul was part of an East Indian drug ring operating between British Colombia and the United States. Cocaine goes north; marijuana and cash come south. Although some smugglers have begun walking drugs across the border through the East Indian-owned raspberry fields that lie on both sides, most apparently rely on tractor-trailers to do their hauling.
“In the last decade, B.C. bud has really taken off,” said Mike Lang, a federal prosecutor in Seattle who has prosecuted several such cases involving dozens of Sikhs. “The number of East Indians we’ve seen has exploded. Typically it’s headed to California, but also Chicago and New York. … I would guess we’re catching 10 percent. Most of the people being caught are runners.”
Lang said these drug runners are often independent subcontractors for trucking companies. Yet when Shantu Singh got busted, Saffron’s insurance broker denied there was any meaningful relationship between the trucking company and the driver. “The truck is not registered by Saffron,” said Bhajan Singh Bhinder, who spoke for the company. “It is not owned by Saffron. Nothing. He’s not even a driver for Saffron. Saffron does not pay his worker’s comp. Saffron didn’t send him there.”
Be that as it may, when the police arrested Shantu Singh they recovered bills of lading, fuel receipts, and expense vouchers that indicated the trip was financed by Saffron. And an affidavit filed in a related case by Fremont Police Sergeant Jeffery Swadener suggests a far deeper connection. Jai Singh, the man whose DVD business operates on Saffron’s property, was covertly recorded on June 5 while being investigated on suspicion of DVD pirating. During the conversation, Jai Singh tried to enlist the help of undercover private investigator Brett Sua. “A guy was driving one of our trucks from Seattle to LA and got arrested,” Jai Singh reportedly said. When asked by Sua what the driver had been arrested for, he allegedly replied “Three hundred pounds of marijuana.” Jai Singh then asked the undercover agent if he knew anyone who could help his “friend” flee the United States. According to the affidavit, he invited the agent to meet his friend at a local convenience store. The agent declined the invitation. When asked the name of his friend, Singh reportedly replied: “Shantu.”
Special Agent Lum also alleged in court that informants say Jandi and Chela threatened Shantu Singh and his family and warned them to keep silent. The allegation, found in Lum’s written testimony in the deportation proceedings against Chela, is based on alleged eyewitness accounts by unidentified informants within the Sikh community. According to these informants, Chela and Jandi instructed Shantu Singh “not to identify them as the owners of the marijuana and to state that the marijuana was his alone.” Informants further allege that Jandi tried to buy Shantu Singh’s silence, offering him $100,000 to keep quiet. Jandi is later reported to have complained about the steep price he’d had to pay for Shantu Singh’s silence. According to Lum, informants alleged that the payoff came from cash embezzled from the Fremont Gurdwara.
Jandi refused comment when asked about the allegations. Shantu Singh’s brother denies being threatened. Meanwhile, Shantu Singh failed to appear for his trial on June 16. He is now a federal fugitive, and may have fled the country.
Saffron Trucking started in 1999, but many of its core partners and associates met a long time ago at the Indian National Sports Institute in Patiala, Punjab. Chela taught water polo. Jai Singh was a handball coach. Gurtej Singh was a javelin thrower. Bhinder was a wrestler.
But another connection binds these men: the Sikh Youth of America. Saffron’s three owners, Jandi, Chela, and Gurtej Singh, all have told reporters or law enforcement officials that they are members of the group. Bhinder often acts as a spokesman for it. And Chela told Lum that there are a total of five or six members of the group at the Gurdwara.
Local members of the Sikh Youth characterize it as an organization committed to the Khalistan movement. Although little is known about the group, it is believed to have eleven chapters and between one hundred and two hundred members, most of whom are middle-aged, despite the group’s name. “We do lots of charity work,” Bhinder said. “We are running magazines, helping political causes.”
But authorities suspect that the Sikh Youth of America is much more than a charitable organization. Investigators and members of the Fremont congregation privately contend that the Sikh Youth of America is closely associated with the much larger International Sikh Youth Federation. That group, active mainly in Canada, is considered by the Canadian government to be a terrorist organization. It is suspected of playing a role in much of the bloodshed that plagues Vancouver’s large Sikh community — violence that local police worry may be a harbinger of things to come in the Bay Area.
In Canada, the International Sikh Youth Federation has been linked to drug trafficking, the shooting of journalist Tara Singh Hayer, and the murder of opposition members. The Vancouver Sun has reported that it also has ties to Ripudaman Singh Malik, a man currently on trial in Canada for the 1985 bombing of an Air India plane off the coast of Ireland. The bombing, which killed 329 people, was then the deadliest single act of terrorism in modern history.
The United States shares many of the same concerns. Federal Executive Order 13224, which froze the assets of “persons who commit, threaten to commit, or support terrorism,” now includes the International Sikh Youth Federation.
Members of the Sikh Youth of America adamantly deny that their group is linked to the International Sikh Youth Federation. “We sympathize with the Khalistan movement,” Bhinder said, but “have no relationship with them.” Bhinder’s sentiment is echoed by the scholar Cynthia Mahmood, who believes no formal link exists between the two groups, although they are closely allied. “The Sikh Youth of America was purposefully set up to be distinct from the International Sikh Youth Federation,” she said.
Yet Mahmood concedes that banning such groups does not work, because membership within the Sikh Youth of America is fluid. “These people simply join another group or change the group’s name,” she said. Law enforcement officials concur. “Like any group, they change their name and keep doing the same thing,” said one investigator, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But militance may go hand in glove with membership in the Sikh Youth of America. The man said by members to be the group’s president is Harpal Singh Cheema of Union City, a former Fremont Gurdwara congregant. Although Cheema never has been formally charged with a crime, he has been under federal detention since 1997, allegedly for his suspected links to terrorists in Punjab. Cheema’s case is shrouded in mystery. The evidence against him is under court seal, and even his lawyer has yet to view it. He is being held in a Yuba County jail in Marysville, California, and his case is pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The evidence suggesting that other members of the Sikh Youth may be connected to terrorism in Punjab is only slightly more clear-cut. Much is gleaned from overheard conversations, the accounts of unnamed witnesses, and an eleven-year-old federal investigation. Nonetheless, in Chela’s detention hearing, which is being held at a federal detention center in Eloy, Arizona, Special Agent Lum of the DEA has filed a declaration that attempts to link Jasjeet “Jesse” Singh Chela to Punjabi terrorists.
Lum’s strongest evidence is a recorded conversation between himself and Chela that took place in the offices of Saffron trucking, where the agent said he observed a calendar from the International Sikh Youth Federation. Chela allegedly told Lum that the liberation of Khalistan is the primary objective of the Sikh Youth of America and its local members. “We were militants, activists, or whatever, you know; in our country we were fighting for our freedom,” Chela allegedly said. “That’s what we are still doing here.” Chela said that he, Jandi, Bhinder, and Gurtej Singh all had invested their own money in the Free Khalistan Movement, and that he personally donated $150,000. Chela said he “did not care” if someone were beaten up or killed, Lum alleged, but that he was concerned about drug trafficking, which is counter to the tenets of Sikhism.
Law enforcement officials know little about what Chela, Jai Singh, and Bhajan Singh Bhinder did when they lived in India. What is known is that both Chela and Jai Singh applied for political asylum upon arrival in the United States. Their requests, although denied, were predicated in part upon the risks they would face if they returned to India. Bhinder, too, has admitted to law enforcement officials and a reporter that he would be arrested should he return.
Although Lum’s written testimony pertains mainly to Chela, the alleged actions of Bhinder, and Saffron Express co-owner Gurtej Singh occupy a sizeable portion of his declaration. Lum describes an undercover United States Customs Service investigation in which Bhinder and Gurtej Singh allegedly tried to procure illegal arms for the Khalistan movement. The transaction reportedly took place in 1992, around the time that Bhinder served as president of the Fremont Gurdwara.
According to Lum’s declaration, a pair of Customs Service agents posed as weapons dealers. Bhinder and Gurtej Singh allegedly met with the undercover agents to negotiate the purchase of assault weapons and shoulder-fired missiles for the Free Khalistan movement. The meeting took place at the Blue Dolphin restaurant in the San Leandro Marina. After lunch, the declaration states, the group retired to a yacht docked in the surrounding marina. Bhinder allegedly said he was looking for one ton of C-4 plastic explosive “to start with.” The declaration says the unnamed agents then showed Bhinder and Singh a collection of machine guns. They were evidently looking for something with more firepower, namely M-16s, AK-47s, detonators, night-vision goggles, mobile communications equipment, remote-control equipment, grenade and rocket launchers and, for good measure, Stinger missiles.
Bhinder allegedly said the weapons would travel via yacht to Pakistan. They would then move overland by truck into India, where members of the Free Khalistan movement would receive them. Bhinder, the declaration said, would pay half of the money when he got the weapons and the other half when the shipment arrived in India. But the deal never went through. Two weeks after the meeting, according to the document, Bhinder phoned the undercover agent and called it off. He allegedly said he had “a funny feeling that something was wrong,” adding, “We have been burned once before.”
A government source said the Customs Service then dropped the investigation, having already expended too much money and manpower on an unsuccessful sting. It was still nine years before the 9/11 attacks, and terrorism — particularly abroad — was low on the government’s list of priorities. Lum alleged that Bhinder traveled to Pakistan soon after the aborted arms deal, allegedly returning to the Bay Area six months later. He now owns Biba Insurance, which insures trucks for Saffron Express.
The Bush administration argues that the link between drugs and terror is deep-rooted and pervasive. “Prior to September 11, 2001, the law enforcement community typically addressed drug trafficking and terrorist activities as separate issues,” DEA Assistant Administrator for Intelligence Steven Casteel told the Senate Judiciary Committee in a May 20 statement. “The war on terror and the war on drugs are linked. Whether a group is committing terrorist acts, trafficking drugs, or laundering money, the one constant to remember is that they are all forms of organized crime.”
It was suspicion of organized crime that led federal agents to raid Saffron Express’ offices on October 14. At the time, they came in on a warrant for copyright infringement. They suspected that Jai Singh was not only pirating Bollywood movies, but bullying local shop owners into carrying his wares. Jai Singh now faces several years in prison if convicted. Still, a copyright infringement case in Hayward hardly merits the presence of agents from the DEA, FBI, Postal Service, Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as the Fremont Police Department. Obviously government officials were looking for something bigger that day. If the authorities were seeking drugs, they must have been sorely disappointed. Yet they did recover Chela — a prize that may prove much more valuable.
The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement picked up Chela on an immigration detainer. Like Jai Singh, Chela had applied for political asylum upon arriving in the United States in the early 1990s. Jai Singh’s application was denied, and officials allege that Chela never showed up for his asylum hearing. Police say both men have used numerous pseudonyms over the years, and government officials possess what they say is evidence that Chela fraudulently applied for an Indian passport in 1996. Both now face deportation.
Of course, that’s assuming they are not first tried and convicted on other charges. Jai Singh faces trial for DVD pirating. The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement may be able to prove that Chela has engaged in immigration fraud to remain in the country illegally. It also has been alleged in court that both men knew Saffron’s trucks were being used to transport drugs. Nonetheless, one must connect a considerable number of dots to conclude that Chela’s myriad offenses are actually a coordinated system to arm militants in his native Punjab.
So far, the suggestion that Chela is actively supporting terrorism rests publicly on the declaration submitted by Special Agent Lum. Much of the evidence contained in his declaration is more than a decade old, anonymous, or based upon hearsay. And though the government is gunning for Chela, it may have been overeager.
During Chela’s hearing two weeks ago, the government was forced to withdraw a piece of evidence Lum had used to buttress its case. The evidence in question was a list found under the keyboard of Chela’s computer at Saffron Express, which contained the names and personal information of three high-ranking Indian law enforcement officers. The list was titled “Targets.”
In the course of the November 6 hearing, it was revealed that the list had not been generated by Chela, but by the Center for Justice and Accountability, a legal group set up by Amnesty International to sue individuals suspected of human-rights violations. Prosecutors were forced to withdraw the evidence, and the government limped away from the hearing looking like it had been on a witch hunt.
Although the judge said Chela could go free upon posting a $250,000 bond, the government has appealed the decision. Jasjeet “Jesse” Singh Chela now bides his time behind the steel doors, timed locks, and armed guards of the federal detention center. Jai Singh awaits trial for DVD pirating and deportation hearings. Harminder Singh Samana is standing trial in Oakland for immigration fraud. Bhajan Singh Bhinder continues to publicly defend the Sikh Youth of America. And Jaswinder Singh Jandi? Like Bhinder, charged with nothing at all, Jandi splits his time between attending Chela’s hearings in Arizona, his duties at Saffron Express, and his responsibilities as president of the Fremont Gurdwara.