Swindler's List

How a US-based Sikh Hardev Singh Shergill, exposed the misdeeds of a self-styled 'Guru' who has amassed property worldwide

The Week - India/October 25, 1998
By Vijaya Pushkarna

It all began about seven years ago, when the Shergills of Roseville, California, US, were at an emotional low. Hardev Singh Shergill was preparing for the first death anniversary of his mother-in-law. His wife Narinder Kaur was inconsolable; their 18-year-old son Mandeep Singh had been killed in an auto accident in the Canadian Rockies a few days earlier. That was when 'Sant Baba' Amar Singh (pic: left) was introduced to them to help out with the rituals.

A self-proclaimed celibate, with spiritual intents, Amar Singh spoke of the Sikh Gurus, of the numerous temples and Sikh schools he headed around the world. Almost to distract themselves from their abject sorrow and bereavement, the Shergills and Kuldip Singh Johal, a friend of theirs, developed deep faith in the holy man.

Before they knew it, Amar Singh, now 56, had sold them the idea of setting up the Nanaksar Thath Ishar Darbar Sacramento, a non-profit unincorporated association, with the idea of establishing a gurdwara with a Sikh school in it. Amar Singh himself was the chairman and president, and one of the four directors: the others were Hardev, Johal and Ajmer Singh Mann.

When the question of finding a suitable property to locate the gurdwara came up, Hardev, a teacher-turned-real estate broker, contributed his bit by identifying the building. Then came the difficult task of mustering the $310,000 that it cost. Amar Singh did not exactly wave a wand to produce the greenbacks. He asked Hardev and Johal to loan the money, which the association would repay "in a matter of days."

Hardev chipped in $42,000, Johal put in $20,000, and they tied up the remaining money as well. Soon after they acquired the property, Amar Singh asked Hardev for an "emergency" loan of $50,000, which would be repaid along with the loans taken to acquire the place. The realtor transferred the amount to the association in mid-1993.

Soon the association found itself unable to keep its payment schedule and Amar Singh asked Hardev for another loan, this time $100,000. They paid up the full money for the property, and the Bhai Daya Singh Khalsa Academy appointed a staff of three and a maintenance man brought to Roseville by Amar Singh.

But just before the school was to throw its doors open to students, Amar Singh and the staff disappeared, leaving the place in the care of two people, Banta Singh and Swaran Kaur. Though neither of them looks a priest, a shocked and disappointed congregation saw them sit in as priests, and slowly stopped visiting the gurdwara.

The 'Sant Baba' turned up almost a year later, but disappeared in a couple of days. By then Hardev had loaned over $23,000 more, but gurdwara was hardly functioning and the school existed just in name. Disillusioned with what he saw, the former teacher, who had "returned" to religion after a long gap, decided to investigate.

The Shergills toured Australia and New Zealand to visit the gurdwaras and schools 'Sant Baba' Amar Singh claimed to have opened there. And what did they see? The gurdwara in Sydney was 'occupied' by a Sikh couple, Resham Singh and his wife, and their son Bobby, who also controlled the gurdwara in Melbourne. In the gurdwara at Woolgoolga (New Zealand), it was another couple, Jaswinder Kaur and Sarbjeet Singh who were in charge.

They were mere caretakers, and there was nothing like a congregation in any of these gurdwaras. The 'college' in Melbourne was a small makeshift building with desks, next to the temple: it had not seen a single student ever! According to Hardev (pic: right), Amar Singh's gurdwaras were no more than 'tax-exempt-real-estate-holdings.'

Back in the US they learnt that almost 20 years ago Amar Singh had fled a Yuba City Sikh congregation in mysterious circumstances. In early 1994, a congregation of more than 100 members of a gurdwara in TorontoÑanother of Amar Singh's racketsÑsigned a petition that the self-proclaimed 'saint' be removed, accusing him of transferring over $500,000 in donations overseas to fund his other temples!

Malaysia has permanently prohibited Amar Singh from entering the country "in the interest of public security" and in 1989 the Singapore government refused him permission to set up a Nanaksar Thath Ishar Darbar Society there.

Details of how he exploited men and women, leaving a trail of illegitimate children, also surfaced as Hardev delved deeper. In England, he operated from Wolverhampton, and had a temple and two colleges in Hayes, Middlesex, and Chigwell, Essex. In the US, he was in the process of opening a school in Montgomery County, Maryland, and generally hopped around between Orlando, Florida and Buffalo, New York, where he owns homes that hold out as gurdwaras. He acquired all these properties by duping people; he promised a woman in British Columbia treatment for cancer and grabbed her land.

In early 1995 Hardev questioned the caretakers Swaran Kaur and Banta Singh about the money Amar Singh owed him. A couple of months later Hardev received a fax message: Amar Singh had removed him as director of the association. The by-laws of the association provided, among others, that Amar Singh "shall be all-in-all to remove and appoint anyone as director or treasurer". The same day, Banta Singh threatened the Shergills with a 'blood bath' if they attempted to wrest control of the gurdwara.

Hardev and Johal decided to move a California court seeking dissolution of the association alleging breach of contract, fraud and misrepresentation of facts. They also urged the court to distribute the assets to clear off the debts and sought recasting of the association excluding Amar Singh. By May 95 the association owed Hardev over $228,000 (including interest payable to the sellers) and Johal over $22,800.

Serving the copy of the law suit to the globe-trotting Amar Singh, was challenging in itself, Hardev told THE WEEK on the phone from California. Of the 14 copies mailed to him all over the world, only one got served. Finally, it took a court order to get Amar Singh to Sacramento for the deposition. Almost buckling under the pressure of the lies and deception he resorted to, Amar Singh's attorneys even petitioned the court to relieve them from the obligation of defending him.

The case had over 100 exhibits running into hundreds of pages involving depositions from 36 people in California, Maryland and New York in the US, Vancouver and Toronto in Canada, and London in the UK. Amar Singh lost the case, "but it has made no difference to his exploits", said Hardev, who spent over half a million dollars just to expose the fraud and spare the Sikhs from self-styled 'sants'. He now spends $50,000 annually from his pocket to run the gurdwara he received with the judgment.

But the victory has not left Hardev jubilant in any way. With loads of evidence against Amar Singh, who loved distributing portraits of himself with a halo round his head to show he was an incarnation of Guru Nanak, Hardev approached the then Akal Takht jathedar, Prof Manjit Singh. His petition was not even acknowledged.

"I have received justice from the US judiciary, but to date, my jathedar has not even acknowledged receiving that petition," he said. This petition has obviously met the same fate as the one presented to jathedar Prof Darshan Singh by a group of people in the UK, against Amar Singh.

Hardev wrote to the present Akal Takht jathedar, Ranjit Singh that Amar Singh was claiming to be a Guru and committing blasphemy. He got no reply. To his shock, a few days later Amar Singh was honoured by the Akal Takht.

According to Indo Canadian Times published from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, a report of the event led to a woman, Karamjit Kaur, writing to Ranjit Singh that he had honoured a man who had raped her. Ranjit Singh, who allegedly received Rs 51,000 and a car costing Rs 7 lakh from Amar Singh, denied receiving such a letter. Hardev's representation to Punjab Chief Minister and Shiromani Akali Dal president Prakash Singh Badal too has evoked no response.

Besides Badal, Didar Singh Bains of Yuba City, who was recently a state guest of the Punjab government, and Justice Kuldip Singh are among the others who reportedly know about Amar Singh's activities but choose to keep mum.

Hardev has made no bones about how he feels about the affair: political and religious leaders of the Sikhs are interested in the overseas Sikhs only for the dollars. "Amar Singh took advantage of my sincere desire to give something to the community that gave me an identity," said Hardev who left India in 1960. "I was proud of being a Sikh. Thanks to Amar Singh, by March 1995 we were ashamed of being Sikhs."

Virtually every Sikh organisation they approached for help, turned the other way, saying the Amar Singhs of the world could not be challenged easily. Hardev was annoyed at this "unSikhlike" attitudeÑto defend the truth and help the wronged.

Amar Singh has evaded arrest so far. But the family of the now dead cancer patient in Vancouver, whose land he grabbed, has moved court to reclaim the property. The family to whom he sold that property has also filed a suit for recovery of the $1.8 million paid to Amar Singh; they never got the land. Two brothers in San Francisco are trying to recover the $43,000 they loaned him, three others are trying to get back their money too.

"He asks for loans to build gurdwaras and schools.... There is no proper gurdwara, no school at all, and the money is never returned," said Hardev. "He got a three-year lease from the Montgomery County to run a Sikh institution in an abandoned school, and recently the County has forced him out of it."

A family which had contributed money and volunteered help to manage the gurdwaras in Australia severed links with him soon after Hardev blew the whistle. And Banta Singh, sentenced to six years imprisonment for molesting a couple of under-10-year-old girls, was expelled from the US after a six-month jail term. He is now managing an Amar Singh enterpriseÑa gurdwaraÑin Greater Kailash, New Delhi.

According to 64-year-old Hardev, there are any number of 'Sants' like Amar Singh, swindling innocent Sikhs abroad. One such, 'Sant Baba Gubachan Singh Kahle Kamble Walle', is now operating in the US after being chased out of Malaysia.

'Mahan Sant Sharomani Baba Maan Singh Ji Pihowa (Bhewe Wale)' advertises himself widely in the US. "He leaves a discord in his wake," said Hardev. "He wants committee members to be amritdhari Sikhs, but there is not a single gurdwara in the US, built by him. He urges the sangat to remove chairs from dining halls, yet he never eats with the sangat."

And so there are 'Sant Baba Nahar Singh Ji', 'Giani Sant Singh Maskeen', and driver-turned-Godman, 'Vaid Raj Ajit Singh Ajiz' and the like. In what he calls 'A case study on Religious Thuggery', Hardev believes that these 'sants' are moving to the west to swindle.

But why do the Sikhs living in the US and the UK fall for them? "Many of us have lived here for almost 40 years or more; our kids haven't visited Punjab, don't speak our language. And when a man like Amar Singh talks about building gurdwaras and schools, we try to help," said Hardev. "These people ask for loans, which they don't repay. Then follow other crimes."

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