Why What Happens to IACA Matters to the Community at Large
This month’s cover story (“From 1 to 100,000: The Pioneers, Pillars, and Milestones of the Atlanta Indian Community”) is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the 55-year history of this community.
In particular, the story highlights the role of IACA (India American Cultural Association) as not only the first-ever Indian organization in Atlanta, but also as the singular one representing the unified Indian community of those days in the 1970s. The hard work and joy of its members in the fundraising events for their cherished organization are palpable in the cover story. And so is their camaraderie, regardless of their regional origins in India.
Fast forward about 45 years from its inception, and it’s a different story today. In recent times, IACA has been riddled with power struggles and a lawsuit. It has failed to hold elections for the last two years, casting a shadow on the legitimacy of many of its current office holders.
“Why should I care about IACA?” you may ask if you are one of the majority of Indians who align with some of the many other organizations that now serve the community. Indeed, many of these contemporary organizations are far bigger than IACA in terms of both membership and funds. However, what IACA lacks in numbers is countered by the fact that even today, despite everything that ails the organization, it remains one of the main ambassadors of the community. Its history and legacy, and its annual events such as the Festival of India (FOI), make it significant. Sure, FOI has been ebbing and flowing from one year to the next, depending on the strength of the executive team in any given year. But done right, FOI continues to have the potential to be the signature annual event representing Indians in the area.
Therefore, ignoring IACA and what’s happening there, may not be in the best interest of the community. While we may align with our respective regional organizations such as those for Tamils, Punjabis, Bengalis, Telugus, Gujarati, etc., the community benefits from a singular umbrella organization that can represent it as a whole—if we wish to exert social and political influence in the mainstream. Over the years IACA has played that role, even as other noteworthy organizations such as Indian Friends of Atlanta (IFA) have gained mass and momentum. But none of the newer organizations have moorings in time and place the way IACA does.
So what ails IACA? Some of its members, including life members, as well as former officers, directors, and chairs have alleged that certain of its current directors, representing the “old guard,” are seeking to monopolize power, and are making unilateral decisions in a culture of cronyism and heavy-handedness. They further allege that some of the directors and chairs who currently control IACA are manipulating and violating Bylaws in attempts to shut off opposition. And that they have held secretive General Body Meetings without notifying all of its General Body members, raising valid concerns about transparency and accountability that are crucial for community organizations.
Officials who have had differences with some of these entrenched powers have found themselves maligned and ousted on questionable technical grounds, regardless of how successful a term they may have had.
Chand Akkineni, a former President, Chairman, and Director of the IACA, is one of those who conceived and launched the FOI during his presidency in 1997. Now an annual tradition, FOI has been IACA’s most successful event. Over the years, FOI is said to have brought in a profit of more than $500,000, and constitutes a major chunk of IACA’s annual revenue each year.
Instead of supporting and celebrating such a successful veteran of the organization, the powers of IACA recently attempted to eject Akkineni from a General Body Meeting. According to witnesses, the police were asked to escort him out. If not for the intervention of other members, Akkineni would have been expelled from that meeting through the use of police force. And this was being done not because there was violence, or a threat of violence, from Akkineni or anyone at the meeting, but simply because Akkineni, along with others, was asking for answers to long standing questions and complaints—such as the disqualification of Akkineni from running for office based on what he describes as manipulated residency requirements. Nomination eligibility requirements, claims Akkineni, were amended on the go to insert requirements that would disqualify him. This self-serving manipulation of the election process by the Board, says Akkineni, was done without necessary ratification from the General Body, making the amendment illegal.
In 2016 Rina Gupta was enjoying a successful term as the President. In stark contrast to recent prior years of mediocre performance, she had managed to increase membership and revenue. She managed to deliver a successful FOI, with above-average profits, even in the face of stiff competition from IFA’s Freedom Mela that was being held on the same day.
One would think that the Board would have applauded such a successful officer. Instead, Gupta says, she found herself at odds with the Board. A major issue of contention was the Board’s allegation that Gupta failed to obtain Board approval before hiring the Bollywood star, Preity Zinta, as a special guest for FOI. According to Gupta and others on the executive team, the Board was aware of the ongoing negotiations to hire Zinta, and had already agreed in principal to hire her. Moreover, our conversations by email and phone with past presidents reveal that such an action was not out of line from established standard operating procedures at IACA. And so, such an intemperate hostility towards a successful president, based on technicalities, plays into Gupta’s allegation that it was the personal vendetta of a couple of the Board members that resulted in her being targeted. Why else would the Board exploit a technicality in the face of a very successful decision? Zinta’s appearance at the FOI was perhaps the key factor in saving it from failure, in the face of IFA’s more youthful and energetic Freedom Mela.
Other allegations against the Board include the illegal extension of the term of three of its directors and allowing a favored Board member to become chairman, despite his ineligibility based on Bylaws that require a 3-year membership prior to qualifying for such a position. According to Gupta, “Neither the Chairman nor the Board heeded when this fact was brought to the Board’s attention, and unsurprisingly allowed him to continue on his position illegally. All this has reinforced the notion that the Board deems itself untouchable and beyond reproach… .”
To be clear, some of the above are allegations at this point, not proven facts. Moreover, conflicts of such a nature involving many individuals and many sides are rarely conclusive as to where blame lies. Keeping that in mind, we gave the current Board an opportunity to have their side heard on the allegations being made. We received the same response that all officials and members of IACA who have questioned the Board have been receiving for over a year now: they could not respond to our queries due to these matters being “sub judice” on account of a pending lawsuit. However, Akkineni and others have argued that the lawsuit came into the picture precisely because the Board has been persistently evasive in its dogmatic denial of transparency and accountability to its members.
The Board’s autocratic modus, along with its prolonged failure to resolve the complaints against it, raises fair doubts about its intentions and actions. Their sustained silence in response to serious allegations is hurting them where it matters, more than in the court of law—in the court of public opinion. Without the sanction and support of the larger Indian community of Atlanta, the association may well dwindle into oblivion. However, losing a once-cherished organization like the IACA would certainly be a huge loss for the community.
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