"If any company or organization invokes the First Amendment and free-speechrights and persists in denigrating Hinduism, I would say I understand theirrights," says Shah, a 39-year-old San Diego-based scientist.
"But the First Amendment also covers our right to protest; we could thenwork in getting 1 billion Hindus worldwide to boycott their products."
Shah is the convener of American Hindus Against Defamation (AHAD), athree-year-old group active in North America and the United Kingdom.
Right now, Shah and fellow activists are savoring their victory over a tinySeattle-based firm that had been selling toilet seats with the pictures ofHindu deities, such as Lord Ganesha and Goddess Kali.
Following protests by AHAD and stories in Indian publications, Lamar VanDyke, one of the partners of Sittin' Pretty Designs, decided to stopmarketing the toilet seats. She also apologized to Hindus, explaining tothem that she had come to understand from her Hindu friends that a bathroomhad to be maintained as a shrine. The decorative seats were meant to showthe respect she had for Hindu deities, Van Dyke said.
"We accept the apology, and we have had a very good discussion with her--and we are very glad that the dialogue and her explanation ended any illfeeling," said Shah.
"It is a typical leftist argument and ploy to attack Hinduism," says Shah."Just because we are engaged in one type of activity doesn't mean we cannotbe active in other organizations that are attacking social injustice andpoverty."
But bringing about a change in those who insult or denigrate Hinduism initself is important, many AHAD activists said.
"Today, someone attacks the symbols of Hinduism," says Pallod. "Tomorrow,the attack could be on all Hindus." And the attackers won't differentiatebetween rich and poor Hindus, he says.
AHAD activists recalled how a group of young men and women resentful ofnewer immigrants had attacked scores of Indians in Hoboken and Jersey Cityin New Jersey two decades ago.
Calling themselves Dotbusters, they first attacked women with bindis; then they attacked both men and women. Also attacked were people from otherreligions and neighboring nations as long as they looked like Indians.
"In seeking the honor of Hindus and demanding they not be ridiculed," Shahsays, "we are being good Americans."
"In our fight for Hindu dignity, we are championing American pluralism," hecontinues.
American history is full of instances of bigotry against other religions, henotes. And just as others have won respect for their own religion, Hindus in America want to be fully accepted and respected.
"America cannot be a great nation if any religion is hurt," Shah adds.AHAD has no office, no staff but a few volunteers, and no budget other thanwhat the volunteers spend on telephone calls, and yet it has been able toprevail against Sony and Warner Brothers--and lesser entities, such asSittin' Pretty, Club Karma in Chicago, and a shoe manufacturer in Los Angeles who used the pictures of Hindu deities on his products.
Even while AHAD has not had a full victory, as in the case of the "Xena"television episode "The Way," Hindu leaders say the organization has beenable to create discussion and awareness about Hinduism.
AHAD protested last year against the portrayal of Lord Krishna as afictionalized character in "The Way," but Universal did not yank theepisode.
However, the version that was finally aired carried an announcement aboutHindu deities and how they are real for Hindus worldwide.
AHAD had better success with Warner Brothers, who removed the Sanskritshlokas used in an orgy scene in Stanley Kubrick's critically acclaimedfilm "Eyes Wide Shut." Though the WB action came six weeks after the filmwas in release in America, it ensured that more than 800 new prints meantfor more than a dozen countries abroad would carry some other Indian music.
How is it that AHAD is effective without a formal structure or hierarchy?
"A few years ago, if we were to do what we do today, we would have neededseveral full-time workers and a big budget," says Shah. Today, the internethas made AHAD's task very easy. Many AHAD activists are students andhigh-tech professionals. "With such tech-savvy people, it takes a fewminutes to spread the word," he says.
When AHAD launched an agitation against the jacket for Aerosmith's "NineLives" album in 1997, it received over 2,500 responses. Hindus were upsetover the depiction of a disfigured illustration of Krishna. Sony reportedlyreceived over 20,000 fax and e-mail messages. The offending jacket waswithdrawn within a month of the protest, accompanied by a public apology byAerosmith.