"If any company or organization invokes the First Amendment and free-speech rights and persists in denigrating Hinduism, I would say I understand their rights," says Shah, a 39-year-old San Diego-based scientist.
"But the First Amendment also covers our right to protest; we could then work in getting 1 billion Hindus worldwide to boycott their products."
Shah is the convener of American Hindus Against Defamation (AHAD), a three-year-old group active in North America and the United Kingdom.
Right now, Shah and fellow activists are savoring their victory over a tiny Seattle-based firm that had been selling toilet seats with the pictures of Hindu deities, such as Lord Ganesha and Goddess Kali.
Following protests by AHAD and stories in Indian publications, Lamar Van Dyke, one of the partners of Sittin' Pretty Designs, decided to stop marketing the toilet seats. She also apologized to Hindus, explaining to them that she had come to understand from her Hindu friends that a bathroom had to be maintained as a shrine. The decorative seats were meant to show the 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 ill
feeling," 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 cannot be active in other organizations that are attacking social injustice and poverty."
But bringing about a change in those who insult or denigrate Hinduism in itself 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 differentiate between rich and poor Hindus, he says.
AHAD activists recalled how a group of young men and women resentful of newer immigrants had attacked scores of Indians in Hoboken and Jersey City in 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 other religions and neighboring nations as long as they looked like Indians.
"In seeking the honor of Hindus and demanding they not be ridiculed," Shah says, "we are being good Americans."
"In our fight for Hindu dignity, we are championing American pluralism," he continues.
American history is full of instances of bigotry against other religions, he notes. 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 than what the volunteers spend on telephone calls, and yet it has been able to prevail against Sony and Warner Brothers--and lesser entities, such as Sittin' 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 been able to create discussion and awareness about Hinduism.
AHAD protested last year against the portrayal of Lord Krishna as a fictionalized character in "The Way," but Universal did not yank the episode.
However, the version that was finally aired carried an announcement about Hindu deities and how they are real for Hindus worldwide.
AHAD had better success with Warner Brothers, who removed the Sanskrit shlokas used in an orgy scene in Stanley Kubrick's critically acclaimed film "Eyes Wide Shut." Though the WB action came six weeks after the film was in release in America, it ensured that more than 800 new prints meant for 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 needed several full-time workers and a big budget," says Shah. Today, the internet has made AHAD's task very easy. Many AHAD activists are students and high-tech professionals. "With such tech-savvy people, it takes a few minutes to spread the word," he says.
When AHAD launched an agitation against the jacket for Aerosmith's "Nine Lives" album in 1997, it received over 2,500 responses. Hindus were upset over the depiction of a disfigured illustration of Krishna. Sony reportedly received over 20,000 fax and e-mail messages. The offending jacket was withdrawn within a month of the protest, accompanied by a public apology by Aerosmith.
"It was our first victory," says Vijay Pallod, an accountant and AHAD activist in Houston. "We were very new, and the success of the Aerosmith drive convinced us that we should look out for every instance, small or big, of a denigration of Hindu faith and its icons."
"We do not believe in confrontation at all," Pallod, 42, says. He maintains that AHAD never takes up a protest before exhausting other means of persuasion.
"Many times we have discovered that a particular person or organization has no intention of offending or hurting any religion," he says. "By holding a dialogue with them, we have an opportunity to educate them about Hinduism."
Like Shah, other AHAD activists, including Pallod and Beth Kulkarni, a 50-plus white American who took to Hinduism after her marriage, are connected with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The two organizations actively promote Hindu values and are closely aligned with the Bharatiya Janata Party, which currently heads India's ruling coalition.
But many AHAD protests--like the one against the Southern Baptists' bookletdenouncing Hinduism--have also drawn in liberal Hindus who usually keep a distance from VHPA and RSS.
The AHAD protests are not aimed at non-Hindus alone. Srinivas "Sarin" Reddy, co-owner of Club Karma in Chicago, was prevailed upon to withdraw the display of religious icons in the trendy bar last year.
As AHAD is getting more active and vocal, so do its critics.
Vijay Parshad, a history professor at Trinity College, in Connecticut, and author of the book "The Karma of Brown Folk," criticizes what he sees as the cavalier attitude of the VHP and RSS toward other religions. In India, the groups have reportedly been associated with the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya and recent attacks against Christian missionaries.