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Salman Rushdie cancels trip to India after death threat

By Sara Sidner and Moni Basu
January 20, 2012 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
  • Salman Rushdie's 1988 novel, "The Satanic Verses," sparked protests in Muslim world
  • He says paid assassins may be planning attacks on him
  • He was supposed to have been a speaker at a major Indian literary festival
  • Other writers decry his absence and call it a blow to Indian democracy

Jaipur, India (CNN) -- A quarter century after its publication, "The Satanic Verses" continues to hound celebrated author Salman Rushdie.

The Mumbai-born writer was to have attended India's largest literary festival, which opened Friday, but instead canceled his appearance after objections from hard-line Muslims and a threat of assassination.

"I have now been informed by intelligence sources in Maharashtra and Rajasthan that paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld may be on their way to Jaipur to 'eliminate' me," Rushdie said in a written statement.

"While I have some doubts about the accuracy of this intelligence, it would be irresponsible of me to come to the festival in such circumstances; irresponsible to my family, to the festival audience, and to my fellow writers. I will therefore not travel to Jaipur as planned."

Rushdie said he would appear on video-link instead. "Believe me, I am sorry not to be there in person," he said.

Rushdie attended the Jaipur festival without any hullaballoo in 2007.

Festival organizer and author William Dalrymple decried Rushdie's absence.

"It's tragic, its stupid. He is one of the greatest writers in India. He should be a national hero," Dalrymple said. "He should be greeted with rose petals in every city he arrives. Instead he has this kind of nonsense."

Even before the threats Friday, the Jaipur Literary Festival was abuzz in controversy over Rushdie's attendance.

Earlier in the week, the Islamist seminary Darul Uloom Deoband called again for a ban on Rushdie in India because he had not apologized for "The Satanic Verses," which earned him a death sentence in a fatwa from Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, the year after the book was published.

Abul Qasim Nomani, the vice chancellor of the religious school, insisted that Rushdie be denied a visa. However, as a person of Indian origin, Rushdie does not require a visa to travel to India.

The author has become a political pawn in India, where the Muslim vote will play a key role in upcoming state elections, especially in populous Uttar Pradesh, where the Deobandis are based. India is home to about 240 million Muslims.

"The Satanic Verses," which some Muslims found sacrilegious, is banned in the country. Rushdie spent a decade under British protection after the fatwa was issued against him.

Rushdie had been listed on the festival's schedule of events for Friday and Saturday but his name was taken off after the protests.

"I feel depressed," Indian playwright Girish Karnad told CNN sister network CNN-IBN. "I mean, what is happening to this country? We are supposed to have a liberal tradition."

Karnad said that with Rushdie's book already banned, what is the point now of hounding him?

"Suddenly because of some election, some group gets up and says we can't have him?" Karnad said. "The point is that he feels threatened. In any open society a man should not feel threatened."

The festival opened Friday with a bevy of big names, among them Michael Ondaatje, Vikram Seth and Oprah Winfrey.

Writers Hari Kunzru and Amitava Kumar started to read passages from "The Satanic Verses" after the festival opened Friday. Organizers asked them to refrain.

"Reading from 'The Satanic Verses' is one way of protesting not only the injustice of Rushdie being forced to stay away but also the ban on the book in this country," Kumar told CNN.

Later, writers Ruchir Joshi and Jeet Thayil repeated the act of defiance by reading passages from the book. They were also asked to stop.

Kunzru said he had an obligation to support Rushdie's right to be heard.

"I think we are all united in believing this is a bleak day for India, that this is a very bleak day for Indian literature," he told CNN-IBN. "Freedom of speech is the very foundation of a free society and a democracy and this is a blow against that. It's Rushdie today. It could be any of us tomorrow."

He said the speculation that politicians refused to support Rushdie's visit because of electoral concerns was "disgusting."

"We are looking for people of principle to draw a line in the sand," he said.

CNN's Sara Sidner reported from Jaipur, India, and Moni Basu from Atlanta. CNN's Sumnima Udas contributed to this report.

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