NEW DELHI —
Salman Rushdie was prevented from speaking via video link to a major literature festival in India on Tuesday after the event’s organizer received a death threat and police warned of violent protests if the address took place.
The author of the controversial 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses” had been scheduled to make several appearances at the Jaipur Literature Festival, which began Friday, but withdrew after receiving what he said was information from police that Muslim groups were planning to assassinate him.
The Hindu, a leading Indian newspaper, reported Saturday that officials with the local state government had cooked up the story about the death threat against the Indian-born British author in a bid to force him to stay away from the event.
India’s ruling Congress Party is wary of losing Muslim votes in forthcoming state elections but has been widely criticized by liberals this week for appeasing religious hard-liners and failing to defend freedom of speech in the world’s largest democracy.
On Tuesday, festival director William Dalrymple received a death threat ahead of the event, a senior police official told the Reuters news agency, and tensions rose as protesters massed outside the festival venue.
Minutes before Rushdie was due to be interviewed, about 50 Muslims forced their way past police security and into the audience, forcing spectators to give up their seats, witnesses said.
“The police commissioner told us there would be violence in the venue and a riot outside where thousands were gathering if we continued,” Dalrymple said, adding that the festival’s host had been unwilling to bear responsibility for possible deaths in a venue full of children and old people.
“I feel personally disgraced by this, that after three weeks of struggle we had to give in to those who wish to suppress free speech,” he said. “It’s a bad day, and a horrible moment for us all.”
The effort to muzzle Rushdie failed, however. After his video address was canceled Tuesday, the 64-year-old author spoke with NDTV’s Barkha Dhutt in an interview broadcast nationwide.
Rushdie said he was personally disappointed by what had happened but sadder still for India, a country whose commitment to secularism and freedom he had praised.
“What I find is an India in which religious extremism can prevent the free expression of ideas at a literary festival, and in which politicians are too in bed with those groups to wish to oppose them for narrow electoral reasons, and in which the police forces are unable to secure venues against demonstrators even when they know the demonstration is on its way,” he said. “This decline in public standards and in the liberty of Indians to engage in discourse and to hear differing points of view, that is the thing that makes me saddest.”
He added: “If this is allowed to go on, India will cease to be a free country.”
Of the alleged plan to assassinate him, Rushdie said he thought the threat had been either exaggerated or fabricated. “My view is that it was probably fabricated,” he said.
On Friday, several authors courted further controversy by reading passages from “The Satanic Verses” at the Jaipur festival. Some Muslims consider the book blasphemous and the Indian government has banned its importation. Police were investigating.
See tweets from the event:
Update: Salman Rushdie blames the controversy on extremist leaders who threaten free speech. Is he right? Or is it his fault for courting controversy? Should the the organizers be to blame for inviting him? Did the government err? Or is this a problem with the protesters?Tweet #rushdieban Who should take the blame for Rushdie's cancelled conversation? Let us know by tweeting #rushdieban.