NEW DELHI — The controversial Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie canceled his visit to an Indian literary festival Friday after authorities warned he was a target for assassination, following protests from local Muslim groups.
Senior Muslim clerics and some lawmakers had called for Rushdie to be banned from entering the country for the festival, Asia’s largest, in the northern Indian town of Jaipur. The calls reignited the controversy over his 1988 book, “The Satanic Verses,” which some Muslims consider blasphemous.
Mindful of the Muslim vote in important state elections next month, the government wavered, unwilling to welcome Rushdie and guarantee his security but equally reluctant to bar the Booker Prize-winning author completely. In the end, unidentified intelligence officials apparently warned him off.
Rushdie, 64, said he had received intelligence reports “that paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld may be on their way to Jaipur to eliminate me.”
“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,” he said in a statement read by the festival organizer. “Irresponsible to my family, to the festival audience and my fellow writers.”
Rushdie was to address the opening day of the five-day festival by video link instead.
Festival director William Dalrymple said Rushdie’s writings had been “cartooned and caricatured,” often by people who have never even read “The Satanic Verses,” which is banned in India.
“Rushdie is India’s greatest writer in English,” he said. “In a more just world, his arrival here would have been heralded by people in the streets throwing out rose petals in front of him rather than this nonsense.”
Festival organizer Sanjoy Roy said India needed to ask itself how ideas are being blocked, “why we continue as a nation to succumb to one pressure or another.”
“This is a huge problem for Indian democracy,” he said.
The festival audience, expected to number in the tens of thousands, will have to make do with Oprah Winfrey, authors such as Annie Proulx, Richard Dawkins and Michael Ondaatje and playwright Tom Stoppard.
Rushdie followed up his statement by tweeting: “Very sad not to be at jaipur. I was told bombay mafia don issued weapons to 2 hitmen to ‘eliminate’ me. Will do video link instead. Damn.”
Later he added: “Much support and sympathy: thanks, everyone. Some say I let people down: sorry you feel that. Some Muslim hate tweets: pathetic.”
While freedom of speech is guaranteed and enormously valued in India, politicians are often reluctant to defend artists when they are accused of offending religious sentiments.
One of India’s most renowned painters, M. F. Husain, was forced to live abroad in the final years of his life after threats and lawsuits over his depiction of naked Hindu goddesses.
Rushdie spent several years in hiding after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, called for his execution in 1989. But the author attended the annual festival in Jaipur in 2007 without incident.