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Even absent, Salman Rushdie stirs controversy at India literary event

January 23, 2012 | 12:36 pm

Controversial author Salman Rushdie has been the talk of India's Jaipur Literature Festival, despite the fact that he bowed out of attending after police issued a warning -- later called into question -- that he might face an assassination attempt

REPORTING FROM JAIPUR, INDIA -- The man who wasn't there has become the topic that wouldn't die.

After author Salman Rushdie was pressured late last week not to attend India's Jaipur Literature Festival, he has been the talk of the five-day event, which wraps up Tuesday. Panelists quote him, attendees gossip over him and the Indian media follow the story's every twist and turn.

The controversy continued Monday when the government of western Rajasthan state, where the festival is based, barred him from speaking to the event by video link without prior approval.

Muslim groups had filed petitions against readings of his work at the gathering, India's self-avowed "greatest literary show on Earth." This followed news over the weekend that four authors had been advised by lawyers to leave Jaipur immediately or risk arrest after reading aloud from Rushdie's book “The Satanic Verses,” which is banned in India.

The 1988 work has long angered Muslims, who maintain that its portrayal of the prophet Muhammad is blasphemous. Rushdie was the object of a fatwa issued by Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini the year "The Satanic Verses" came out, calling for the author's death and forcing him into hiding for a decade.

Debate over Rushdie's attendance at the festival even eclipsed an appearance by Oprah Winfrey, with its own minor controversy and major star power. Winfrey's bodyguards a few days earlier were briefly detained after local TV reporters said her detail had damaged video equipment during a scuffle outside a temple, according to the Press Trust of India news service.

In announcing Friday that he would not attend, Rushdie cited claims by Indian authorities that "paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld" might be out to "eliminate" him.

Several Indian papers later ran stories quoting unnamed police sources questioning the seriousness of the threat, and an article in the Hindu daily newspaper suggested that the whole thing was made up by Rajasthan police to discourage the author's appearance.

"I've investigated and believe that I was indeed lied to," Rushdie wrote on Twitter. "I am outraged and very angry."

Rajasthan police denied any wrongdoing, even as some newspaper editorials and columns questioned India's commitment to free speech.

Some saw India's electoral politics as the real reason for the controversy over Rushdie's potential appearance at the festival. India's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh is weeks away from holding closely watched state elections. Muslims there are swing voters, and the head of an influential Islamic seminary in that state had termed Rushdie's plans to appear at the festival as offensive to Muslims.

The festival's estimated 70,000 visitors and 260 authors speak to the growing interest in literature in India on the heels of the country's rapidly expanding middle class, rising incomes and growing numbers of English speakers. The festival, which meets on the grounds of a 150-year old palace, has become more corporate, less spontaneous and more security-focused since the first small gathering in 2006.

"One thing's for sure," said one attendee who traveled from London for the event. "All this Rushdie controversy has only helped create more attention for the festival. And it won't hurt Rushdie's book sales either." 


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Photo: Indian writer Anni Zaidi, left, asks a visitor to the Jaipur Literature Festival on Monday to sign a petition calling for reconsideration of the nationwide ban on Salman Rushdie's book "The Satanic Verses." Credit: Manish Swarup / Associated Press