India's reputation for upholding free speech suffered a blow yesterday when a video appearance by Salman Rushdie at a literary festival was cancelled just minutes before it was due to start, amid protests and fears of violence.
The 65-year-old writer, pictured, had been due to take part in an hour-long interview via video link at the Jaipur Literary Festival. He cancelled a personal appearance after alleged death threats and protests from Muslim leaders over his 1988 book, The Satanic Verses.
But, having earlier indicated the interview session would go ahead, organisers called off the event, at the request of the owner of the festival's venue, who had been told by police that planned protests could end in violence.
Last night, Mr Rushdie described what had taken place as a "black farce" and recall-ed a letter he had written to Rajiv Gandhi, the Congress party leader who was India's Prime Minister when his book was first banned more than two decades ago.
"What kind of India do you want to live in," he said in an interview on Indian television. "I find an India in which religious extremists can prevent the freedom of expression at a literary festival, in which the politicians are, let's say, in bed with those groups."
He said he believed freedom of expression in India was in a more vulnerable position than it was 30 years and added: "Does India want to be a totalitarian state like China, or does it want to move in the right direction?"
Organisers of the event, the most popular of its kind in Asia, quickly expressed their disappointment after the video link was cancelled. One of them, Sanjoy Roy, could barely conceal his tears as he said on stage: "We have to step down from the fight for freedom of expression, the freedom to write, the freedom to tell our stories."
Despite the claims of the owner of the venue, most reports suggest that only a small number of protesters had gathered at the site. The Congress party repeatedly insisted it had no role in Rushdie not attending the festival.