Hitmen are after me, says Rushdie as he pulls out of Indian festival


From modest beginnings it has become one of the biggest literary festivals on earth. This year the roster of big names talking about their work includes Michael Ondaatje, Tom Stoppard, Richard Dawkins, Annie Proulx, Hari Kunzru, Shashi Tharoor and William Dalrymple, the festival's co-director.

But this week India's Jaipur Literature Festival became more famous for something that was not happening: the appearance of Sir Salman Rushdie.

Yesterday morning it was still being reported that the Indian-born Booker Prize-winning novelist would attend, but within hours that all changed. He tweeted: "V 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."

The volte-face came at the end of a stand-off between the Midnight's Children novelist, tweeting hectically, and an Islamic seminary called Darul Uloom Deoband, which revived 20-year-old memories of the Satanic Verses row to demand that he not be allowed into India.

There was something fake about the demand: Rushdie holds a passport that permits him visa-free travel to India. After breaking the ice a decade ago, he is believed to have visited several times in recent years. At the festival he was scheduled to talk about Midnight's Children; his most controversial book, the one which provoked Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa, was not going to be mentioned.

The festival directors' misfortune was that this week sees crucial elections in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, which has a large Muslim minority and which the Congress Party is desperate to hold on to.

It is not clear why the Darul Uloom Deoband decided to make an issue of Rushdie's presence this year: he spoke at the festival in 2007 and they made no comment on it. But, with the elections pending, his presence became a political weapon for Congress's opponents. For Congress to defend Rushdie's visit would enable its opponents to portray the party as anti-Muslim, with potentially disastrous electoral consequences.

A bold state governor would have insisted that Rushdie must come, and would be protected. Instead no such assurance was forthcoming; a new fatwa was proposed – a payment of 100,000 rupees for anyone who threw a slipper at the author; assassination rumours floated and Rushdie pulled out.

Last night three novelists at the festival, Amitava Kumar, Hari Kunzru and Ruchir Joshi, ended their scheduled programme with an impromptu reading from The Satanic Verses to protest at the shabby treatment Rushdie had received. The audience applauded loudly.