Furore at the festival: Another chapter opens in the epic saga of Rushdie vs Islam

  • @AndrewBuncombe

The controversy over Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, written more than two decades ago, has again bubbled to the surface after senior Muslim clerics in India demanded that the writer be prevented from entering the country to attend a literary festival.

The clerics, along with a government minister who is a Muslim, claimed that the 65-year-old should not be permitted to participate in the annual festival at Jaipur because of the "widespread" feelings he triggered. The vice chancellor of the Darul Uloom seminary, some teachings of which inspired the Taliban, said: "The Indian government should cancel his visa as Rushdie had annoyed the religious sentiments of Muslims in the past."

Maulana Abul Qasim Nomani said if the government did not act, the seminary would take the matter further. "We will write to the external affairs ministry, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi if the government doesn't cancel his visa," added Mr Nomani.

Rushdie's 1988 book was banned in many countries, including India. The late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa calling for his death, which forced the novelist into hiding.

Rushdie, who was born in Mumbai, has visited India on a number of occasions since then and took part in the 2007 Jaipur festival. This year he is scheduled to take part in several sessions, including one entitled: "Inglish, Amlish, Hinglish: The Chutneyfication of English". The title refers to an expression Rushdie coined in his Booker prize winning novel Midnight's Children.

There had been speculation that the Indian government, headed by the Congress party, would be wary of upsetting Muslims ahead of state elections in Uttar Pradesh, where Darul Uloom seminary is located. Yesterday, the law minister suggested the issue would be a matter for the courts. "Why should the Congress stop [Rushdie]? There is law in the country. And if law permits, there must be a ban," Salman Kurshid said. "But whatever is done, it should be done as per the law. We cannot do anything beyond law."

While there has been no suggestion of any threat being levelled at Rushdie, officials involved in the festival in the state of Rajasthan said security was always a priority for an event that attracted celebrities and high-profile political figures. Among the guests due to take part this year is Oprah Winfrey.

Sanjoy Roy, managing director of Teamworks Productions, which produces the festival, also pointed out that Rushdie, a British citizen, possessed an Overseas Citizen of India card, which meant he did not require a visa. This was a point the writer himself made on Twitter, saying: "Re: my Indian visit, for the record, I don't need a visa."

The Darul Uloom seminary at Deoband was established in 1866 by a group of Muslim scholars seeking to revitalise Islam in India. Its position over the years has been complex; while the Taliban in Afghanistan were inspired by its austerity, the seminary has always supported India and opposed partition in 1947. While some of its fatwas have been said to discriminate against women, four years ago it issued a ruling that said terrorism had no place in Islam. Last night, Mr Nomani was unavailable for comment.

The writer William Dalrymple, one of the founders of the Jaipur festival, said Rushdie had fallen foul of "Chinese whispers" that had created a "cartoon" version of the novelist. He said Rushdie had repeatedly defended multiculturalism and would be taking part in the festival later this month.