POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jan 23, 2012
JAIPUR, India » At an old Mughal palace temporarily converted to accommodate what organizers called "the greatest literary show on earth," the headliners on Sunday included Oprah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra and Tom Stoppard. But the absence of another star, Salman Rushdie, continued to overshadow the event.
A free-speech controversy has raged at the event, the Jaipur Literature Festival, since Friday, when Rushdie said he would not attend because law enforcement authorities had warned of a threat against his life by "paid assassins." But the story took a twist over the weekend: Was there really a threat?
On Sunday, several Indian news media outlets suggested there was not, and quoted police sources whom they did not name saying so. In a Twitter message, Rushdie pointed to an article in The Hindu, an English-language Indian newspaper, which published an article on its front page contending that the assassination plot was invented by the police in Rajasthan, the state where the festival is being held, to discourage the author from attending. "I've investigated and believe that I was indeed lied to," Rushdie wrote. "I am outraged and very angry."
Rushdie is deeply unpopular with some conservative Muslims because of his 1988 novel "The Satanic Verses," which is banned in India. A Muslim cleric in India demanded that the authorities prevent the author from entering the country for the festival, and others threatened to organize large protests in Jaipur if Rushdie attended.
The chief minister of Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot, defended the actions of his administration and told Indian news media Sunday that the threat against Rushdie was real.
Rushdie spent years living under police protection after 1989, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran condemned "The Satanic Verses" as an insult to Muslims and issued a fatwa, or religious edict, calling for the author's death. More recently Rushdie has led a very public life, and has made several trips to India, the country where he was born, including an appearance at the Jaipur festival in 2007 that was not announced in advance.
His cancellation this year immediately drew criticism from other authors and commentators about rising censorship and the limits on freedom of expression in India. On Friday, four authors at the festival read out short passages from "The Satanic Verses," gestures of protest that quickly brought police investigators to the festival grounds.
Hari Kunzru, one of the four authors, said Jaipur's police commissioner interviewed him briefly and then left the scene. Kunzru said that festival organizers were worried about being shut down, and that a lawyer for the organizers asked him to sign a waiver saying they were not responsible for Kunzru's actions. Finally, another lawyer warned Kunzru that he risked arrest and recommended that he leave the country immediately, which he did. "We knew it would be considered provocative to quote from it, but did not think it was illegal," Kunzru wrote on his personal website.
The issue was still festering on Sunday as some panelists at the festival expressed frustration with the organizers. "We all need to take a position on these issues," S. Anand said during a discussion on protest literature. "Why does the festival kowtow to this? Why do they feel cowed by this?" As Anand was speaking, one of the festival organizers, Namita Gokhale, entered the lecture hall and told the crowd that she regretted that the controversy had taken attention away from the many other authors at the event, and asked speakers to "behave responsibly."
"The law of India has banned ‘Satanic Verses,' and because it is banned, reading from the book in public is banned," Gokhale said. "You can go into any public place and read it at your own cost and consequence, but please don't read it at the festival."
William Dalrymple, an author and one of the directors of the festival, said that the Rushdie controversy had put organizers in the difficult position of balancing free expression with their responsibility to obey the law and keep the event safe. "We have not done anything we regret," he said Sunday.
He said that in contrast with 2007, Rushdie asked this year to have his planned appearance included on the festival's website. "He didn't want to always be the last-minute addition," Dalrymple said.
But he said that after some Muslim clerics spoke out against Rushdie's appearance, the Rajasthan police intelligence bureau contacted festival organizers about possible threats. The police told the organizers, he said, that different radical Islamic groups were making Rushdie their target and that as many as 50,000 people might stage a protest and attempt to storm the Diggi Palace, where the festival is held. "We had contingency plans to shut the gates," Dalrymple said. "You can never know if it is true or not."