A video-link speech by Salman Rushdie to Asia’s largest literature festival was canceled minutes before it was due to begin on Tuesday because of death threats to the organizers and fears of riots by Muslim groups.
Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses is banned in India and he had been forced to cancel a plan to address the festival in person. The portrayal of the prophet Mohammed in his book incensed Muslims and led to the author spending years in hiding.
He accused authorities on Tuesday of pandering to zealots with an eye on elections where Muslims form a key voting group.
“I find an India in which religious extremists can prevent free expression of ideas at a literary festival, in which the politicians are too, let’s say, in bed with those groups to wish to oppose them, for narrow electoral reasons,” the British-Indian author told the Indian news channel NDTV.
“Does India want to be a totalitarian state like China?” he asked.
The question of whether Rushdie should take part dogged the festival even before it began last week as organizers tried to balance religious sensitivities with freedom of speech in the world’s largest democracy.
Rushdie dropped plans to travel to the northwestern city of Jaipur after assassination threats against him were reported by Indian authorities.
Organizers announced the cancelation of Rushdie’s video-link on Tuesday to a mix of boos and applause after being warned by police that his appearance could trigger a riot.
“There are a large number of people averse to this video link inside this property. They have threatened violence,” Ram Pratap Singh, owner of the hotel at which the festival was held, told a large crowd that had assembled to listen to the author.
“This is necessary to avoid harm to all of you,” Singh said.
After an announcement at midday on Tuesday that Rushdie’s address would go ahead, leaders of local Muslim groups began to congregate at the main entrance to the festival, vowing to protest if the video-link was shown.
“All of us feel hurt and disgraced. Artists have not been able to prevail,” said Sanjoy Roy, the festival’s producer, holding back tears as he addressed the crowd on the last day of the five-day event, which drew 70,000 people.
“The police commissioner told us there would be violence in the venue and a riot outside where thousands were gathering if we continued,” festival director and author William Dalrymple said in a statement.