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What we can’t deal with

Jaipur, Jan. 24: The Jaipur Literature Festival cancelled a video-link speech by Salman Rushdie minutes before it was scheduled to begin today, citing death threats and fears of violence.

But the fallacy of such censorship in the information age was evident soon as Rushdie appeared on television and said he would come to India “as many times as I choose to… so deal with it”.

“In a true democracy, all get to speak, not just the ones making threats,” Rushdie had tweeted after the cancellation, which he described as “awful” and stifled free speech. Rushdie termed the entire episode a “black farce”.

The question whether the author should participate dogged the festival even before it began, as its organisers tried to juggle religious sensitivities and freedom of speech.

“The police commissioner told us there would be violence at the venue and a riot outside where thousands were gathering if we continued,” festival director and author William Dalrymple said. “We have all received death threats, which are still continuing to arrive.”

Ram Pratap Singh, the owner of the hotel at which the festival was held, told the crowd that had assembled to hear the author: ‘‘I have decided not to allow this video link to go ahead on the advice of Rajasthan police. There are a large number of people averse to this video link inside this property. They have threatened violence. This is necessary to avoid harm to all of you.”

Rushdie, whose 1988 novel The Satanic Verses is banned in India, last week cancelled plans to travel to Jaipur after reported assassination threats against him.

Tonight, Rushdie was unsparing in his criticism of politicians during an interview with NDTV’s Barkha Dutt, who was scheduled to moderate the aborted video conversation.

Rushdie said he felt “a lot of personal disappointment. But my overwhelming feeling is a disappointment on behalf of 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….”

Rushdie added: “It seems as if across the world of the arts there is an assault on liberty by, sometimes Hindu extremists, sometimes Muslim extremists… it’s about time we understood that if this is allowed to go on, that India will cease to be a free country.”

Political parties have been accused of failing to support Rushdie for fear of offending voters ahead of the Uttar Pradesh election next month.

The event’s organisers announced the cancellation of the video-link appearance about five minutes before it was to begin at 3.45pm.

“All of us feel hurt and disgraced. Artists have not been able to prevail,” said Sanjoy Roy, the festival’s producer, holding back tears. “We have been pushed to the wall,” he said to loud applause.

After an announcement at midday that the address was on, leaders of local Muslim groups began to congregate at the main entrance to the festival. About 300-400 protesters were inside the venue and, police said, more were gathering elsewhere in the city.

The organisers and the police twice tried to hold a dialogue with the group leaders but they were adamant.

The Rajasthan government, blamed for the cancellation of Rushdie’s visit, distanced itself from the snapping of the video link.

Home secretary G.S. Sandhu said: “We had given conditional clearance. We did not want that anything should be read out from the controversial book. The government had no role in the cancellation of the video link.”

But the government will have a headache if Rushdie keeps his word. “I will come to India as many times as I choose to. Do what I will and I will not allow these religious gangsters and their cronies in the government to prevent me… so deal with it.”