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Why Salman Rushdie could not set foot in Calcutta

Salman Rushdie

Calcutta, Jan. 30: The state machinery swung into action to prevent Salman Rushdie from setting foot in Calcutta today and launched an equally spirited effort to conceal its footprints, accounts from multiple sources and events through the day suggest.

Hours after it was confirmed that Rushdie would not reach the city, one of the senior-most government officials made a statement at Writers’ Buildings on one condition: his name cannot be revealed.

The official declared: “The state had no information about Salman Rushdie’s visit. But a rumour spread last evening that the author was supposed to come to the city for a series of programmes. The city police were asked to enquire about this. The Mumbai police confirmed to the city police that Rushdie was not supposed to visit Calcutta today (Wednesday). The city police informed the state home secretary last night.”

As things stood on Tuesday evening, Rushdie was supposed to be in Calcutta on Wednesday to promote Midnight’s Children, the film based on his book, and expected to attend a session at the Kolkata Literary Meet (KLM), which is organised by Gameplan. The Telegraph is associated with the event.

Reporters of this newspaper spoke to several people — in Calcutta and outside — directly and indirectly associated with the events surrounding the controversy. The following is the information this newspaper has collected.

Rushdie himself confirmed late tonight that he had been invited to attend a session of the KLM. The Calcutta-based Gameplan, the KLM organisers, has been claiming that the Midnight’s Children “team” was invited but Rushdie was not directly approached.

In response to a tweet doubting if the author was at all supposed to come to Calcutta, Rushdie tweeted: “That is not true. The #KLM organizers know that.”

Deepa Mehta, the director of Midnight’s Children, tweeted that the author was supposed to be a surprise guest at the lit meet and that the KLM organisers had paid for his ticket.

In an email to the London correspondent of The Telegraph, Deepa explained from Mumbai why she did not come to Calcutta: “No rocket science it (the KLM session) would have ended up about Salman not being allowed into Kolkata. And secondly, I felt very strongly about solidarity with Salman. If he was not a show, neither was I going to be. Rahul (Bose, part of the cast who was in the city today) felt similarly but had caught an earlier flight so didn’t know until he landed that I had decided otherwise…. Feels sad but nothing surprises me about the power that the lunatic fringe wields here.”

Plane tickets were booked for Rushdie and the rest of the Midnight’s Children “team” for travel to Calcutta from Mumbai on Wednesday morning.

A hotel room had been blocked for Rushdie.

On January 25, reporters were informed of a news conference on Wednesday afternoon on Midnight’s Children, scheduled for release on Friday. Slots for media interaction with the team, including Rushdie, were allotted to various publications.

In Mumbai, a source who had access to the author said Rushdie cancelled his visit after his hosts in Bengal pulled back the invitation following warnings from the local police and political establishment. Rushdie, the source said, was “dejected” when he was told about the invitation being withdrawn. The source said Mumbai police, in charge of Rushdie’s local security, were then informed.

Mumbai police did inform Calcutta police about the change of plans but ACP Madhukar Pandey, who is in charge of Rushdie’s protection in Mumbai, added that “it was done as a matter of due process”. Mumbai police spokesperson Ambadas Pote said: “Mumbai police had no role in the cancellation of Rushdie’s plan to go to Calcutta. It is something that only Mr Rushdie or the West Bengal government can explain.”

But a KLM organiser said tonight: “We have not had a single exchange with Rushdie about coming to Calcutta. We have been communicating with PVR about inviting Deepa and Rahul. We have not invited Rushdie and we stand by it. Now if he wanted to come to Calcutta, we are no one to stop him. But we never invited him.”

The chain of events that preceded the “disinvitation” — as one author described it — reveals the real reason why Rushdie suddenly became unwelcome in a city that claims to be the cultural capital of India.

Highly placed sources told this newspaper that the Calcutta police brass became aware of Rushdie’s planned visit at least two days ago and immediately got in touch with the political leadership for instructions.

Several wings of the administration — mainly led by the police — worked in tandem to keep the author away without appearing to play a direct role.

“The moment the city police came to know of the impending visit, the section of the special branch that collects intelligence on minority affairs was pressed into action,” said an official.

Officers of a particular wing (it carries an internal prefix that leaves no doubt about its area of specialisation) called up leaders of various organisations to “ask” about Rushdie’s visit. In the process, the wing actually alerted several organisations that had no idea about the visit.

‘Cops told us’

At least three heads of minority organisations said they learnt of Rushdie’s visit from the police.

“An officer asked me if I knew of the visit and if I was planning a protest against it. I said that ‘now I know about Rushdie’s visit. I will definitely protest against it’,” said Abdul Aziz, the general secretary of the Milli Ittehad Parishad.

Aziz’s organisation was among those that assembled at the airport this morning with placards to protest the visit that was already cancelled.

Aziz said later in the day: “The police called me up this afternoon to ask how the protests went.”

He added: “The government reacted swiftly and with maturity in stopping Salman Rushdie from setting foot in Calcutta.”

Mohammad Quamruzzaman, the general secretary of the All Bengal Minority Youth Federation, was at the airport this morning with around 100 people from North 24-Parganas.

“We have been assured by the administration that Salman will not land on the soil of Bengal. We checked the passengers’ list and his name was not there,” Quamruzzaman said.

Police sources said that according to the original schedule, the author was to take a morning flight from Mumbai and reach Calcutta around the time the protesters had gathered at the airport.

‘Boss told us’

A senior minister said “off the record” that his boss had issued clear instructions. “The state government took a firm stand against the visit from the very beginning, treating the proposal as an attempt to destabilise communal harmony in the state. The chief minister expressed her displeasure and instructed the chief secretary and the home secretary to deal with it strongly.”

“During her conversations, she even said that in a sensitive state like Bengal, supporting Rushdie’s visit was akin to communal instigation,” he said.

Lalbazar, the city police headquarters, learnt on Tuesday morning that Rushdie’s tickets to Calcutta had not been cancelled. It called the home department at Writers’ for a clear instruction on the next step. A senior official then got in touch with the chief minister, now in north Bengal.

It is then that one of the senior-most ministers called up the Publishers and Booksellers’ Guild, which is organising the Book Fair on whose premises KLM is also being held, asking if Rushdie was their invitee.

“We informed the minister in clear terms that neither the guild nor the organisers of the Kolkata Literary Meet had sent out any invite to Rushdie,” said a guild official. “Soon after, we received a call from Lalbazar and a senior officer asking the same question.”

Around the same time, Lalbazar contacted Gameplan, the organisers of the lit meet, and asked for a statement in writing that Rushdie had not been invited.

Armed with the input that Rushdie had not been officially invited to the Calcutta Book Fair, senior government officials at Writers’ went into a huddle. “Around 3.30pm, the home secretary met the chief secretary,” said an official.

The chief minister was briefed again. It is not clear what happened subsequently but Lalbazar then informed PVR Pictures, the distributors of Midnight’s Children in India, that Rushdie would be sent back from Calcutta if he touched down on Wednesday morning.

This version could not be verified with PVR.

‘Reports told us’

Insiders in the city police’s special branch said the spate of violent incidents in some pockets of the city over rumours such as baby theft, the scars of the Taslima Nasreen episode and simmering discontent in the minority community about the performance of the present government had weighed heavily in the assessment of the potential fallout of Rushdie’s visit.

A joint commissioner had sent a report on Rushdie to Lalbazar two days ago stating how his arrival could trigger an immediate reaction from minority groups across the city, according to a source. “The report refers to the protests against Taslima during which the heart of the city had almost been locked down,” the source said.