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Enormous ‘pressure’ that kept Rushdie out

Feb. 1: Author Salman Rushdie has directly accused chief minister Mamata Banerjee of ordering police to block his arrival in Calcutta.

“The simple fact is that the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee ordered the police to block my arrival,” Rushdie tweeted before he left Mumbai for London this afternoon.

The author’s version that was made public through a statement and tweets tallies with almost the entire information collected and published by The Telegraph on Wednesday and Thursday.

Mamata, asked about Rushdie’s statement while she was leaving Writers’ around 7pm, said: “Ami kichhu bolbo na. Ami kichhu bolbo na. (I won’t say anything. I won’t say anything).”

Many may consider Rushdie’s statement as one of the most embarrassing revelations to assail any government sworn to uphold democratic norms and individual liberty. But Trinamul sources suggested that the government was patting itself on the back and preparing to reap dividends during the panchayat polls.

Several factors stood out in Rushdie’s statement and tweets: that he was keen to come to Calcutta, he feels the police incited the protests and threatened to “put me on the next plane out” and this was done at “the request of the chief minister”.

Rushdie iterated that the organisers of the Kolkata Literary Meet (KLM) “are lying when they say that I wasn’t invited. I have emails and plane tkt (ticket) sent to them to prove it.”

In response to a question, Arun Nair, vice-president (marketing) of PVR Cinemas, which is distributing Midnight’s Children in India, said: “On January 29, the day before Rushdie was supposed to visit Kolkata, I got — God knows how many — calls from various officials of Kolkata police instructing me to dissuade Rushdie from coming to Kolkata. There was unbelievable pressure. It was only after 8pm that the Kolkata plan was dropped.”

A police officer in Calcutta conceded that several calls were made to those associated with Rushdie’s programme.

Rushdie was expected to attend a session at KLM, though Gameplan, the Calcutta-based organiser, has been insisting that it had not invited the author. The Telegraph is associated with KLM.

On Thursday, this newspaper had quoted sources as saying that the police had contacted Gameplan on Tuesday — a day before Rushdie was scheduled to land in Calcutta — and asked for a statement in writing that the author had not been invited.

PVR’s Nair echoed Rushdie today: “I have all the emails from Gameplan to prove that Rushdie was invited by them to the Kolkata Literary Meet.”

Jet Airways sources said Rushdie did have a Mumbai-Calcutta-Mumbai return ticket. “The ticket was booked in his name for a morning flight to Calcutta on January 30 and the return ticket was on January 31. However, the ticket was cancelled at the last moment,” said a source.

Gameplan, which also helps organise Kolkata Knight Riders’ home matches, stuck to its stand.

An officer today said it was important for the police to prevent Rushdie from boarding the Wednesday morning flight in Mumbai because they were not sure if he could have been sent back though the author said in his statement and tweets that the police had threatened to “put him on the next plane back”.

No one in the government would openly claim “credit” for keeping the author away but compliments were not lacking.

“If the government was at all instrumental in blocking Salman Rushdie’s visit to Calcutta, I thank and congratulate the government for it,” Sultan Ahmed, the Trinamul MP and state adviser on minority development, said this evening.

“The state is considered the cultural capital not only of India but also the entire world,” Ahmed said, seemingly oblivious to the incongruity of an author’s banishment being cited as something a “cultural capital” should be proud of.

The Trinamul MP and former Union minister clarified why Calcutta should not allow itself to be perturbed. “A state that boasts of literary greats like Rabindranath Tagore, Nazrul Islam and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay does not need to know anything from Salman Rushdie,” Ahmed said.

Shashi Tharoor, Union minister of state for HRD and an author, said at KLM today: “ I feel Salman should have been heard here and people who don’t agree with him should have been able to stand up in a civilised way and question and challenge him from the floor. That’s what literary engagement is all about. And I think Salman would have welcomed that and I think he would have responded with equal serious engagement.”

Asked if he thought the Bengal government should have allowed Rushdie to visit Calcutta, provided him police protection and let the people decide whether they wanted to engage with him, Tharoor said: “Agree 100 per cent.”

Informed of Rushdie’s tweet that Mamata did not allow him to come to Calcutta, author Amitav Ghosh said: “This is a dangerous trend and it’s happening across the country.”

Urban development minister Firhad Hakim, who was called to the chief minister’s office around 2.15pm and remained there until 3.30pm, ran into a flurry of questions from reporters on his way out. He declined to answer.

In the Writers’ corridor around 5pm, asked about the tweets, Hakim said: “Hundreds of writers tweet every day. If we have to react to every tweet, when are we going to work?”

State home secretary Basudeb Banerjee said: “No comments.”

At the Calcutta Book Fair, state planning minister Rachhpal Singh said: “Why should we invite him (Rushdie)? The organisers had invited him and he did not accept it.”

Later, Singh clarified to this paper that the organisers “might have” invited him. “They might have invited him but he did not accept it or show any interest. Otherwise, the organisers would have asked for police protection which they did not,” he said.

However, police sources said before they could gauge the mood of the political leadership, they had drawn up detailed arrangements for Rushdie’s travel in Calcutta.

Rosters had been prepared for deployment at the hotel where the author was to put up and another hotel near the book fair venue where there was a possibility of his arrival, an officer said.

The sources said that as soon as the police read the political bosses’ pulse, they started leaning on the organisers and made it clear that security arrangements should be the hosts’ concern.

Calls were then made to leaders of several minority organisations — something the leaders themselves told this newspaper on Wednesday.

An organiser of KLM said this afternoon: “We stand by what we said. We did not invite Salman Rushdie to KLM. The invitation was for Deepa Mehta and Rahul Bose and the programme schedule was up online and in the papers for the past fortnight. We have never communicated with Rushdie, he doesn’t even know us....

“On Tuesday, January 29, we sent an email to PVR clearly stating that our invitation to KLM was for Deepa and Rahul, not for Rushdie. However, we made it clear that we were no one to stop him from coming to Calcutta to promote the film or for anything else.”