JAIPUR, Jan 20 (IANS): Will he, won't he? The guessing game was over Friday with Salman Rushdie, author of "The Satanic Verses", saying he had called off his visit to the Jaipur Literary Festival after intelligence sources told him that paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld were out to kill him.
"For the last several days I have made no public comment about my proposed trip to Jaipur at the request of the authorities in Rajasthan, hoping that they would put in place such precautions as might be necessary to allow me to come and address the Festival audience in circumstances that were comfortable and safe for all," Rushdie said in a statement read out by the organisers of the festival here.
"I have now been informed by intelligence sources in Maharashtra and Rajasthan that paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld may be on their way to Jaipur to 'eliminate' me," he said.
Sounding unhappy with the scare perception that has grown after his visit became an issue for Muslim fundamentalists in the country of his birth, Rushdie said: "While I have some doubts about the accuracy of this intelligence, it would be irresponsible of me to come to the Festival in such circumstances; irresponsible to my family, to the festival audience, and to my fellow writers.
"I will therefore not travel to Jaipur as planned."
The author, who attended the festival in 2007, also vented his ire on Twitter: "Very sad not to be at jaipur. I was told bombay mafia don issued weapons to 2 hitmen to 'eliminate' me. Will do video link instead. Damn."
He added later: "Much support and sympathy: thanks,everyone. Some say I let people down: sorry you feel that. Some Muslim hate tweets: pathetic."
Rushdie's announcement robbed the festival of some of its hype. A protest planned by Islamic groups outside the venue in the morning protesting Rushdie's visit was called off at the last moment.
The proposed visit had also acquired political overtones in view of elections in five states in India.
With elections in Uttar Pradesh, where around 20 million Muslims comprise nearly 18 percent of the population, the issue gained centrestage with the government appearing to give into pressure from fundamentalists for fear of antagonising the Muslim voters.
The Satanic Verses" has been excoriated by many Muslims across the world and in India on grounds that it contains derogatory references to Prophet Muhammad.
The organisers of the festival pitched for freedom of expression but had to reconcile itself to the absence of Rushdie, easily the mega attraction of the show.
"The festival had no intention to offend religious sentiments of anyone," said Sanjoy Roy, producer of the festival.
"Personally, I am deeply disappointed that Salman Rushdie will not be coming. I hope and believe that we will have him here another year," added co-director of the festival Namita Gokhale.
Around 208 top line authors, 150 performers and nearly 2,000 people, jostled for space on the manicured lawns of the Diggi Palace in the pink city where the festival opened Friday morning.
Queen mother of Bhutan, Ashi Sangay Choden Wangchuk, chief guest at the inauguration ceremony, joined co-directors Gokhale and William Dalrymple and producers Roy and Seuli Sethi to set the stage for four days of literature.
The festival this year features celebrity Oprah Winfrey, leading playwright Tom Stoppard and novelists like Michael Ondaatje and Ben Okri and is hosting sessions on core literature, politics, subcontinent and frontline accounts from the Arab Spring and around Asia.
Besides, a bulk of the festival is devoted to Bhakti and Sufi poetry and Bhasa literature.
There were serpentine queues since morning and visitors had to register their presence and pass through a three-tier security cordon to enter the venue.