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January 27, 2012

Why Salman Rushdie’s voice was silenced in Jaipur

The debate after the videolink with Salman Rushdie was cancelled. Photograph: Getty Images/Himanshu Vyas/Hindustan Times

A planned videolink with Rushdie at the Jaipur Literary Festival presented the directors with an impossible decision: cause a riot or uphold a vital principle.

By William Dalrymple

On Tuesday afternoon this week I was faced with one of the most difficult decisions I have ever had to make.

It was the last afternoon of the Jaipur Literature Festival, of which I am co-director, and more than 10,000 people were milling around the grounds of Diggi Palace, the festival venue, eagerly waiting to hear Salman Rushdie speak by video link from London. For three weeks we had waited anxiously for this moment, ever sinceMaulana Abdul Qasim Nomani of the Deoband madrasa had called for the Indian Muslim community to oppose Rushdie’s visit to our festival. For those three weeks we had been negotiating with various government agencies, the police, a spectrum of intelligence agencies and local Muslim groups to try to make sure that Rushdie could still be heard. Despite a great deal of pressure, we had kept our invitation open and had refused to back down from our position that Rushdie had every right to return to the country of his birth and to discuss his work.

Then at about one o’clock a large number of Muslim activists appeared in the property and gravitated to the back of the lawns where a huge crowd had gathered to hear the videolink. Some of them went into the central courtyard of the palace to make their namaz (pray), and according to some reports, the maulana in charge told his followers that if anyone was killed that day they would die a martyr. Then they sought out our producer, Sanjoy Roy, and told him that they were prepared to use any amount of violence in order to stop Rushdie’s voice being heard. Others talked to the press: one told a reporter from the Times of India that “rivers of blood will flow here if they show Rushdie”, while the Muslim Manch representative Abdul Salim Sankhla was quoted as saying: “We will not allow Rushdie to speak here in any form. There will be violent protests if he speaks.” While all this was happening, some of the other activists were turfing school children out of their seats and intimidating festival guests.

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