JAIPUR (Reuters) - Salman Rushdie will not attend a literature festival in India after authorities warned the controversial author he was a potential target of assassins at the event, following threats of protests from Muslim groups at his planned appearance.
Opposition from some Indian Muslim groups erupted this month after Rushdie was invited to attend Asia's largest literature festival, and senior Muslim leaders called on the government to prevent the 65-year-old author from entering the country.
"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," Rushdie said in a statement read out by the festival producer.
"While I have some doubts as to the accuracy of this intelligence, it would be irresponsible of me to come to the festival in such circumstances."
The British-Indian author, whose 1988 novel the Satantic Verses is banned in India, was due to speak on the first day of the five-day Jaipur Literature Festival but organisers removed his name from the schedule last week.
Rushdie would instead participate via a video-link, festival director William Dalrymple told Reuters on Friday.
"This is the result of a tragic game of Chinese whispers. The reality of Rushdie's writings are completely different from the way they have been cartooned and caricatured," Dalrymple told reporters.
The festival's directors had previously asserted that the invitation to Rushdie still stood after rescheduling his planned appearance after Muslim leaders in Jaipur threatened to protest.
"The Muslims of Jaipur were planning a protest against Rushdie. Since he is not coming, we have cancelled it," Abdul Haq Shamshi, member of the Jaipur Jama Masjid committee told Reuters.
"If he is deceiving us, and if he comes, we will protest at a minute's notice," he said, adding that thousands of protesters would take to the streets if the author arrived in the city.
HEAVY POLICE PRESENCE
Earlier on Friday, thousands of guests arrived for the first sessions of the festival, which aims to showcase the best of Indian, South Asian and international writing in one of the world's fastest-growing publishing markets.
Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient, was the main draw on Friday morning, at a festival expected to draw around 70,000 visitors and world-famous names such as Oprah Winfrey, Tom Stoppard, Richard Dawkins and Ariel Dorfman.
Scores of police officers guarded the festival entrance on Friday morning, as visitors queued to pass through X-ray scanners, a new addition to the 2012 festival.
Some 560 officers were stationed in and around the festival site, Rajendra Jhala, Jaipur's deputy commissioner of police, told Reuters, adding that hundreds of others had been deployed at major road junctions and locations across the city.
"I guess this is what you get for inviting Salman Rushdie," remarked one delegate in the security queue.
The publication of Rushdie's Satanic Verses over 20 years ago sparked a wave of protests and death threats around the world after Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini claimed that the novel's portrayal of the prophet Mohammad insulted Islam.
The vice-chancellor of India's Darul Uloom Deoband seminary said last week that Rushdie should be banned from the country, accusing the author of the Booker Prize-winning Midnight's Children of offending Muslim sentiments.
"This festival at no point wants to offend any one religion, any one people. We stand by the freedom of expression," festival producer Sanjoy Roy told reporters.
(Editing by John Chalmers)