Even as a bitter row is raging over Sir Salman Rushdie's plan to visit India to take part in a literary festival, what baffles analysts and observers is the virtual endorsement of the moves to block the writer's visit by India's grand old party, the Indian National Congress, which claims 125 years of secular tradition.
Sir Salman was supposed to join the Jaipur Literary Festival being held in the country's north-western state of Rajasthan. But the plan has sparked a major row with some local Muslim organisations coming out openly against the Booker Prize-winning author's visit. Some local Islamic leaders have even demanded that the writer should not be allowed to visit India.
But the 'fatwa' became official when the state government, led by the Congress, came out openly against the writer's visit citing a "potential law and order collapse". Ashok Gehlot, state chief minister and a prominent Congressman, met India's home affairs minister P Chidambaram and apprised him of the "prevailing sentiments" in his state.
The Times of India newspaper quoted Gehlot as saying: "There are security concerns in Jaipur as a few Muslim organisations met me to express reservations about the author's visit. They have also threatened to organise protests. Moreover, a breakdown of law and order is also not ruled out.
"No state government will want a law and order situation. I have informed the Centre about the prevailing sentiments."
In fact, Gehlot was virtually endorsing hardline Muslim sentiment against the writer's proposed visit. The state government was reportedly trying to persuade the organisers of the festival to cancel Sir Salman's visit. It has been pointed out that the protesters are in a negligible minority. Moreover, the country's intelligence agencies have apparently assessed the situation and come to the conclusion that the threat of any unrest is not big enough to demand the cancellation of Sir Salman's visit.
The Congress's eagerness to see that the writer is persuaded not to turn up at the event is widely seen as political. The party does not want to hurt the sentiments of Muslims ahead of the forthcoming legislature elections in the key state of Uttar Pradesh, analysts believe. The Indian government also issued a warning to its state units of a potential plan by SIMI, an Islamic fundamentalist organisation, to target the writer if his visit goes ahead. Even in that case, it's very much within the responsibilities of the government to provide adequate protection to the writer, the English PEN said. After all, Sir Salman is a person of Indian origin and hence doesn't need a visa to visit the country.
"Such regressive threats are not only an attack on the individual's right to freedom of speech and expression and a violation of rights granted by the constitution of India. Such threats also promote communal disharmony, if not deliberately seek to widen communal rifts. To prevent Rushdie from visiting India and to deny him the right to freedom of speech and expression through threats of violence is unconstitutional and unethical," the People's Union of Civil Liberties, a prominent rights group, said in a statement.
Netizens have dubbed the virtual ban on Sir Salman as outrageous and unacceptable. "Since Salman Rushdie is coming on a purely personal visit on the personal invitation of the organisers of the literary festival at Jaipur, it is unbecoming and totally unpardonable on the part of some political parties and other social groups who are raising fingers at his visit as well as the role of the government in the whole matter," Vikram Gulati wrote on his blog.
One of the best living English writers, Sir Salman earned the wrath of Islamic fundamentalists across the world with the publication of "The Satanic Verses" in 1998 for alleged blasphemy against Prophet Mohammed. Ayotollah Khomeni, the supreme leader of Iran, even issued a "fatwa" against Sir Salman, calling upon believers to kill the author. He went into hiding following the "fatwa". The British Queen knighted him in 2007 for his services to literature.
Though hailed as the largest democracy in the world, India has a history of hunting down and scaring away writers and cultural figures for speaking up against religious fundamentalism. Taslima Nasrin and M F Hussain were among those who had been targeted and humiliated by fundamentalist elements in India.