The opening of Asia’s largest literary festival in Jaipur today was overshadowed by the absence of British author Salman Rushdie who has announced he will not be attending the five-day event. Rushdie had been scheduled to attend the opening ceremony of the Jaipur Literary Festival which has attracted over 250 litterateurs from across the globe including Annie Proulx, Ben Okri and Tom Stoppard. But the Booker Prize-winning author says he will not be attending following opposition from Muslim groups who still consider Rushdie a heretic because of his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, a book they say insults the Prophet Muhammad. The festival’s organizers said earlier they had not cancelled their invitation to Rushdie. Rushdie's withdrawal removes a potential headache for the Rajasthan state government which said it would prefer the author didn’t come in case his presence led to serious social order problems. Rushdie had attended the festival in 2007 without any problems leading observers to believe that the Muslim protest is aimed at gaining political capital ahead of legislative assembly elections due to take place in five states from January 28. Controversy over the visit started after Darul Uloom, an Islamic seminary issued an edict against Rushdie which Muslim groups in Rajasthan promptly took up. “We accept that he has freedom of movement in this country, being a PIO [Person of Indian Origin], and he does not need a visa to come to India, but we have the right to register our protest,” said Engineer Saleem, secretary of a newly formed Muslim political party called Jamaat-e-Islami Hind. Sanjoy Roy, one of the festival’s organizers who tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with the Muslim groups, said the organizers had to make a stand over the invitation for the sake of freedom of expression as well as the rights of all minorities. "It is a technical matter,” he said. “We cannot accept their demand to cancel the invitation [to Rushdie]. It not only sets a bad precedence but also makes us vulnerable to pressure from various quarters,” he said before Rushdie's decision to withdraw.
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