Salman Rushdie pull out: A stain on India?

File picture taken on 19 February 1999 Indian Muslims burn an effigy of Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie. Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mr Rushdie sparked anger in the Muslim world with his book The Satanic Verses

Two years ago, Salman Rushdie said he was worried about a rising "culture of complaint" in India.

Speaking at a media conclave in Delhi, he referred to the case of the late artist MF Husain. Bigots had vandalised the painter's works, threatened him and literally drove him out of India. He lived in exile in Qatar and died in London last year.

"This is the proud face of a philistine India," the author had said.

"There is nothing wrong in not liking his art. You can easily opt out. A painting is a finite space of art. If it offends, don't enter that space. The best way to avoid getting offended is to shut a book… The worst thing is that artists are soft targets… We don't have armies protecting us."

Salman Rushdie, who lived in hiding under police protection for many years after the fatwa issued in 1989 against him by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, may have been prescient.

He has now pulled out from the lJaipur Literary Festival, Asia's largest, after intelligence sources informed him that paid assassins might try to kill him. Sensibly, he decided to stay at home.

Author Hari Kunzru tweeted that his absence from the festival is "a stain on India's international reputation".

To be sure, this time the threats to Salman Rushdie by Muslim groups may have arisen from petty political compulsions.

But none of India's main political parties, including the ruling Congress party, spoke out against clerics and fringe groups. Critics say they fear offending Muslim voters that they are all trying to woo in crucial state elections in Uttar Pradesh next month.

The failure of the state to secure Salman Rushdie's protection, many believe, is a shameful indictment of India's politicians and their opportunistic politics of least resistance.

It also raises some fundamental questions: Is an increasingly prosperous India becoming more intolerant? Or have religious groups and politicians, in pandering to religions and identities, failed to move with the times? I fear that the answers to both are partly in the affirmative.

India is a grimy example of how bad politics hurts freedom of speech. Whether Salman Rushdie's staying away from Jaipur will fetch Muslim votes for parties is not clear. But what is clear that it sets a dreadful precedent for its artists who are deemed by religious groups to be producing "blasphemous" material.

Freedom of speech, most democrats believe, is non-negotiable and should come without caveats and not be held hostage to fringe groups or the whimsies of politicians.

If India fails to protect this essential freedom, they say, it has no business to call itself a thriving democracy. As analyst Salil Tripathi says: "Writers should not need armies to protect them in a free society. That Rushdie might need protection in India reflects poorly - not on him, but on India."