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Salman Rushdie seems set to dominate this year's Jaipur Literary Festival – whether he shows up or not.

Mr. Rushdie announced today, the first day of the gathering, that he had canceled his planned attendance because of threats of assassination.

"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," he said in a statement released by festival organizers. "While I have some doubts about the accuracy of this intelligence, it would be irresponsible of me to come to the festival in such circumstances..." he said, citing the risk to his family, festival-goers and his fellow writers.

Festival organizers said he might address the festival by video link instead. And there are persistent rumours here that Mr. Rushdie may yet appear, popping up stealthily as he did in the fatwa years, and that the denials are a ruse to dampen any protests.

Police appear to think that the most serious risk to Mr. Rushdie would come from the shadowy Mumbai criminal community headed by a notorious villain called Dawood Ibrahim, who has close ties to the Pakistani intelligence service.

Mr. Rusdhie had been slated to speak about his novel Midnight's Children, which he has turned into a film in partnership with the Canadian director Deepa Mehta to be released later this year.

His attendance grew controversial about 10 days ago, after, it seems, some underemployed Indian journalists called up some hardline Muslim clerics, pointed out that he was coming to the festival and asked for a reaction. Perhaps predictably, the clerics were unhappy.

While the fatwa against Mr. Rushdie for the allegedly blasphemous content of his novel The Satanic Verses may seem like old news, it is still enough to fire up some angry sentiment, mostly, as festival organizers pointed out, among people who haven't read the book.

Maulana Qasim Nomani, a senior Muslim leader, said Mr. Rushdie has "hurt the sentiments of Muslims all over the world." The book remains banned in this country.

At the start of the controversy, festival organizers stood by Mr. Rushdie and insisted he would come. With the announcement mid-afternoon that he wouldn't, the government and the organizers came in for some criticism from festival-goers. The fellow writers Mr. Rushdie mentioned seem outraged at the failure of the Indian government to insist Mr. Rushdie attend or make him feel safe enough to do so.

When the British novelist Hari Kunzru announced that he would give over part of a session meant to be about his book Gods Without Men to instead read from The Satanic Verses, the audience responded with a raucous cheer. "Let's defy those bigots," said one older gentleman in the audience, straightening his spine. But festival organizers intervened and asked them to stop not long after the reading began.

Pakistani novelist Mohammed Hanif called it a "disgrace" that Mr. Rushdie could not attend. Referring to the hardline Islamist group that has made the most fuss, he noted that "we have their cousins in Pakistan" and the group had recently put a fatwa on hair transplants, which, Mr. Hanif noted, would affect half of all middle-aged men in Pakistan including most politicians. That fatwa sank without a ripple, he said, "and I wish that people wouldn't take them so seriously on this" – the right to declare what is blasphemous or anti-Islamic. He, too, earned enthusiastic applause for the remark.

The initial call to keep Mr. Rushdie out was presented as a demand to the Indian government to deny him a visa. Mr. Rushdie responded dryly, via Twitter, that since he was born here, he didn't in fact need a visa. But the Indian National Congress-led government has been silent on the Rushdie controversy, apparently because of imminent elections in the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, where the party desperately needs the votes of the huge Muslim minority.

Filmmaker Gautam Chintamani noted that the government had exacerbated its own problems – if Mr. Rushdie had come, he said, he "wouldn't have bothered" with Satanic Verses.

Jaipur is the largest and most charming of South Asian literary festivals, which now number more than a dozen. Some 60,000 people are expected to attend to hear 250 writers. Mr. Rushdie himself attended in 2007, without incident.

In the absence of Mr. Rushdie, the biggest draw will be either the American television personality Oprah Winfrey, or the massively best-selling Indian novelist Chetan Bhagat. Perhaps because of the anticipated Rushdie visit, security is intense this year, with multiple layers of searches and scans, and a heavy police presence outside the festival, which is held on the grounds of an old Rajasthani palace.