British novelist Salman Rushdie pulled out of India's largest literary festival Friday, saying he feared assassination after his participation was opposed by senior Muslim clerics.
"I have now been informed by intelligence sources... that paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld may be on their way to eliminate me," the Indian-born writer said in a statement read by the producer of the Jaipur Literature Festival, Sanjoy Roy.
Rushdie had been scheduled to speak on the festival's opening day on Friday, but the event kicked off without him.
Rushdie's 1988 book "The Satanic Verses", which is banned in India, is still seen by many Muslims worldwide as a blasphemous work that insults their religion.
The 65-year-old writer, who was born in Mumbai, spent a decade in hiding after Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in 1989 calling for his death over the novel.
While voicing doubts about the accuracy of the intelligence reports, Rushdie said it would be irresponsible to attend the festival in such circumstances.
"Irresponsible to my family, to the festival audience and my fellow writers. I will therefore not come to Jaipur as planned," his statement said.
In a separate message on his Twitter account, Rushdie, whose current whereabouts are unknown, said he still hoped to make a long-distance contribution to the event.
"Very sad not to be at jaipur. I was told bombay mafia don issued weapons to 2 hitmen to 'eliminate' me. Will do video link instead. Damn," he tweeted.
The row over Rushdie's participation began last week with demands from clerics at the influential Darululoom Deoband seminary in northern India that he be kept out of the country.
Festival organisers said they were deeply disappointed that Rushdie had been forced to withdraw, with Roy arguing that challenges to free speech were becoming a "huge problem for Indian democracy".
"The whole thing is the result of a tragic game of Chinese whispers," added author and festival co-founder William Dalrymple.
"The reality of Rushdie's writings are completely different from the way they have been cartooned and caricatured.
"In a more just world his arrival here would have been heralded by people in the streets throwing out rose petals in front of him rather than this nonsense," Dalrymple said.
The controversy meant extra security was in place in Jaipur, with bag checks and scanners for the long queues of arriving crowds, who were supervised by large numbers of police.
Rushdie, who attended the festival in 2007 without incident, had been due to speak about his 1981 Booker prize-winning novel "Midnight's Children" and also join a panel discussion on how Indians have adapted the English language.
The hardline Jamaat-e-Islami Hind group, which had threatened protests if Rushdie came to Jaipur, welcomed his decision to withdraw, while denying any link to the assassination threats.
"It's good that the author has cancelled his visit which was our demand," said spokesman Mohammad Nazimuddin.
"I cannot comment on what intelligence agencies reported but our plan was to protest peacefully, not aggressively," he said.
After Friday prayers about 200 Muslims briefly shouted slogans against Rushdie near a mosque in central Jaipur.
Mosque leaders and city authorities tried to prevent any demonstration but a group of young Muslims gathered nearby and started chanting. They were soon dispersed by police.
The annual Jaipur festival, which is free to attend, has mushroomed into a major literary, business and social occasion that attracts tens of thousands of Indian and foreign visitors.
Among more than 250 speakers this year are US chat show queen Oprah Winfrey, biologist and atheist author Richard Dawkins, and Indian best-selling novelist Chetan Bhagat.