Having just read Hartosh Singh Bal’s article (‘The Rushdie affair and the hand of the Congress’, 6 February 2012), I would like to point out a few facts that were incorrect.
1. While we have no way to determine if intelligence agencies had exaggerated the ‘threat perception’ to Salman, what we did know was that there was a real threat of violence at the venue if he did come or if we broadcast his session. In a pre-festival meeting held with 22 Muslim organisations, Namita, Sheuli and I were confronted by four organisations that were hellbent on creating trouble and threatened us with large-scale violence and personal harm to Salman and us. Twelve organisations agreed to protest peacefully, and to their credit, they kept their word. But organisations not aligned with the peace groups ensured they had in place 120-180 young people at the venue on the day of the broadcast. At 1.45 pm, they demanded a meeting with us at the venue, and the seniormost Maulana threatened jihad and said that blood would flow at the venue and that those young people who die would go straight to heaven as martyrs to the Muslim cause.
The police had set up a strategy to tag each youth, who they kept tabs on as they stepped through security check and were picked up by CCTV cameras. Each person had a plainclothes police person following him to all five venues. These cops sat behind each potential troublemaker to ensure that should there be trouble, it could be stopped. At the back of the venue, we began seeing video footage of youth pushing out young students and grabbing their chairs, and presumed that this would be used as ammunition to throw at the screen if Salman were to appear. The youth, in preparation to an attack, marked each venue by reading from their prayer books in an act most of us are familiar with as a precursor to a holy war or fight.
We realised that, given the thousands who had gathered at the venue, should even one chair be thrown and should the police be able to tackle them to the floor without using any weapon, there would have been a stampede, with the old and the very young getting injured. Given the situation, our host, the owner of Diggi, appealed to us for peace and with a request not to use force or allow violence in his home, and his appeal made sense. For the record, the police, while standing firm on being able to provide security, were clear that they would need to use force to prevent trouble at different venues and this would invariably lead to people being injured.
2. It wasn't the Mumbai Police who passed on the information to the Rajasthan Police, but the Intelligence Bureau (IB) of the state. The supposed hitman was not from the Mumbai underworld, but apparently had earlier links with the underworld. This was one of three possible threats to Salman that had been tracked. We unfortunately are neither detectives nor run intelligence agencies to determine the truth of the risk to Salman, and could only convey to him what had been conveyed (in this case, shown and shared with us). Hitmen and banned Simi (an outlawed fanatic organisation) activists, I suspect, don't advertise themselves to the general public, and I doubt Salman’s query about their existence would have elicited any kind of concrete answer.
3. Perhaps Mr Bal should have been present to record the number of `local’ people from Jaipur/Rajasthan who attended the festival (approximately 70 per cent of the 75,000 unique visitors). He should also have interviewed some of them, including those from Muslim communities who stood for peace, to get a sense of just how much the local population considers JLF their own festival, and how they continued to negotiate with their constituencies and the hardliners. Mr Bal unfortunately tends to sacrifice facts when convenient and misrepresents the situation. This is the second time he has got it wrong.
(Hartosh Singh Bal’s reply to this letter: “Terms like ‘holy war’ should not be tossed around”)