Muslims in Uttar Pradesh did not want the writer's presence at the Jaipur Literature Festival to become an election issue and are glad that he stayed away, reports Smita Gupta

If Booker Prize winner Salman Rushdie had attended the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) earlier this month, political parties — spurred on by the electronic media — would have made it an election issue, say Muslims in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh. It would have been easy because “The Satanic Verses”, 13 years after it was banned in India, continues to offend most Muslims of all denominations, even though very few have read the novel.

But, conscious that emotional and religious issues tend to shadow their current core concerns — education, jobs, security, increased representation in the legislatures — the Muslims I met as I travelled through central and eastern UP told me that they were relieved Mr. Rushdie had stayed away. The protests that had taken place, they stressed, were all peaceful.

There is a sub-text to this relief: most Muslims here are now chary of hitting the streets, of being pushed into wearing their religion on their sleeves. Community leaders emphasise they didn't want Rushdie to be an election issue — some, like Zafaryab Jilani, the lawyer in the Babri Masjid case, and now Muslim Reservation Movement convenor, even say they actively worked to prevent it from becoming one in the run-up to the literary festival. “When Muslims gathered in some parts of UP on the issue, I told them, ‘Don't get provoked,'” Jilani said.

Muslims also resent being labelled as “intolerant”. “It's unfair (to call us so),” says Maulana Khalid Rashid of Lucknow's Firangimahal, “We've the right to dissent in a peaceful manner. When the Gita was banned in Russia, we opposed it. It's only right to expect reciprocity on Muslim issues.” Shia cleric Kalbe Jawad adds, “If the government is so secular, why didn't it bring back MF Hussain? Wasn't it a shame he had to take citizenship of another country and die there?”

Popular Gorakhpur doctor Aziz Ahmed, now with the Congress, goes a step further: “As a Muslim, I don't object to the book, but why does the West, which has blasphemy laws to prevent criticism of Christianity, talk about freedom of expression only when it comes to Islam?” If the way the Rushdie episode has played out in UP provides insights into the Muslim mind there, it's also evident that had the controversial writer attended the festival, it would have adversely affected the Congress' image in the community.

This is the sense on the ground, too: in Kanpur's Baqarmandi, furniture makers Acchey Mian and Shakeel Ahmed are winding up for the day. “Whoever makes a plaything of religion is inhuman,” says Mr Ahmed, “had Rushdie come, it would have shattered the peace — and damaged the Congress electorally.”

Like in Kanpur, in Gonda city — which was ravaged by the post-Babri Masjid riots — there is a certain stridency when Mr Rushdie crops up in the conversation. Mohammad Ilyas is a seemingly gentle seller of woollen garments and men's shirts in the crowded Gur ki Mandi in the Chowk Bazaar area, but on “The Satanic Verses”, he's uncompromising: “Attack Muslims, not our Prophet. How did the government even consider the possibility of his coming to India? If he had come, there might have been riots.” But in rural Hasangunj in Unnao district, the tone is more conciliatory. Muslims here preface their remarks by saying that they have always lived in absolute harmony with their Hindu neighbours. A group of Thakurs and Muslims are having a convivial conversation here over steaming cups of tea at a little tea shop. “It was good Salman Rushdie didn't come,” says Mohammad Siddiqui, “he might have been killed: after all Khomeini's death sentence is still there.” But he hastens to add, “We didn't want it to be an election issue. We don't want a fight. The Congress very sensibly stopped him from coming, to get our votes.”

And as you drive eastwards to Basti and Gorakhpur, the issue recedes even further. In Basti's Chawri Bazaar at Ramjanakitiraha, Alidat Khan, Noor Jade Khan and Abdur Rehman all say Rushdie is not an issue. “We've always lived in peace with our Hindu brothers,” says Mr Khan, stressing, “even though we are just 24 km from Ayodhya.” Across UP, the tone Muslims adopt on the issue may differ, depending on the area's communal history and setting, urban or rural, but a common thread runs through it all. There is also a reason why Mr. Rushdie's earlier visits didn't cause even a ripple. “Nothing would have happened this time, too, had the Deoband appeal against Mr Rushdie's visit not been publicised by the electronic media, and the political parties: they helped to create pressure on the government,” Mr Jilani explains, adding, “no one knew about his earlier visits.”

For Muslims, the last two decades have been a trial by fire: barely had the post-Babri Masjid communal frenzy died down that terror took centrestage, and their younger members came under the security scanner, leading to many indiscriminate arrests that destroyed lives and careers.

Today, the average Muslim just wants a life — far away from the arc lights.