India grants author Rushdie a visa; Muslim leader gives protest warning; Writer of 'Satanic Verses' carries $3 million bounty


NEW DELHI, India -- Salman Rushdie has been granted a visa to return to India, his native land, whose banning of his novel "The Satanic Verses" began a chain of events that led to death threats by offended Muslims and a life in hiding for a writer with a price on his head.

The decision was confirmed yesterday by a spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs and prompted immediate threats of violent demonstrations. "We will protest within a constitutional framework, but I warn the government of India that a righteous follower of the Holy Prophet may make an attempt on Rushdie's life, and each Muslim will be proud of this person," said Syed Ahmad Bukhari, deputy priest of Jama Masjid, the best-known mosque in new Delhi.

While Rushdie, who was born in Bombay and lives in Britain with British citizenship, has used India as the inspiration for much of his work, he repeatedly has been denied a visa since "The Satanic Verses" was published in 1988.

"It's been a long struggle," Rushdie said in a telephone interview in London. "It's a terrible thing to be unable to go to the country of one's birth, and it's been over 10 years, which is certainly the longest gap in my life. It feels like another step back into the light. I've got aunts and uncles and cousins and friends littered all over the country."

This "step back into the light" follows a major stride in September, when Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Kharazi, distanced his government from the fatwa, or religious edict, issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989. The late Iranian revolutionary leader charged Rushdie with blasphemy and called for his death.

Since Kharazi's statement, other Muslims in Iran and elsewhere have declared that the fatwa cannot be rescinded. Hard-line groups have added bounties on the author's head that exceed $3 million.

Still, Rushdie had good reason to celebrate a loosening of his tethers. Late last year, the home minister in India's Hindu nationalist government, Lal Krishna Advani, said that he was an admirer of the writer and that "he is welcome to come home."

At the time, the novelist's lawyer said the travel documents were expected to be issued imminently, but there were unexplained delays, enough that now, with the visa in hand, Rushdie said he had no definite schedule for his journey home.

Pub Date: 2/05/99

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