NEW DELHI: British author Salman Rushdie ridiculed Pakistan cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who pulled out of a scheduled speech at this weekend's conference due to Rushdie's alleged anti-Muslim writings.
Khan had chosen "to demonise a book written 25 years ago and to make its author a bogey man with which to distract his audience from the immeasurable hurt of their actual lives", Rushdie said.
Rushdie drew gasps of surprise from the India Today Conclave audience by asking: "Have you noticed the physical resemblance between Imran Khan and (slain Libyan dictator Muammar) Qaddafi?"
"If you were making a movie of the life of Qaddafi and you wanted a slightly better-looking version of Qaddafi you might cast Imran Khan," Rushdie said with a grin. "He would need to act of course, which would be a problem."
Rushdie attacked growing intolerance in India as he returned to the country for the first time since Islamic activists forced him to cancel a visit two months ago.
Rushdie, who withdrew from a literary festival in January after death threats and angry protests, criticised politicians for pandering to hardline Muslim clerics and launched a stout defence of freedom of expression.
The Mumbai-born novelist, whose 1988 book "The Satanic Verses" remains banned in India for allegedly insulting Islam, said he was happy to be back in the country and to have defied his opponents.
"A combination of religious fanaticism, political opportunism and public apathy is damaging that freedom on which all other freedoms depends: the freedom of expression," Rushdie told a conference in New Delhi.
The Booker prize-winning writer said he believed Indian politicians had failed to stand up to the small number of Muslim groups who successfully campaigned to stop him appearing at the Jaipur Literature Festival.
And he accused the ruling Congress party of trying to appease Muslim voters in a state election that was held soon after the festival.
"It didn't even work Rahul. Years and years of kneeing down in front of every mullah you can find and it didn't even work, it must feel sick," Rushdie said in a dig at Congress leader Rahul Gandhi after the party performed poorly at the polls.
The 64-year-old author said the re-emergence of controversy over "The Satanic Verses" was part of a trend in India of the threat of violence being used to silence opposing opinions and artistic expression.
"What is becoming more commonplace in India is a cultural war against all forms of art," he said. "It seems almost every day now somewhere there is a piece of bullying by Muslims or Hindus of groups they believe offend them."
Rushdie, who said he was being protected by extra security during his visit to India, spent a decade in hiding after Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in 1989 calling for his death.
"The chilling affect of violence is very real and growing in this country," he said. "People here are very largely asleep to what is going on, and you need to wake up." (AFP)