The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) might have quite missed the irony of this action on their part – barely two years after they named a crossroads in Bhendi Bazaar, the city’s Muslim enclave, as the “Urdu Markaz Chowk” the authorities shut down the Urdu cultural centre after which the square was named within two days of giving them notice on July 29.
The non-profit Urdu Markaz was operating out of an abandoned municipal school in Bhendi Bazaar since 1999. It had become popular not just among young Muslim students wishing to learn English but also with others wanting to learn Urdu. The centre was bringing cultures and languages together and in past seven years had held mushairas in both Urdu and Marathi. For the past two years it was holding a literary festival which it had named simply as the “Bhendi Bazaar Festival”.
Yet both in 2014 and 2015, authorities put the cultural centre on notice for conducting “non-educational activities” out of the premises but the NGO successfully argued its case for continuation. This year, though, they were given no time and have been locked out – all their library books, teaching equipment, etc, have been put out of bounds for those who made use of the centre.
Zubair Azmi, the director of the NGO is stunned. “This is very absurd. We have been teaching, Urdu, English and Marathi at our centre. It also houses a substantial library. If such activities are not educational, tell me what is?”’ he told Hindustan Times.
“How do they define education? The teaching of languages, reading of poetry, holding of seminars, exchange of ideas etc, are also educational activities. We have also been consciously changing the profile of Bhendi Bazaar. Once it was associated with just Dawood Ibrahim. Now we are holding literary festivals in the name of Bhendi Bazaar. We are returning it to the culture of Kaifi Azmi and Majrooh Sultanpuri who lived here and practised their craft out of Bhendi Bazaar in the early days of their career.”
Why Azmi and advocate Asim Khan, who has jumped into the campaign to reopen the centre, feel that the BMC action is beyond their brief is because there are other NGOs, both educational and non-educational, operating from such abandoned schools all over the area but they have not been touched by the BMC so far. The voices are rising against the seeming injustice of the arbitrary action with the growing feeling that the centre was targeted for being associated with a minority language.
Khan believes the word “Urdu” in the name of the cultural centre is what has probably triggered the action. “Unfortunately Urdu is associated with Pakistan although that country speaks more Punjabi and Pushto today than Urdu which is a language born in India and has been nourished by great pundits and poets like Raghupath Sahay, Firaaq Gorakhpuri and Biraj Narayan Chakbast, among others,” says Khan.
Urdu is the best medium for forging cultural unity in India. In the past it has brought Hindus and Muslims together and it continues to do so. But if they kill the medium how will the amity, unity and language survive, he asks.
That is a view shared by Marathi poet Manoj Varade who told the Hindustan Times, “I am a public relations officer for a public service undertaking but my passion is poetry. I write in Marathi, Hindi and English but when a few years ago I felt my poetry would not be complete without an understanding of ghazals, I made my way to Urdu Markaz to learn the language. It helped to pursue my passion for couplets. If the authorities blindly shut down such centres which are bringing people of diverse cultures together, how will we be able to understand each other?”
While Khan says such action is bad news for poets, writers and cultural activities and gives rise to the impression that there is an attempt to kill the Urdu language, there are others who mince no words when they say that the targeting of Urdu Markaz could be deliberate. According to Sarfaraz Arzoo, editor of the Urdu daily Hindustan, the short-sightedness is in continuation with the government’s earlier action of “invading the kitchens” of its citizens (his reference is to the beef ban by the Maharashtra government in 2015 wherein they had made even possession of beef a non-bailable offence and punishable by five years of imprisonment). “Now they are interfering with cultures and languages.”
But Azmi points to the rich Urdu-Marathi tradition in Maharashtra from the times of Shivaji and his descendants in the 17th and 18th centuries when there was much mixing between Marathas and Mughals with many Urdu speakers in the Maratha armies and Marathi speakers part of the Qutubshahi and Adilshahi kingdoms based in Golconda and Bijapur respectively.
Urdu Markaz was attempting to recreate just that confluence of cultures and languages and there are many Marathi poets and writers who have attended their mushairas, seminars and exchange of ideas over the past years, including a major event to commemorate Kusumagraj, an iconic poet of Maharashtra. They are equally shocked about the lockdown. And so were Urdu writers who have gained from their interaction with Marathi poets and writers, says Azmi.
“There are many commercial and non-educational NGOs including various unions who are occupying many rooms in such BMC schools. But they are still functioning while we have been shut down,” he says.
The NGO has made several representations to the municipal officers who have so far ignored their appeals. Ranjit Dhakne, the education officer at the BMC, however, while not wishing to comment, washes his hands of the issue stating that the action was taken by junior officials as a matter of routine and senior officers would soon be looking into the issue.
Meanwhile students continue to study, squatting at the chowk named after their centre – without access to their library books or blackboards.