On July 27, the office bearers of Urdu Markaz, a cultural body in Mumbai, received a notice from Mumbai’s municipal corporation that their establishment – a tiny room in a civic-run school – would be shut down because it was engaged in “non-educational activities”. Similar notices had come in the last two years, but the Markaz had successfully argued their case. This time, even while they were planning to make a representation, the corporation’s officers came and shut the room two days after sending the notice.
“We were surprised and shocked; we never even got a chance to put up any resistance. At the very least we would have held a dharna,” Zubair Azmi, director of the Urdu Markaz told The Wire.
The Markaz had been given the room in the Imamwada Urdu Municipal School by the corporation in 1999 as part of a policy to offer space to community NGOs. It began by using the space to teach English and Marathi to children who went to Urdu medium schools; most came from under privileged backgrounds and would have no other exposure to the languages. In time, it became a library too.
Many people donated books – a large part of the library of poet Majrooh Sultanpuri was given – and gradually the place became a research centre as well as a cultural space, where music performances, talks and discussions were held.
Imamwada is the heart of the “Muslim quarter” of the city, that encapsulates Mohammed Ali Road, Dongri, Nagpada and Bhendi Bazaar. It is a buzzing mix of mercantile activity and residences, forming one of the many “native towns” that came up on the periphery of colonial Bombay.
But Azmi and his colleagues wanted to demonstrate the area’s cultural history. “Many poets, writers, intellectuals came from these areas. Gulzar, Javed Akhtar, Kamal Amrohi, Sardar Jafri and Kaifi Azmi all have links to the larger neighbourhood. The communist party had a commune not very far from here; I grew up seeing many prominent leftists around,” said Azmi, who is himself a writer and a poet.
In 2012, the Markaz decided to hold a “Bhendi Bazaar festival” that would draw attention to this cultural history. The first one, held in 2014, was very successful. That was the year the first notice had come, but was warded off. Another came in 2015 but once again the trustees managed to hold out. “In fact, the municipal corporation only two years ago had named the area around our school as ‘Urdu Markaz’ Chowk,” said Azmi.
“Frankly I do not understand what is meant by non-educational activities. We teach English, we have a library, we spread culture-what is non-educational about it?”
“We don’t take money from anyone, we don’t pay anyone for performing. All our activities are free and are funded by the office bearers,” he said.
Politicians from every party – the Congress, the BJP and the Shiv Sena – have attended events and one even was inaugurated by a Shiv Sena mayor. “All have praised our work,” said Azmi, who is chary of implying that there is a political angle to the closure, saying it could be an action by the local municipal bureaucracy, but other sources wondered if a decision to suddenly close it could have been taken at the level of a local officer. The local MLA, Amin Patel, has taken up the cause with the authorities and Samajwadi Party corporator has claimed it is a conspiracy to “kill Urdu”.