Lahore, Pakistan – The loud banging on the door was accompanied by chants.
“Death to India,” shouted the mob that had converged on the government-run school in the small town of Niaz Baig.
It was December 7, 1992, a crisp winter morning.
The day before, a mosque had been demolished in neighbouring India. The destruction of the 16th century Babri Mosque by Hindu nationalists had triggered riots that left 2,000 people – most of them Indian Muslims – dead.
But the fallout from that day would not remain within India’s borders.
In protest against the destruction of the mosque, the government of Pakistan had declared December 7 a national holiday.
So, with the school’s pupils off for the day, only the principal, some teachers and a few community members were present when the mob came knocking.
A school among the sprawl
It is a small detour from Lahore’s well-kept, tree-lined Canal Road to the chaotic old town of Niaz Baig. But the contrast is stark.
The midday dust rises, first from the tarmac and then, as we venture deeper into the town, from the rubbish-lined dirt tracks.
We search for the school among the ill-planned sprawl of crumbling houses and, soon enough, find ourselves sitting inside it with its affable principal, Master Ashfaq, and Naseeb Khan, a former teacher who was there on that morning 27 years ago.
1992 was Khan’s first year teaching at the school. It is one the well-spoken teacher will not forget.
A tall, domed structure with a faded Pakistani flag on top and faded floral frescoes on the ceiling, the school stands out among the poorly-constructed homes that surround it.
That is because, before its current incarnation as a school, it was the Bhadra Kali Hindu Mandir, a 19th-century Hindu temple dedicated to the Goddess Kali.
And that is why the angry mob descended upon it that December morning.
From temple to mosque
Part of a vast complex that included a traditional well, a holy pool and orchards, all surrounded by a thick boundary wall, Bhadra Kali Hindu Mandir was once one of the most prominent Hindu temples in Lahore.
But, like hundreds of others, it was abandoned in 1947 as British India was divided into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. The city of Lahore became part of Pakistan.
The new Pakistani state, struggling to accommodate the millions of refugees who had fled there in the bloody aftermath of Partition, allocated several Hindu and Sikh properties for them.
Niaz Baig’s temple was among them. Its orchards and sacred rooms became home to the Meo community, an ethnic group originally from Gurgaon in India who converted to Islam from Hinduism between the 12th and 17th centuries.
But for many years after Partition, the temple’s main building was largely abandoned; used occasionally by members of the community for wedding ceremonies and sometimes taken over by drug users and illegal gamblers.
Unhappy with how the sacred space was being used, in the 1970s a few members of the community decided to convert it into a mosque.
The man primarily responsible for this was Bashir Ahmad Meo.
‘We are all Pakistanis now’
Bashir Ahmad Meo was a boy when he fled Gurgaon with his family during Partition. They arrived in Niaz Baig, where they found refuge in the temple’s complex.
After finishing school, he joined the Pakistan army and fought against India in the wars of 1965 and 1971.
When he retired soon after the 1971 war, Meo returned to Niaz Baig.
He had a special affinity with the temple complex, explains Meo’s 55-year-old son, Muhammad Mushtaq, who still lives in the area and talks proudly of his father. He would read all he could about its history, he adds.
Later, Ashfaq shows us papers from a school council meeting in which Meo had recorded a detailed pre-Partition history of the building.
The army veteran became a self-appointed welfare officer for his community, helping people and animals in need, explains Mushtaq. He raised funds for widows, donated his land to establish the community’s only veterinary clinic and provided financial support to many of the school’s teachers.
But his particular concern was taking care of the temple.
“This is a part of Pakistan now,” Mushtaq recalls his father saying. “It doesn’t matter if it’s for Hindus or Muslims, we are all Pakistanis now.”
The land mafias
But, in this, Meo encountered an obstacle in the form of local land mafias who saw the vast space in the middle of an increasingly congested area as a money-making opportunity.
“You know, as was the case with most temples and gurdwaras, the land mafia thought this, too, would be an easy target for them to take over,” Mushtaq explains.
Meo feared that they would succeed in their efforts unless he could find a way to make the community feel invested in the building.
So, along with some other members of the community, he decided to convert the temple into a mosque.
This is a part of Pakistan now. It doesn’t matter if it’s for Hindus or Muslims, we are all Pakistanis now.
Bashir Ahmad Meo
Leaving the sacred room dedicated to the goddess intact inside the temple, the local Muslim community began to gather there to offer their five daily prayers beside walls covered in frescoes of Hindu deities.
Mushtaq recalls his father telling him: “We must accept our history. When Pakistan was created, we took an oath to accept, protect and be proud of whatever we inherited as part of it.”
A little over two decades after Partition, when Hindus and Muslims had slit each other’s throats in Lahore and elsewhere, the Muslim community of this small town prayed in a Hindu temple, maintaining its sanctity and protecting it from land mafias.
From mosque to school
Then, in 1980, when the nearest school was flooded, Meo came up with another idea: The temple turned mosque should be converted again, this time into a primary school.
“These are our kids,” Mushtaq quotes his father. “We have a moral obligation to educate them, even if it is under the old banyan tree [by the entrance to the temple].”
A government school, Meo reasoned, would receive government protection.
But Meo’s problems with the land mafia did not subside.
Ashfaq and Khan say that for years after the school was moved into the building, dead animals or blood-stained shrouds would appear in the courtyard overnight.
The land mafia, they explain, wanted to give the impression that the building was haunted so families would refuse to send their children there.
“They tried everything under the sun to scare us away,” says Khan. “But we would quietly go in and remove such signs before the children showed up in the mornings.”
Meo was determined that the school – and the temple building – would remain.
Then, the Babri Mosque was demolished.
Pakistan’s government under Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif watched passively as hundreds of mobs ransacked historical Hindu temples across the country and attacked members of the Hindu community. At least 24 people are thought to have been killed.
It was just such a mob that had gathered outside the school that morning.
Ashfaq and Khan insist it had come from Hanjarwal, a neighbouring town.
Mushtaq agrees.”People here weren’t bothered about the temple,” he says. “They already knew this was a school. But the boys from Hanjarwal, we were later told, had planned to walk all the way here to bring down the structure.”
We, the Muslims, too, were once a minority before the Partition. We should treat the minorities in the same way that we wanted ourselves to be treated then.
Bashir Ahmad Meo
Meo was at the school that morning as the mob knocked on the door.
Unaware of what was happening to Hindu temples in other parts of the country, Meo and the teachers were caught by surprise.
“We were all inside the school … when suddenly we heard a loud thud on the door and the sound of shovels beating against the boundary wall,” recalls Mushtaq.
The mob had brought shovels, spades and trowels with them. The structure may have taken on several different identities during its history, but that day, all that mattered to them was its Hindu identity.
After spending more than 20 years caring for the structure, Meo was not about to let anyone bring it down.
By then in his 50s, he confronted the 150-person strong mob, convinced that he could reason with them.
“My father raised his hands,” Mushtaq explains. “His old age and stature were enough to make the mob stop at the door.”
Mushtaq says his father talked to the mob for about two hours, explaining that destroying the temple to avenge the Babri Mosque would be against the injunctions of Islam.
Giving them the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who did not attack the property of any non-Muslim after the conquest of Mecca, Meo urged them to abandon their plans. He argued that now Pakistan had been created, it was their duty as Pakistanis to protect not just the Hindu community but also their places of worship.
“We, the Muslims, too, were once a minority before the Partition,” Mushtaq says his father told them. “We should treat the minorities in the same way that we wanted ourselves to be treated then. Even though there are no Hindus here, we still ought to grant them freedom to worship as fellow Pakistanis. Let’s not avenge the martyrdom of Babri Mosque by making a bad example of ourselves.”
According to Khan, Meo told the mob that as the school catered to the poor children of the community, bringing it down would not only be a disservice to Islam but also to their futures.
Sections of the mob were unconvinced; they burned one of the temple’s wooden doors and damaged part of its boundary wall. But most were persuaded and eventually turned away.
The temple had been saved.
Meo died in 2018, at the age of 83. Mushtaq, Ashfaq and Khan say his legacy lives on in this temple turned school.
“My father lived a truly selfless life. He devoted his time and energy towards others,” says Mushtaq. “What started as an abandoned Hindu building, worthless to many at the time, is now a school for over 400 students, shaping the future of, hopefully, a more inclusive Pakistan.”