Since the Feb 14 terrorist attack that killed 40 Indian security personnel in Kashmir and precipitated a tit-for-tat military confrontation between India and Pakistan, the world has watched nervously as the two neighbors have come dangerously close to open war.
As a sovereign nation, India has a right to defend itself from threats to its national security, including threats originating from Pakistan-based terror groups. These groups have bled India for years through deadly cross-border terror attacks, and if left unchecked, they will continue to pose a serious risk to the Indian people.
Nevertheless, the quick escalation of hostilities between India and Pakistan following the Kashmir attack left many wondering what would happen were things to get out of control.
For one, India and Pakistan are both nuclear-armed powers. War between the two could result in massive loss of life.
Another consideration that worries many is how a confrontation between India and Pakistan would disrupt global trade. For example, China has at stake a $46 billion railway project in Pakistan that is a key part of its ambitious One Belt One Road initiative.
But while the world remains fixated on the confrontation along the India-Pakistan border, few have been paying as close attention to the domestic challenges the terrorist attack triggered inside India.
Since the terrorist attack, civil anger has risen to alarming levels as politicians and nationalist extremists have seized on the occasion to stoke religious tensions against Muslims in general and in particular against Kashmiri Muslims.
For example, in the wake of the the attack, mobs vandalized and set on fire dozens of vehicles in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in Jammu city. In Uttarakhand state, hundreds of students from Kashmir were evicted from their dorms in college campuses and hostels and were forced to flee town. In the days and weeks following the attack, reports of vandalism, harassment and threats against Kashmiris kept popping up across India, prompting the government to issue advisories and install public helplines.
The palpable anguish over the loss of life is understandable. This was a nationwide tragedy — the 40 officers were from all over India. And the anger over yet another senseless terrorist attack is justifiable. But responding to hatred with hatred, while cathartic in the short run, will not heal the deep wounds the attack has inflicted on the Indian people. In fact, when we return evil for evil we play into the hands of extremists, and at times, we end up becoming extremists ourselves.
The story of the suicide bomber in the Feb. 14 terror attack is an apt, albeit tragic, example. He was identified as Adil Dar in a video released by Jaish-e-Mohammad, the Pakistan-based terror group that claimed responsibility for the attack. According to reports, he was a high school dropout and had been missing since March of last year.
His anguished family, who described him as a diehard fan of India's cricket national team, could not explain why he became a militant. But they guessed that an humiliating experience when he was in high school — he was detained by police and forced to rub his nose on the ground — and a bullet wound suffered as he helped an injured boy during a stone pelting incident might have played a part in it.
Adil's story is not uncommon. The number of young Kashmiri men joining violent militant groups has more than doubled since 2016. The recent harassment of Kashmiri students only reinforces the propaganda militants use to recruit and radicalize susceptible youths.
More terrifying and insidious, though, is the possibility that in our anger and desire to protect our communities we might resort to the same tactics extremists use to advance their causes. Over recent years, India has seen a disturbing trend of politicians using polarizing language to galvanize their bases. It's not uncommon to hear anti-Muslim, -Christian and even -Hindu rhetoric, and trite as it may be, the saying is true: words carry power.
A recent Human Rights Watch report on cattle-related violence revealed that there have been more than 100 attacks by so-called cow vigilante groups since May 2015. These attacks, which often are spurred by self-proclaimed nationalists, have resulted in 44 deaths, with the majority of victims being Muslims.
With the general election less than two months away, politicians will be tempted to ramp up polarizing language to divide electorates along religious lines. But they must ask themselves what is more important: power or peace?
As a campaigner for justice and reconciliation, I look to the words of Jesus to guide me in how I should respond to terrorism and international conflict. He once said, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." I believe this is true regardless of a person's religion. Nelson Mandela understood it — he chose forgiveness instead of revenge, and thanks to his work South Africa was able to chart forward a path for reconciliation. Mahatma Gandhi, who is called the "Apostle of Peace and Nonviolence," knew this too, and his peaceful revolution led to India's independence.
Peacemaking is not just the work of politicians. It's everyone's work, from parents to students, to bishops, mullahs and sadhus, businessmen and workers, and everyone in between. Everyone has a stake in it.
India, Pakistan and the world at large are in desperate need of peacemakers — people who understand that the path to progress and prosperity is paved with kindness, forgiveness and mutual understanding not with violence. Pursuing peace is not easy; at times it claims the lives of those who are fighting for it. But it is the better path, and we must choose to follow it.
Most Rev. Joseph D'Souza is a justice and peace campaigner, civil rights advocate, interfaith peacemaker and theologian widely consider one of the most influential voices in global Christianity. He is the founder of Dignity Freedom Network, a multinational advocacy and humanitarian aid alliance dedicated to restoring human dignity to the poor, marginalized and outcastes of South Asia. He presides as moderator bishop and primate over the Good Shepherd Church of India and serves as the president of the All India Christian Council.