Wati Aier (b. 1948)

I’ll never forget embracing Wati in Bangkok, Thailand, tears streaming down our faces. We had just secured the first commitment to an informal cease-fire from a pivotal Naga faction, a key step in ending a war that had lasted as long as Wati could remember. We didn’t realize how long and hard the road ahead would be, but at least Wati could see hope where none had been before. A few days earlier I’d told Wati the peace process was dead in the water, but with tenacious hope planted in such thin soil, Wati pressed on. He’s one of my biggest heroes.
Daniel Buttry

A Mediator of Peace & Reconciliation in Nagaland

It is creative love which makes the hateful beautiful, brings the false into truth, and transforms evil into good. Such creative love can become the power in Naga politics.
Wati Aier

Profile image of Wati AierMidway through the soccer game the players knew this was a special event that had to be repeated. Participants didn’t worry about the score; rather they were moved by who their teammates were. On one side were members of different insurgent groups who had been fighting each other. Facing them were traditional tribal leaders who had also been deeply divided. Now they were playing together, and they knew they had to take these games back home. Soccer, or football as most of the world calls it, had become a powerful symbol of reconciliation in a decades-old conflict. The football match was the brainchild of Wati Aier, the leading mediator for a reconciliation process among the Naga people that had been going on for twelve years.

Background on the Naga People

The Nagas are a tribal people living mostly in the hilly country northeast of India and northwest of Burma (also known as Myanmar). They have had few historic ties with India but were put under the administration of the British Raj during the colonial period in India. As independence neared, the Nagas expressed their desire to be separate from India, even declaring their independence one day before India did in 1947. But with the assassination of Gandhi, who had agreed to Naga independence, the new Indian government refused to let the Nagas separate. In 1955 the conflict exploded into war, and as of this writing the Nagaland state is still under Indian army occupation and martial law. Also, a flawed peace agreement in 1975 resulted in a bitter split among the Nagas themselves. Naga insurgent groups began fighting each other, and as many Nagas were dying at the hands of their own as from Indian army action.

Faith & Culture

Wati Aier was the founder and principal of a seminary in Nagaland. The vast majority of Nagas are Baptist Christians, the fruit of over a century of mission work by American Baptists. As a result there is a strong religious link among the different sub-tribes of Nagas and a deep respect for the Baptists in the U.S. Wati has a great passion for his Naga identity that comes out in the songs he writes. One of them, By the Blue Streams of Nagaland, has become the informal Naga national anthem.

Work with Naga Insurgent Factions

Wati also has great passion for reconciliation. In early 1997, Wati began making contact with various Naga insurgent leaders in each of the factions. He would meet with those he knew, then work his way up the chain of command, utilizing his stature in the church to gain their respect to proceed with more meetings. He talked about bringing all the Naga factional leaders together to explore reconciliation, along with Baptist mission and peace leaders from the U.S. The Nagas couldn’t hope to come to an effective peace agreement with India without coming to some sort of a peace accord among themselves, so the first Naga reconciliation talks since the fractures some twenty years earlier were scheduled to occur in Atlanta.

Talks in Atlanta

At the last minute, one of the key groups did not show up. The other three groups met, along with various Naga political and church figures. They were hosted and facilitated by Baptist peacemakers and an American Baptist mission leader. An appeal for reconciliation was agreed to and publicized, and the group commissioned Wati to attempt to bring the last group into the process.

Meeting with the Last Faction & Cease-Fire

That group condemned the Atlanta talks and specifically branded Wati as a betrayer of the Naga cause. Yet after a few months of persistent appeals, the top leaders of that faction agreed to meet with him in Bangkok. The sessions were rough—angry words were spoken. Wati listened a long time, and then began to push back. That group had made a cease-fire with India, so Wati said, Why not a cease-fire with your Naga brothers? The leaders agreed to a very short cease-fire to allow the Nagas to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Christianity coming to the Naga people.

During the anniversary observations more than 100,000 Nagas gathered in a stadium for worship. Wati preached about reconciliation and invited the Nagas to pray for peace, which they did, passionately, using the Naga traditional mass prayer where everyone prays aloud simultaneously. The power of 100,000 voices lifted in prayer for peace carried an informal four-day cease-fire into one that lasted for a few years.

The Journey of Conscience

As the informal cease-fire stalled with no substantive progress on either a political agreement with India or reconciliation among the Nagas, Wati worked with other Naga civil society leaders and Baptist peacemakers from the U.S. to initiate the Journey of Conscience. This was a nonviolent campaign to take Naga concerns to the Indian public. A large delegation of Nagas traveled to Delhi to hold a vigil at Gandhi’s tomb. They also held a conference with Indian human rights activists, journalists, academics and retired politicians. They engaged in street demonstrations calling for a just peace to end the Indo-Naga conflict. Through their connections with the Indian public during the Journey of Conscience activities, the larger political context shifted both in Nagaland and in India as a whole. Support grew for peace talks, and the civil society began pushing the agenda that the political leaders had been setting aside.

Peace Talk Stagnation

During this process Wati could not get the key leaders to meet face-to-face, so the process was long and cumbersome. Not only would he travel to Bangkok at times to meet with one leader, then into the deep jungles to meet another, but he was maintaining his own academic work as well. Eventually, the lack of progress led to a deterioration of the situation on the ground. Each group had a cease-fire with the Indian army, but the lack of a formal agreement between the Naga groups themselves left the Naga public living amidst growing instability. Violence began to escalate resulting in attacks and rising antagonism between some of the Naga tribes.

Chiang Mai Peace Sessions

In the spring of 2008, Wati was able to capitalize on the invitation of a Christian prayer group to bring all the factions together—not the top leaders, but some second-level leaders.

They met for a series of extended sessions in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with a team of international peacemakers to help facilitate the process. Throughout the sessions, Wati was holding conversations and working behind the scenes bringing people together and keeping them talking. He would jump into situations that were stalled, with his own example of vulnerability and confession on the one hand, or with a prophetic exhortation based on their common Christian faith on the other. He challenged people: Today we must, in all sincerity, consciously accept the pain and dismay of our situation, making the cry for freedom out of the depths of the oppressed Nagahood and answering with a call to reconciliation. Nagas can be made free through reconciliation.

Finding Unity and Reconciliation Through a Soccer Game

During one of those Chiang Mai sessions Wati brought up the idea of a soccer game. Suddenly, talk of unity was no longer an abstract concept as people from different factions were on the same team. Following the close of those sessions, similar soccer games were held in two Naga cities surrounded by other reconcili- ation events such as days of prayer and music, in which all groups participated. As he spoke about the good therapy of the soccer matches, Wati added, Just their coming together, mingling together and shaking the hands of people who have not seen each other in years, it is progress. During the second match, widows and orphans of some of the victims of factional fighting gave flowers to the players and expressed forgiveness and their hopes for reconciliation. As Wati spoke about the difficult task of reconciliation he said, Wounds are still fresh, but by the grace of God we are moving in the right direction.

Additional Negotiations & Continuing Work

It takes more than sports to make peace, so Wati and the other civil society leaders in the Forum for Naga Reconciliation have mediated between the factions in a series of practical negotiations.

They have discussed military disengagement, funding of the factions, moving toward reconciliation, and pursuing political talks with the government of India.

A Covenant of Reconciliation

After all this groundwork, Wati was able to accomplish what was only a dream 12 years earlier: bringing the top leaders together for reconciliation. In June 2009, they signed A Covenant of Reconciliation. The reconciliation process still has a lot of work ahead of it, as of this writing, but Wati has toiled with patience, determination and humility through years of challenges. He has brought along other leaders, especially a younger generation. The result is a process that has deep roots in Naga society. The reconciliation process has involved Naga institutions and organizations from churches to women’s groups, as well as student, business and human rights groups. Wati says, It is creative love which makes the hateful beautiful, brings the false into truth, and transforms evil into good. Such creative love can become the power in Naga politics.

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