Clare and Harris Wofford’s India Afire


It was suggested to me by a friend, Rajeev Goyal of, that I reach out to former Senator and Peace Corps Associate Director under JFK and LBJ —  the Honorable Harris Wofford

Before I did so, I wanted to read his book India Afire, which he co-authored with his now late wife Clare. It was published just three years after India’s independence in 1951, after a six-month trip they took together to India in 1950.

I had to interlibrary loan request it, and am at Lauinger Library on the Georgetown campus now, looking out at a full moon and the Washington monument and Kennedy Center in the distance, giving it a read.  

On the title page is a quote:

Pray tell me, what am I to do with a fifth of the human race living on the verge of starvation?

— Gandhi

So it started off well; Gandhi is perhaps my single greatest hero and most frequent object of daily meditation. His beautiful memorial on Massachusetts Avenue is a near-daily stop on my way to or from work, where I stop to touch his feet and read the inscription “MY LIFE IS MY MESSAGE”,  reminding myself to live likewise.  
  On the second page, the Woffords write:

India is afire with the same revolt affecting all Asia, but the course it is taking is still far from communism.  After all, Gandhi consciously struck the first great Indian sparks.  Having witnessed the results of Gandhi’s nonviolent struggle and studied his story, we rank him as the world’s greatest revolutionary.  

I welled up with pride and joy upon reading this. Here is Wofford, a young American who will go on to be a great leader — a Senator, college President, moral leader of the Peace Corps — who ranks Gandhi higher even than George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.  
We are in agreement on this. Not that the accomplishments of the American revolutionaries aren’t extraordinarily great.

An aside — just last Sunday, I had occasion to visit Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, which was the scene of the signing of the American Declaration of Independence and US Constitution, and to ponder the scene a while, to try to feel what it must have been to be in a world in which there was no living memory or knowledge of democratic nationhood–where consent of the governed and merit of the governors ruled, rather than bloodlines–and to strike out into the unknown to try it.  It’s immense.

However great, Gandhiji had a universal human vision that went even beyond the Founding Fathers’  national one, though they were no strangers to the idea either.  I’d go so far as to say, they were the first modern men to give voice to it.  Yet even today in America, most of us struggle to really believe this:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The self-evident truth of a Creator endowing us with such rights may be easy for us to confer upon fellow Americans, but the deeper morality this calls us toward — a universal humanistic vision of defending these rights equally for all mankind, especially those who lack the basic conditions of life to defend it for themselves — is just now evolving.  After nearly two and a half centuries of struggle for slaves, women, blacks, and immigrants in America, we have only in the past two generations begun awakening to the possibility that our nation can play a purposeful and intentional role in the enduring establishment of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness for all people everywhere.  

Which brings me back to the Woffords — they were funded on this trip by the Foundation for World Government, an organization begun in 1937 in New York.  They write:

Undoubtedly we were drawn to some aspects instead of others by our “one world” bias…. By the time we left for India, six years of our lives had largely revolved around the world government idea.

 When I saw “one world” on the page in quotes, I again was deeply moved as one of my own passions is one-planet living.  They are not at all the same in a sense, but they are of a kindred intent — peace on earth through unity.  

  One-planet living is about self-responsible economic choices such that one’s lifestyle does not make it impossible for others to live on the Earth, either now, or in the future.  Today, if everyone on the planet lived as the average American consumer does, driving gas-guzzling automobiles, and living a consumerist lifestyle that generates so much trash at such large volumes, it would require nine planet earths to fuel this lifestyle for everyone. The off-planet harvesting of mineral resources depicted in James Cameron’s Avatar film is not a fantastic fiction; it will be a necessity if we keep up our present modes of consumption.  But I just cannot imagine what we’d do to our own planet before we start harvesting others. One-planet living is about the hope that we can each set an example, at home, work, and in society, in how we practice meeting our own needs and those of our family — to share the earth fairly with the rest of life on this planet.

One-world government, as the Foundation for World Government conceived, was about seeking an end to international conflict through a fair, federalist union of nations.  The Woffords wrote:

Within a week–a staggering week in which human misery hit us from every side–our world government glasses were knocked off, and for many months, lost.  Overwhelmed by the immediate economic problems that meant life or death for millions, we were swept away from the world federation idea by the heart-wrenching poverty, ignorance, and disease surrounding us.  World government seemed a thousand miles down a road littered with tragic immediate problems crying for solution.  In the end we were hunting a prescription for a new kind of lens which would cure our former nearsightedness to such problems without obliterating the old insights.  We wanted glasses that would keep the world’s misery in sharp focus and show as well the longer-range but inescapable road of world unity.

World unity or world peace seems a good bit less inevitable today. I’ve been testing out the notion with my friends — who are broadly a profoundly hopeful, broad-minded, forward-thinking bunch — this notion of the inevitability of world peace.  I get one response: bewilderment.   In America, we are profoundly conditioned to predicate our entire lives on its impossibility.  So just act locally goes the argument.  
I do not feel this way at all — while the intuition has been with me all my life, it only became a real, deeply-held conviction recently, in the past few months: world peace is inevitable, and it is very possible. 

I am working on a fuller discussion of how and why that’s really so, but my basic case is premised as follows:
  1. The world is a profoundly interconnected system, that tends toward various states of durable, but dynamic, equilibrium, which, with great reliability, tend to overtake unstable states.  
  2. There are tipping points in the development of these equilibria, in which the dynamic forces of conversion are in rapid realignment toward stability.
  3. We have now enough examples of how such conditions have arisen in various local contexts to reasonably apply these lessons in the establishment of equilibria to the entire system to create rapid, effective interventions that change the course of equilibrium.
  4. The fundamental underlying theme of all these interventions — ranging from political to scientific — is the loving application of our attention and knowledge to the solution of immediate problems in everyday living, while holding firm to the principle that we do no harm to the greater good in the process. 
  5. We will certainly not be right in every case, but with persistent effort over time, we will be far more right than we will be wrong. 
So, in essence, my case for world peace is technical — grounded in making smarter everyday choices, as individuals and as social groups, states and nations — but also aspirational — grounded in the faith that life and love will win out in the end, and that our only real choice is whether we want that end — world peace — to come sooner or later. 
The Woffords wrote a great treasure of a book; I just read the chapter on their visit to Andhra Pradesh, then simply called by its capital city’s name — Hyderabad, my birthplace. At the time of their visit, it was the center of the Communist movement in India.  They visited a Gandhian who had returned to a small village to teach and help uplift it through Gandhi’s vision.  I’d never before had as direct narrative contact with what that vision was.  

Ranga Naikulu, who had left Gandhi’s ashram Sevagram three years prior, to set up camp in a village outside of the city of Warangal, in what had then become a Communist stronghold:

At first everyone was suspicious and kept their children away from the “new teacher.” They feared that the Nizam Government would punish them if they cooperated with anyone associated with Gandhi.  With no room made available and no students, Ranga opened his school under a tree by the edge of the village, after persuading a few poor children from nearby villages to sit with him. The villagers watched cautiously, and then slowly began sending their children to him….  By now Ranga taught fifty-seven village children, most of those from two to fifteen in the little hamlet of 345.  Those whose families insisted that they work in the daytime he taught at night, along with some of the willing adults…   He had already prevented many child marriages and eased others by getting them to school even after they were wed.  

His success, moderate as it was, stemmed from his emphasis on village living instead of literacy.  He began with lessons in baths and cooking and health.  He dispensed antimalarial drugs and information.  Now this village had no malaria, whereas those nearby had a rate of probably 25 percent.  Ranga and his students were constructing a drainage system: while we walked through the ankle-deep mud, his students were trying to fill in the bogs and level off the road.  Through the school he hoped to awaken public service and village planning.  He had many ideas for the future: movable trench latrines, dairy and grain co-operatives, elective village councils, and the introduction of cottage industries.  Already he was spreading the use of the charkha, through his regular school periods of hand-spinning.  And some peasants were now using cow dung as fertilizer for the first time. He had started paper and glucose-making and beekeeping, but the raiders had destroyed his equipment.  Soon, however, they would start again now that the new school buildings were finished.

This sounds remarkably like the life of a number of Peace Corps volunteers I have known, the world over.  It had never occurred to me before there could in fact be a very direct link between the Gandhian program and the Peace Corps program — but it seems obvious now, considering the Woffords and others subsequent involvement with the Peace Corps, and the Agency’s emphasis on respecting local culture and tradition, and upliftment through providing trained men and women.  I wonder where they got the idea?  This is something I’d like to ask Senator Wofford about.   

I will report back on what he says.  

There are many more wonderful things I could share about this book, but I’ll stop here for now; it’s been a beautiful session of meditation, connecting to the cause of peace in the sweep of history, in my birthplace and in my homeland, and to the Gandhian and American visions for it world over.

I sign off feeling deeply grateful to be alive.

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