Some of the most powerful cinema has shown what courageous men and women holding legal office have done to ensure that justice is delivered. Even when they fail.
As New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison does, when he sets up an investigation inquiring into the assassination of President John F Kennedy, in that great film JFK, directed by Oliver Stone. Often blandly described as a “conspiracy thriller”, JFK (1991), its artistic liberties notwithstanding, makes us sit up and ask uncomfortable and unrelenting questions about the government of the people, for the people, and by the people.
The hallmark of democracy is not specially clothed, nor is it impermeable to inquiry, for if it were so, it would be a mock democracy. In Jim Garrison’s famous words from his monologue in court in the penultimate scene of the film, … “But someday, somewhere, someone may find out the damned Truth. We better. We better or we might just as well build ourselves another government like the Declaration of Independence says to when the old one ain’t working – just – just a little farther out West.
An American naturalist wrote, “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against its government.”
When nationalism undermines democracy
This churning conscientious piece of filmmaking by an auteur filmmaker will always be relevant and yet its echoes ring stronger today. Beset by yet another jingoistic round of nationalistic fervour, not seen since WWII, JFK, over and above its immediate subject, is actually re-examining the subversion of democracy and its institutions. In such a scenario, classifying information or not allowing the due process of investigation to take over is deftly precluded under the garb of “national security”. It is like the ultimate Brahamashastra from Hindu mythology and in the Indian context finds justification in draconian laws governing sedition and censorship.
Recent bizarre examples of “national security” include provisions of the Aadhar Act, 2016*, which, inter alia, has no obligation to share the details of the breach of the citizens’ own data, nor can the aggrieved citizen independently seek judicial recourse. It appears that “national security” is a one-way street protecting whom you may want to ask.
Or take the other example as foregrounded in the choppy relationship between the Supreme Court’s Collegium system and the Centre over the appointment of judges. The resultant yet pending Memorandum of Procedure (MoP)** had a strange clause demanded by the Centre. The Centre wanted to have the veto to reject a name for appointment as a judge to a High Court on the grounds of “national security”. Fortunately, the Collegium decided to retain the last word, but the irony cannot be missed. The above instances are simply overtaken by the more visceral, high decibel drama of nationalism and culture wars that have gained currency since the present Government took over, and which have even permeated key independent institutions such as the Army.
Nationalism, Rabindranath Tagore once wrote, “is a cruel epidemic of evil that is sweeping over human world of the present age, eating into its moral vitality”. The literary stalwart, who gave us our national anthem, was in fact, among its most vocal and unsparing critics.
But nationhood, problematic as its contours are, is a very seductive idea. Now, once again, as a tool of politically expediency, it has returned with a vengeance. Strongmen with even stronger promises of nation and identity are wooing voters, and a sizeable middle-class or the centrists among them. Not the conventional “right” and “left” extremists who have failed democracy and its ideals. Democracy it seems has its own Frankenstein to contend with as it comes to face its worst moral crisis ever.
Take Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his majority party Fidesz. Hungary’s democracy has been described by Viktor Orban in what may be the ultimate oxymoron ever — an “illiberal democracy”, the foundation of which was laid the same year when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP took over in India. Democracy it appears cannot only be subverted but also appropriated but the rallying cry is always national interest — where the shorthand for an offensive is war.
‘Nationalism needs war’
Just like the unfolding of events post President Kennedy’s assassination that the movie refers to. The war in Vietnam escalates when erstwhile Vice President Lyndon Johnson takes over the White House.
To recall the cinematic oeuvre, nationalism (which Jim Garrison interprets as fascism) needs war. In his meeting with “X” (played by the charismatic Donald Sutherland), “X” says as a matter of fact: “The organising principle for any society, Mr Garrison, is for war.” The subtext here is crucial. There’s unholy money to be made over defence contracts by private businessmen and big companies. Kennedy’s death, adds Sutherland, is as “old as the crucifixion” with “no one to blame.” As Sutherland goes about his 16-minute monologue, another best in the film, and among the most gripping monologues in cinematic history, the real question will always by “why” (why was the President killed?), while the rest, the “How” and the “Who” just “scenery” for our collective distractions.
In our time we don’t even need plausible narratives because social media provides multiples of them. The distractions have got better.
President John F Kennedy was an unusual leader and paid the price for being so, literally with his head. His policies and outlook were not only contrary to the concocted fiction of nationalism but he was also proving to be a thorn for the orthodox and the white supremacist. The botched Bay of Pigs invasion had made many Cubans angry while Republican conservatives simply hated him. In short he had many enemies. His critics say he was politically naïve, an idealist, but then he was also a sensitive and a progressive President, who had once declared “mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.”
Once it was possible for a JFK to emerge as a hero of liberal/democratic values but things have got murkier since the Cold War. Yet as democracy itself faces an existential threat, the very same evolutionary fears are being stoked. This powerful limbic/survival response has not changed. In fact, we can say that it has been perfected by the deep state though the irony of it is almost cruel. Jim Garrison of course knew the shape of such fear well.
A singular lesson lies at the end of the film after the last scene in which Jim Garrison (a fine turn by actor Kevin Costner) walks out of the courtroom with his wife and son. Before the credits roll, we must fix our eyes on the aphoristic words: “STUDY THE PAST. PAST IS PROLOGUE.”
I hope we get it someday.
*The provisions of the Aadhar Act 2016 have been called into question through a series of petitions. The matter is sub-judice and is pending judgment in the Supreme Court.
**The MoP is in cold storage even as matters came to a head with the Centre refusing the Collegium’s reference to elevate Justice KM Joseph to the Supreme Court. He has finally been elevated along with Justices Indira Banerjee and Vineet Saran to the Supreme Court.