"To sin by silence when we should protest makes cowards out of men," Ella Wheeler Wilcox's stunning words flickered briefly at the start of Oliver Stone's 1991 movie JFK. The movie essentially depicted a conspiracy theory as seen by real life attorney Jim Garrison. It suggested that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the US had either a hand or some sort of foreknowledge about the assassination of president John F Kennedy in November 1963.
Towards the end of the movie, the viewers were informed that a Congressional investigation in the 1970s had detected "a probable conspiracy", and that several records relating to the assassination were still classified.
In spite of film critics reviling Stone's movie, it became a runaway hit. That's because it stirred public conscience and marshaled, as a reviewer commented, "the anger which ever since 1963 has been gnawing away on some dark shelf of the national psyche". Americans could not trust official public conclusions about the case when those conclusions were made in secret.
Three decades of government secrecy relating to the assassination had led the American public to believe that the government had something to hide. The obvious solution was a legislation requiring the government to disclose whatever information it had.
The result was the enactment of the landmark JFK Records Act of 1992 as a "unique solution to the problem of secrecy" concerning the JFK records.
The JFK Act established an independent Assassination Records Review Board to smoothen out the process of declassification of all records related to Kennedy's assassination. In compliance of the board's directive, many US departments and agencies released their records. While releasing the CIA files, its then director Robert Gates, US president Barack Obama's first secretary of defence, became emotional:
"The only thing more horrifying to me than the assassination itself is the insidious, perverse notion that elements of the American government, that my own agency, had some part in it. I am determined personally to make public or to expose to disinterested eyes every relevant scrap of paper in CIA's possession in the hope of helping to dispel this corrosive suspicion... I believe I owe that to his [Kennedy's] memory".
The review board came out with its report in September 1998. On its cover was printed the core message to the US government: "All government records concerning the assassination of president John F Kennedy should carry a presumption of immediate disclosure."
It is about time we Indians followed the Americans to rid our nation, in public interest, of the mystery and conspiracy theories surrounding the disappearance of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Public interest means the compelling interest in the prompt public disclosure of Bose-related records for fully informing the people of India about the fate of Netaji. Truth has no need for secrecy.
Most of us have grown up hearing ghastly stories that Netaji was done to death in some Siberian gulag. The 2006 report of the Mukherjee Commission, set up following a court order, clearly concluded that at the time of his reported death in Taiwan, which never took place, Bose was bound for Soviet Russia.
We cannot let issues of the past bother us; but if the government of ours continues to sit on dozens of secret of files on Netaji, the controversy would keep re-registering itself on the consciousness of the nation. It would do so each time the government refuses to release the files, citing fear of impacting foreign relations.
So, like it or not, till today, the controversy about Netaji's fate remains in circulation, unresolved. The accepted wisdom that "there's no use of raising this issue now" is being re-judged in the context of transparency, that is vital for any democracy. This idea was first flagged in 2006 by "Mission Netaji", a group that this writer represents.
Even as you read this, heaps of classified records and files relating to Bose are lying in different ministries and agencies. The case for Bose not dying the way we were told he did is far more formidable than any conspiracy theories trying to explain the Kennedy assassination puzzle. Apart from Bose, no other pre-independence national icon of ours has had the dubious distinction of having so much of classified material about him.
I take to be true the claims that secret records about Netaji also exist in other countries, like Russia. But then, how are we going to ask foreign governments to release them when our own is sitting on a pile of its own making? Like charity, transparency must always begin at home.