(Tasneem Deo‘s review is the fifth post in our blog’s round-table book discussion on Jinee Lokaneeta’s The Truth Machines: Policing, Violence, and Scientific Interrogations in India moderated by Prof. Rohit De. The introductory post and the links for the other responses can be found here)
In her meticulously researched book, The Truth Machines Policing, Violence and Scientific Interrogations in India, Jinee Lokaneeta offers us a new theory to understand the nature of state power and legal violence in India- the Contingent State. The notion of a contingent state points to a “more disaggregated state and police, which might limit legal violence even as the state attempts to remain unitary”. Contrary to the conception of the monolithic state having a monopoly over violence, contingent connotes “fissures in the state’s ability to always monopolize violence successfully” (p. 3).
Lokaneeta focusses on the development and use of truth machines[i] in criminal investigation to examine the workings of the Indian state and its police as a site of state power. Her ethnographic enquiry leads her to an important revelation. Truth machines are viewed as a modern, scientific solution to the age old problem of police torture. However, it is neither science nor a commitment to preventing torture that guides the state’s approach to truth machines. The state, including the courts, is driven primarily by the quest for the evidentiary golden ticket – the confession. It is through a critical exploration of this finding that Lokaneeta builds her theory of the Contingent State.
The revelation of the confessional paradigm has a profound impact on the way in which we understand state decision-making regarding truth machines – the government’s insistence on strengthening forensic architecture despite challenges to the validity and reliability of these machines; the police’s reliance on them as a panacea for institutional and structural malaise; and the judiciary’s justification of their use with insufficient regard to the claim that they are modern instruments of torture. Lokaneeta thoughtfully dissects each of these phenomena, her analysis brought to life by referencing poignant testimonies of state officials, police officers, forensic scientists, activists, lawyers, and victims of state violence. She provides extensive historical context and engages, masterfully, with the breadth of the literature on the point – specifically postcolonial discourses of science and modernity – to expose the decentered nature of state power “thereby creating sites of critique and possible intervention” (p. 3).
Filled with fascinating information and powerful claims on a subject matter of near universal appeal, The Truth Machines, both in terms of method and theory, raises several points for discussion across disciplines. As a criminologist, I was particularly struck by the issues covered in Chapter 2. In this Chapter, Lokaneeta address two themes: “the everyday functioning of the police”, and “the relationship of the police to violence” (p. 47).
“Drawing from the new police science and from a critique of the Weberian conception of the police as a bureaucracy, [Lokaneeta analyses] the use of truth machines, which promised to replace physical torture during investigations, [to come to the conclusion that] the everyday practices of policing are much more contingent” (p. 22). She rejects the dominant frameworks for understanding policing in India – “higher purpose of promoting justice” and “colonial continuities maintained by political elites” – as external, choosing instead to focus on “internal debates regarding police reform after Indian independence [which indicate the] tension in the relationship of policing to violence” (p. 30). In doing so, she highlights the pastoral role of the police by revealing the “pragmatic logic of the contingency, evident as officials seek access to truth and information” (p. 47).
Research on police culture – which prioritises the voices and experiences of police officers in studying the policing institution – has much to offer in furthering Lokaneeta’s analysis, especially given the synergies in method.
Emerging from ethnographic studies of routine police work, the concept of police culture includes “generalized rationales and beliefs” and “accepted practices, rules, and principles of conduct that are situationally applied” (Manning 1989:360). Writings on police culture uncover the “values, norms, perspectives and craft rules” which operate under the apparently rigid hierarchical structure of police organizations to inform police conduct (Reiner 1992).
From within this rich field of enquiry, four ideas are particularly informative for a study of the Indian police and truth machines.
1. The Monolithic Myth
Challenging the scholarship which seeks to highlight, or rely upon, the internal perspective of the police (seen as a monolithic whole), research on police culture has shown that officers’ perspectives on their work, and how it should be done, often vary by organisation, function, and rank. Acknowledging this variance, or sub cultures, has an important impact on our appreciation of the motivations of officers to use violence – blatantly, as torture or covertly, through truth machines.
Sub-cultures help explain the dissonance between the motivations ascribed to officers, which seem laudable, and the actions recorded of officers, which are often despicable. Seen through this lens, while the “management cop” may be enamoured by the goals of science and modernity, the “street cop” who is expected to routinely act within an inefficient and corrupt system may still be driven by a sense of moral duty (Reuss-Ianni and Ianni 1983).
Qua the use of violence, the aforementioned understanding forces us to make more modest claims regarding the repressive and pastoral roles of the police. It may dictate that we conclude these roles co-exist, rather than assert the mitigation of one by the other.
2. The Interpretive Role
The most common observation regarding the police in India is their disdain for rules. Admittedly, as Lokaneeta outlines, the raison d’étre of the emergence of truth machines is the repeated violation of the legal rule against torture. Viewing the link between legal rules and police action from a police culture perspective unmasks this apparent disdain to reveal the interpretive and active role of officers. The stories exchanged among officers are relevant here.
Police stories structure opportunities for action and provide a consciousness out of which action emerges. Stories enable decision making through a “trope and precedent based logic” which informs the officer’s interpretation of rules (Shearing and Ericson 1991:499-500). This would suggest that an exercise of discretion which seems to violate a legal rule is not a consequence of the rule being simply ignored but is, in fact, a result of the officer’s interpretation of that legal rule on the basis of a subjectivity constructed through the hearing and telling of stories. Such an approach towards the study of police decision making is especially useful because the knowledge from stories can be transferred via “a process of analogous reasoning” (Shearing and Ericson 1991:500) which means that they remain instructive even in the face of new procedural rules and new investigative techniques.
With respect to the use of torture and/or truth machines, officers may look to stories on the following topics for guidance – What does it take to make a conviction stick? Which investigative method will assuage the public? How can disciplinary action be avoided? Focussing on the interpretive role of officers in light of these stories reinforces Lokaneeta’s claim about the “pragmatic logic of third degree interrogation” (p. 39). It also helps explain the sticky nature of the confessional paradigm, and the creative avoidance of human rights safeguards by the police.
3. The Apparent Impossibility of Reform
Police officers are not insulated from the “social, political, legal, and organizational context of policing”. Locating police culture within Bourdieu’s framework of field and habitus, this means that changes in the formal rules governing policing (the field) inevitably alter the way in which policing is done, “since habitus interacts with the field, but the resulting practice may or may not be substantially or even discernibly changed”. Conversely, changes in the objectives of policing (the habitus) also affect practice, “but unless the field is changed in a way that reinforces the new habitus, habitus itself may revert to its old dispositions”. (Chan 1996:112, 131). Simply put, the reformist’s choice between controlling police discretion through rule-tightening, and encouraging proper exercise of discretion through cultural realignment is, at times, illusory, and always difficult. This realisation is vital to assessing the effectiveness of reform measures.
Truth machines are the manifestation of a reform agenda to modernise based on science and expertise, and move away from torture. However, Lokaneeta notes, apart from limiting custodial deaths, to some extent, these investigative techniques did little in terms of replacing torture (p. 18, 37, 38). Paying attention to the “relationship between the formal structural context of policing and police cultural practice” (Chan 1996:131) can help explain the failure of this attempt at reforming police practices.
As the Malimath Committee Report so succinctly articulates, “the aim of the investigation and, in fact, the entire Criminal Justice System is to search for truth” (p. 36). In light of this unchanging objective, the change in the formal structure has had little impact on policing culture although police practice has changed ever so slightly. Earlier, officers used alcohol and camouflaged beatings (in violation of the formal rule), and now, they co-opt forensic scientists to use sophisticated techniques (in conformity with the formal rule), but the motivation remains the same – obtaining a confession which is viewed as synonymous with the truth. Science, too, has very little to do with this. The allure of these machines lies not in their accuracy as checks on deception (which is widely doubted by the scientific community), but in their ability to extract confessions / information. It is clear, therefore, that officers do not view truth machines as alternatives to torture but as additional tools for truth seeking.[ii]
This analysis reinforces Lokaneeta’s claims. Faced with an unchanging objective, the reform agenda fails to displace the confessional paradigm and only serves to expose police power as contingent. A police culture based approach shows how the use of truth machines is, at once, an act of legitimation and defiance.
4. The Compassion Warning
Some scholars argue that police culture “operates mainly as a palliative”, rather than a determinate guide to future action or accurate explanation of past actions. The expressive talk officers engage in with researchers and each other is “designed to give purpose and meaning to [an] inherently problematic occupational experience”. Such an analysis exposes the “essential fragility of what appears at first sight to be a robustly powerful social institution” (Waddington 1999:287, 293, 302). In this formulation, police culture is a seen as a response to contingency.
Policing is characterised by several markers which might necessitate a coping mechanism. In addition to crippling structural problems and institutional constraints, police officers also suffer from isolation and alienation. They are set apart from their fellow citizens by the authority they wield, and they are denied ownership of their work by the non-democratic nature of the police organisation.
Practically, this could mean a reinforcement of the crime fighter delusion, thus increasing the use of violence; a reluctance to testify against a fellow officer in disciplinary inquiries, thus limiting accountability; and a resistance to reform. Seen in this light, even the mere use of truth machines, and concomitant marginal reduction in custodial deaths, is a leap of faith on part of the police.
Lokaneeta cautions, “it may not be adequate to exclusively focus on the violence of these [investigative] forms. Instead, one has to situate the emergence of these techniques within a legal and political regime that does exhibit certain moments of introspection and self- transformation however limited that process may be in practice” (p. 118-119). A police culture perspective calls to heed this caution and exercise greater compassion in the treatment of the police, both in scholarship and practise.
Recent events in India have shown the urgency of having the conversation that The Truth Machines seeks to start. As scholars, law makers, and citizens we will do well to not only engage with Lokaneeta’s theory, but also build upon it using a diverse set of analytical tools. This response is an attempt to do just that. The hope is that we may better understand the contours of state power and legal violence, and thus more effectively prevent poor policing decisions.
Notes Lokaneeta argues that expert claims for lie detectors (or polygraphs), brain fingerprinting (BFP) and brain electrical oscillation signature (BEOS) tests, and narcoanalysis (or truth serum) promise access to legally actionable truth and hence she terms them “truth machines.” (p. 1)  It is important to draw a distinction here between routinized torture – violence for the sake of violence – and torture used to get a confession / information – violence in the pursuit of the truth.
Chan, J. (1996). CHANGING POLICE CULTURE. The British Journal of Criminology, 36(1), 109-134.
Manning, P. (1989), ‘Occupational Culture’, in W. G. Bailey, ed., The Encyclopedia of Police Science. New York and London: Garland.
Reiner, R. (1992), The Politics of the Police (2nd ed.). Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Reuss-Ianni, E., and Ianni, F. (1983), ‘Street Cops and Management Cops: The Two Cultures of Policing’, in M. Punch, ed., Control in the Police Organization. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
Shearing, C., & Ericson, R. (1991). Culture as Figurative Action. The British Journal of Sociology, 42(4), 481-506.
Waddington, P. (1999). Police (Canteen) Sub-Culture: An Appreciation. The British Journal of Criminology, 39(2), 287-309.